Few performers in modern cinema have managed to reinvent themselves with as much spectacular success as Charlize Theron. Her various transformations over the last two decades have been astonishing to behold while consistently keeping audiences on their toes. You’re just never sure what she’s going to pull off next, thus making it impossible to take your eyes off of her. What links several of her most memorable characters is a deep-seated rage ignited by the abusive nature of a seemingly indifferent world. With one notable exception, my eight favorite roles in Theron’s career are not at all the happy-go-lucky types, nor should they be. Together, they illustrate Theron’s chameleon-esque versatility, as well as her uncanny ability to mine the endearing, universal qualities in people of all stripes—especially those that that would likely be unsympathetic or one-note in lesser hands.
Here’s a lingering glimpse at the endlessly fascinating career of Charlize Theron, a woman of many, many faces (Lon Chaney, eat your heart out)…
Tina in “That Thing You Do!” (1996)
I first took notice of Theron when she briefly appeared in Tom Hanks’s directorial debut, a delightful ode to one-hit wonders of the ’60s. It was only the actress’s third film appearance, but the camera had already fallen in love with her. As Tina, the aloof, soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend of the film’s central protagonist, genial drummer Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), Theron nails the deadpan humor in her character’s chronic disinterest. She’s not an ice queen, just a gal hopelessly out of her element. Only when Tina becomes instantly smitten with her hunky dentist does she visibly come to life, and Theron’s face positively glows in that moment. Her subsequent break-up with Guy is the antithesis of a tearful farewell—she acknowledges their fatal disconnect by simply hanging up the phone, rather than responding to her boyfriend’s latest cocky recitation of “I am Spartacus.” In the words of Angelica (Meg Ryan) in “Joe Versus the Volcano,” “I have no response to that.”
Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” (2003)
“This is one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema,” wrote Roger Ebert, single-handedly jettisoning the reputation of this gritty indie drama into the the stratosphere, which ultimately resulted in the 28-year-old Theron receiving an Oscar for Best Actress. I honestly couldn’t agree more with Ebert. After being ogled by countless infatuated lenses, perhaps Theron had to render herself virtually unrecognizable in order to prove what she was capable of as an actress. The true story of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute-turned-serial killer, is so sad and horrific that it could’ve been unwatchable, but Theron and writer/director Patty Jenkins illuminate her damaged humanity in ways that are riveting, provocative and profoundly heartbreaking. The scene where she finds herself sobbing in agony while aiming her gun at an innocent victim powerfully encapsulates the central conflict at the wounded heart of Aileen, a woman driven mad by unrelenting cruelty. Her desperate attempts at becoming a better person are what make her tragic life so compelling.
Josey Aimes in “North Country” (2005)
Three years after helming the wonderful New Zealand-set drama, “Whale Rider,” about a Maori girl who rebels against the traditions of her male-centric community, Niki Caro directed this excellent, under-seen dramatization of the rampant abuse endured by female miners that led to the first major successful sexual harassment case in the United States. Theron’s character of Josey Aimes is based on Lois Jensen, who filed a lawsuit after experiencing harassment for 13 years on the job. Like all great social issue pictures, “North Country” inspires visceral feelings of anger and catharsis, as Josey struggles to make her voice heard amidst a multitude of jeering men. Theron earned a well-deserved second Oscar nomination for her work here, while Frances McDormand (as Josey’s friend who continues to fight the good fight despite a debilitating illness) and Richard Jenkins (as Josey’s father who undergoes an emotional change of heart) receive equally stellar showcases.
Rita in “Arrested Development” (2005)
After completing two fact-based dramas, Theron undoubtedly relished the opportunity to stretch her comedic muscles during her extended guest stint on Mitchell Hurwitz’s brilliant sitcom, the first three seasons of which stand among the most masterfully constructed in television history. Theron’s role as Rita, the loopy girlfriend of Michael (Jason Bateman), turned up during the series’ criminally shortened third season, and inspired some of the program’s most irreverent gags. At first, Rita seems to be a carefree spirit who lives each day with oddly childlike abandon, yet there’s an aura of mystery about her that raises questions about her true motives. This plot thread culminates in one of the show’s very funniest episodes, “Mr. F.,” where Rita’s secret is revealed with such deftly uproarious timing that it transcends its inherent tastelessness. Theron was a perfect addition to the show’s peerless ensemble, and will hopefully be brought back for the inevitable movie.
