Monsters and Beauties

by Jonathan Wallace


In Monster, Charlize Theron plays real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a highway-cruising Florida hooker who started killing her johns. Wuornos was heralded, with some exaggeration, as the first female serial killer. After watching this excellent film, you may find yourself wondering why there haven't been more.

The film presents a subtle portrait of a human being drifting into murder. Theron is highly persuasive as an ordinary looking woman of average intelligence, beaten down by life, full of anger and longing for transcendence (but without knowing the word). When we first see her, Wuornos sits under a highway embankment holding her gun, watching the cars pass by. Much later in the movie, she confesses that she was planning to commit suicide. The only thing that stopped her: she had five dollars in her pocket from her last customer. If she kills herself without spending it, it will be the same as if she gave him the blow job for free, a thought that disgusts her. She goes to a bar to buy her last drink, thinking that if God has anything for her, He'd better present it now. This quasi-prayer seems to be answered when she meets Selby, a shy lesbian played by Christina Ricci, with whom she falls in love.

Wuornos has always considered herself heterosexual, but she knows men largely as abusers, and her longing for transcendence translates into a passionate, tender love for the gentle but selfish Selby. In a fascinating but cracked reflection of middle class aspirations, Wournos makes a home for Selby, obtains a car and spending money.

At first, Wuornos' plan is to go straight and get a job. (The idea of Selby working is raised but quickly rejected.) The problem is that Wuornos doesn't know anything about the working world: she cannot type, or use a computer, and doesn't even know how people dress, or speak to one another in the workplace. Looking ordinary and decent in jeans and over-alls, she looks like a clown in over-sized dresses and inappropriate footwear, as she sucks up one rejection after another. As they run out of money, Selby, in another bizarre and entertaining cracked reflection of middle-class life, begins to nag her to return to prostitution. (She reminded me of my wife asking why I won't use my law degree to get a better-paying job.) Wuornos returns to hooking and encounters a rapist and probable murderer, whom she kills with her gun. (The real Wuornos repudiated, then re-asserted, that her first victim raped her.)

Wuornos, a bottom-feeder even in the world of prostitution, has no social skills and no small talk, even with johns. She tends to glower at them, and after this first killing, we see her rage increase, finding release in further murders as an alternative to selling herself for sex. She steals each victim's cash, and keeps the car, which she drives for a week or two, until she gets another. With each victim, she finds an excuse, in his words or his behavior, to assimilate him to the first victim whom she killed in self-defense. Each killing is difficult, and she must psych herself up to carry it out; though, as the movie's title tells us, Wuornos is a monster, she is not a remorseless sociopath. We see her refrain from killing one man, who is too virginal and childlike for Wuornos' self-deception to find a hook, and later she kills another, who verges on angelic but has seen her gun and can identify her at a time when the cops have already figured out that a killer prostitute is on the loose. This final killing cracks the entire structure, and we see Wuornos awash in tears, remorseful for her actions. The evening news shows Identikit sketches of the two women; Wuornos, whose love has transcended her own selfishness, puts Selby on a bus to Ohio to get her out of the way of the end-game.

In addition to Selby, Wuornos has one other friend, a Vietnam vet who manages the facility where she stores her things in a locker. He is also selfless, refusing the offer of a blow job when she cannot pay the locker rent and saying, "Pay me when you can." In a somewhat ambiguous scene at the end, this friend appears to betray her to the police. Wuornos, who didn't have many illusions before meeting Selby, now has just one more betrayal to endure: Selby, to save her own skin, attempts to get Wuornos to confess on a recorded phone line. Wuornos senses what is happening, and, while stopping short of admitting details of specific killings, says that whatever happened was all her: Selby had no part in it. Her love has elevated her from the ordinary street hooker she was before, to a strange mixture of generosity and murder. In the movie's last scene, she is walking to the electric chair, and in a voice-over, lists a series of truisms we have all heard or uttered, including "God gives you what you need" and "everything happens for a reason." These are things, she says, which people tell themselves, so they won't have to admit that things make no sense at all. It is one of the most remarkable moments I have ever seen in a film.

Like La Strada, (also about a monster), if you charted the moral development in Monster, you would have a graph of a line plunging down, with a small but significant uptick at the end. Movies that plunge like this are unusual; most films are of the "rise and fall" schema, or, if they are more cheerful, "rise, fall and rise." Monster also deserves credit for breaking out of (in fact, ignoring) the serial-killer-as-supergenius theme. Wuornos doesn't have brains, super strength, speed or any other supernatural ability (her only advantage is that nobody expects a hooker to pull a gun). The movie doesn't present her with the usual green or red lighting, murky background of strange textures revealing body parts of murder victims, and disassociative jangling on the soundtrack. Instead, we see her proudly showing Selby their new house, putting on rubber gloves and cleaning it, and acompanying Selby to an amusement park when Selby has complained their lives are too sedentary.


Charlize Theron carries this movie on her shoulders; in an astounding performance, this thin, beautiful South African actress becomes stocky, ordinary, and Southern. Her accent and mannerisms are perfect. Unlike Nicole Kidman, who is talented but who projects an air of "look what I can do" when (for example) portraying Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Theron sinks into Wuornos, until there is nothing of her left. If, at the top of the profession, there are just two types of actors, charismatic workhorses and charisma-free chameleons, Kidman is the former, and Theron, at least in this movie, proves that she can be in the rarified ranks of the latter. (I should qualify the phrase "charisma-free" by adding that such actors can lose the charisma when the role requires it. Think of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia).

Theron has had a career to date of mostly light-weight thrillers, and her roles have been largely eye-candy. The actress' thirst for transcendence is as understandable as Wuornos'. She put on twenty pounds to play the role, following in the footsteps of Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta and Rene Zellweger as Bridget Jones. Her dedication to this movie, and willingness to take risks for it, is extremely moving, and of course it is gratifying that she succeeded, as the critical notices have mostly agreed.

Not that many years ago, the men in the entertainment industry had a prejudice that beautiful women couldn't act. In a famous episode of The Twilight Zone which reverses the valences about beauty, a woman wrapped in bandages is revealed to be stunningly beautiful. The doctors and nurses who recoil at her ugliness, seen in the episode's last shot, are grotesque. The producers hired two women for the role-- one to do the actual acting, swathed in bandages; the other as the "eye candy" revealed at the end when the gauze was removed. The reason, later revealed in interviews for a "behind the scenes" book about the show: there are actresses, and there are beautiful women, but no beautiful actresses. Theron can be commended for fighting the lingering after-traces of this prejudice.

However, through no fault of Theron's, she has also fallen squarely into a perverse Hollywood tradition, that the ugly must be played by the beautiful. Hollywood has almost always portrayed plain women by taking beautiful actresses and giving them dowdy clothes and hair. A successful stage play some years ago about two plain people in love, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, was translated to the screen with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer in the leads. A gross irony and injustice lay in the fact that Kathy Bates, also a movie actress, originated the role on stage. Bates, who is heavy and has a broad face, is an excellent actress who is typecast as a psychotic murderer, or a lesbian political consultant. Hollywood undoubtedly didn't think she could carry Frankie and Johnny on-screen. In the Harry Potter book series, Hermione is a plain little girl with an oversized nose until, in the third or fourth novel, she performs magical plastic surgery on herself. In the movies, otherwise slavishly faithful to the books, the child actress who plays Hermione is very striking, and the subplot about her nose is ignored.

In the 1960's, after the delicately beautiful Simone Signoret lost her looks, she continued working in movies, playing powerful character roles. In America, actresses like Veronica Lake, or more recently, Martha Plimpton, are nowhere to be seen once they are considered to have lost their original freshness. (Plimpton peaked as a teenager, like Molly Ringwald or Ally Sheedy.) Then there are the legions of highly talented people who never had the looks required for movie stardom.

Acting talent and physical appearance have nothing to do with one another. The fact that they are usually considered to be linked has nothing to do with acting. Ruth Malaczech is one of the most talented actresses working today. She is older, heavy, unremarkable to look at (she looks like your neighbor in Flatbush in a housecoat, cigarette dangling, lugging the garbage cans to the curb). She is a powerhouse, able to carry the role of Lear in a gender-reversed version many years ago, and magnificent more recently as the woman buried in sand in Beckett's Happy Days.

Today, highly talented people who aren't routinely attractive don't get hired, and wind up in other professions. I read an interview with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman together not long ago, in which they said that the doors of Hollywood would undoubtedly be closed to younger equivalents of themselves today.

One possible explanation is that audiences feel that if they are going to hand over $10 for a movie, or up to $125 for Broadway tickets, and stare at actors for two to four hours, they damn well better be easy on the eyes. But this doesn't add up, when you think about the careers of people like Roseanne Barr and Ricki Lake, who attracted audiences because they had tons of personality and could make you laugh. Neither Liza Minelli nor Barbra Streisand were conventionally beautiful, but both built careers on charisma and singing talent.

Of course, the non-mainstream, once they achieve some measure of success, often try to conform themselves to Hollywood standards of beauty, as Roseanne Barr and Ricki Lake both did. Jennifer Grey, who was so memorable in Dirty Dancing, got rid of her nose and became another bland-looking, forgettable actress.

I think the blame lies not on the audience, but on the entertainment industry's increasing drive to homogenize everything and to take no risks. In an era when movies can cost two hundred million dollars, both the actors and the stories must hew very closely to generic standards.

All of which puts Monster in a very different perspective. The movie should be noted not just for Theron's performance but for the director's conception and screenplay. Unfortunately, the movie has attracted so much attention not for its own substantial merits, but because a beautiful actress submerged herself in an ugly role. If the director had found herself a highly talented actress who looked like Aileen Wuornos without prosthetics, she would still have made an excellent movie, which might have sunk out of sight without the "beautiful plays ugly" gimmick.