The Woman in “The Road” (2009)
Though John Hillcoat’s deeply flawed picture doesn’t hold a candle to its source material, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 literary masterpiece about a father and son navigating their way through a post apocalyptic wasteland, it has its share of intriguing elements, notably the addition of the mother (played by Theron), who was absent from the novel. Observed in flashbacks, this character (credited as “the woman”) plays a crucial role in the narrative, enabling us to better understand the haunted psyche of its two male leads. Theron chillingly portrays the lethal despondence that gradually overwhelms her maternal instincts as she reluctantly brings new life into a world bereft of hope. Her scenes have a raw power that the rest of the picture often lacks. McCarthy’s novel was not a melancholy dirge, but a moving parable about undying love in unthinkable circumstances, yet Theron’s character serves as a potent reminder that sometimes love isn’t enough.
Mavis Gary in “Young Adult” (2011)
I wasn’t sure what to make of this jet-black comedy upon my initial viewing of it. After emerging as a winningly fresh and inventive voice with her Oscar-winning script for 2007’s “Juno,” Diablo Cody’s signature style of dialogue had begun to seem overly self-conscious (which may be a testament to how well the cast delivered it in “Juno”). The genius of Cody’s script for “Young Adult,” directed by “Juno”’s Jason Reitman, is in how it deconstructs her own writing techniques, while creating a developmentally arrested antihero of blistering relevance that many Americans (Cody included) will find relatable, whether they want to or not. Theron should have received a third Oscar nomination for her sublimely unnerving performance as a young adult author whose narcissism, alcoholism and possible undiagnosed mental illness lead her to pursue her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson), despite the fact that he’s happily married. What’s alarming (and admittedly spot-on) is how society ultimately enables her insanity, as witnessed in the film’s deliciously scathing final scene.
Queen Ravenna in “Snow White and the Huntsman” (2012)
For a botched franchise launchpad that amounts to little more than a feature-length effects reel, this film sure has plenty of delectable eye candy on display, especially Theron as the monstrously evil Queen. She seems to be the only one onscreen having any fun, and why shouldn’t she, with her extravagant costumes, campy dialogue and invitation to indulge in her most villainous mannerisms? The most impressive effects occur when Theron literally sucks the youth out of her victims (a la “Hocus Pocus”), turning lovely nymphs into lifeless crones as the camera pulls in for a hideous close-up. Kristen Stewart has fared much better in recent pictures such as “Still Alice” and “Clouds of Sils Maria,” so it’s frankly a good thing that this film fizzled, since it offers her little more than a rehash of the “Twilight” love triangle. Stewart can be a radiant actress, but she comes off drab here, while Theron blows her clean off the screen. Sorry Magic Mirror, there’s no question who indeed is the fairest of them all.
Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
With the extreme haircut of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley circa “Alien 3,” the name of a Harry Potter incantation (Wingardium Leviosa, anyone?) and driving skills wild enough to leave the entire cast of “Furious 7” and both Blues Brothers in the Namibia dust, Theron owns the screen in George Miller’s breathtaking reboot of his action-packed franchise. Her performance would’ve been equally effective in the silent era, since the bulk of her character is conveyed through wordless expressions. She’s like Maria Falconetti in “Passion of Joan of Arc,” albeit with a thirst for vengeance. In some ways, her crusade to triumph over oppression and sex slavery is the same one embarked upon by Aileen and Josey. She utters two words at the peak of the film’s climax that have an impact tantamount to Ripley’s infamous, oft-imitated exclamation, “Get away from her you B—CH!” in “Aliens,” and elicited rousing applause at the public screening I attended. Even though the titular character is Max, this is Furiosa’s show through and through, thanks to Theron’s electrifying tour de force, as physically audacious as it is emotionally resonant. Tackling this role in a project of such mind-boggling difficulty might seem like a risk, but as one can clearly see, Theron flourishes when taking the road less traveled. Even a Fury Road.