It should go without saying that Charlize Theron is one of the bravest, most versatile, most talented actresses of her generation. The first time I noticed her was in 1997. For a freshman film school student such as myself, The Devil’s Advocate had the perfect mix of pure schlock value and an appropriately simplistic theological allegory. Now, at age 37, I fully recognize it as a silly excuse for Al Pacino to chew the scenery like a starved wolverine on meth. But at age 18, it was pretty cool and smart stuff.
As fascinated as I was with Pacino’s trademark ‘90s batshittery, I was mesmerized by the then unknown actress who played Keanu Reeves’ character’s wife. There was an effortless allure in how she captured the vulnerability and the fragility of that character. By the time I left the theater, I had found my new movie star crush. Yes, a movie star—because even though she was a newcomer at the time, I had a strong feeling that this wasn’t the last time I’d see her on the big screen.
Over the years, she of course has proved herself to be an immensely talented actress with an indelible presence, a remarkable range and a dogged dedication to her craft. After an illustrious 20-plus-year career, Charlize Theron shows no signs of slowing down, as she transforms into a bona fide action superstar in the deliriously brutal and convoluted cold war era spy action/thriller Atomic Blonde (There was a previous attempt at turning her into an action icon with 2005’s disastrous Aeon Flux adaptation, but we all know how well that turned out).
So let’s use Atomic Blonde’s release as an opportunity to look back on the Oscar winner’s best work. Just in case it isn’t immediately obvious, this is a list that focuses on her performances only, so there might be some films that are generally known to be quite poor, or even ones that audiences and critics might like, but I find to be subpar products delivered by bad or annoying filmmakers (Cough, Diablo Cody, cough).
As a way to support my “performance vs. quality of movie” argument right off the bat, let’s start with this utterly inconsequential byproduct of the early 2010s dark and gritty fairy tale adaptation craze. Apart from its downright infuriating blandness, Snow White and The Huntsman made the cardinal mistake of pitting Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart’s beauty and talent against one another, with Theron as the evil queen to Stewart’s “fairest in all the land” Snow White. In what ass-backwards universe is a goddess like Theron even comparable to this wooden, androgynous lip-biting enthusiast? Theron is occasionally cast in supporting roles to bring some life to movies where her co-star has the acting range and energy of a baked potato (Exhibit A: Her scenes with Vin Diesel in The Fate of The Furious). That’s firmly the case here, where Theron provides the only bright spot in this Hollywood assembly line abomination as she embraces the inherent campiness of playing the evil queen in a Snow White adaptation.
Barely past age 20 and without a lot of acting experience on her resume, Theron took on the demanding and complex role of a culture-shocked housewife who also happens to be mentally tormented by the devil himself (Pacinooo!!). An intentionally hacky supernatural thriller like The Devil’s Advocate needed a somber and sometimes downright tragic performance to balance out the scrumptiously over-the-top and borderline comedic acting choices made by its two leads. Theron provides that and more with abject professionalism and grace, as she’s able to succinctly capture her character’s gradual descent into madness.
As much as I can’t stand the unapologetically maudlin melodrama of this John Irving adaptation (A precursor to director Lasse Hallstrom’s later maelstrom of Nicholas Sparks movies), I’m glad that its existence gave Theron the opportunity to stretch out her dramatic acting muscles in such a prestige project. As the forlorn housewife who strikes up a forbidden affair with an orphan (Tober Maguire), Theron brings a surprising amount of depth and emotional resonance to such a flat, bus stop romance paperback character. This remarkable performance marks the beginning of her impressive tenure as a dramatic actress.
Remember when I brought up the fact that Theron’s seemingly effortless talent and charm is occasionally used to prop up bland and clunky deliveries by lifeless leading men? Exhibit B: Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron in this loose and fun remake of the 1969 Michael Caine classic. Unfortunately, Theron doesn’t get to kick much ass this time around, and is relegated to being the emotional anchor of the piece, as she goes after Edward Norton’s slimy bad guy, when he kills her master thief father (Donald Sutherland). Her character’s motivations and development don’t go past what could be found in a ‘70s revenge fantasy exploitation flick, but Theron nevertheless manages to make the audience feel her pain, while also managing to have some fun with this breezy genre exercise.
During the couple of years after winning the well-deserved Best Actress Oscar in 2003, it was touch-and-go whether or not Theron would have succumbed to the dreaded “Oscar curse, ” which states that the personal and professional life of an actress who wins the award will suffer for a long time afterwards. I leave it to gossip rags to research whether or not her love life saw some turmoil around that time, but it seemed for a while like the curse was about to hit her big time, post-Monster. First, she didn’t star in a memorable release in 2004, then 2005 brought on her fairly miscast attempt at blockbuster action stardom with Aeon Flux, an abomination that more than deserved its critical and box-office failure. But then she bounced back with her grounded, yet passionate turn as a miner who fights tooth and nail to have her abusive co-workers pay for their blatant sexual harassment in Whale Rider director Niki Caro’s unremarkable yet satisfying drama. North Country didn’t make much of a splash in the cultural zeitgeist, but it was the performance Theron needed to show the world that her success in Monster wasn’t a one-off.
Young Adult attempts to work as an honest and unflinching character study about an abrasive and self-centered ghostwriter of fluffy YA novels going through an existential crisis as she attempts to break up a happy marriage, simply because she thinks she needs to hook up with her high school boyfriend in order to turn her life around. It’s perfectly fine for a movie to have an oppressively unlikable protagonist, just as long as that character is written with enough depth and empathy for us to at least relate to how and why they make their disastrous choices. Unfortunately, Diablo Cody’s usual gimmicky and narcissistic writing doesn’t allow for such depth or empathy. This is where Theron’s deadpan yet insightful performance comes in to (almost) save the day, as she manages to build a three-dimensional character with such scant material.
Theron’s guest-starring turn as the lovely Rita (Obvious Beatles reference is obvious), the helplessly hapless Michael Bluth’s (Jason Bateman) obliviously colorful and playful British crush, represents the epitome of the actress’ indelible natural charm. She brings such life and joy to this child-like character, that it becomes impossible not to see why Michael falls head over heels in love with her at first sight. Of course, the now-famous plot twist hilariously reveals exactly why she was so innocent and child-like to begin with, but let’s be honest fellas: All of us thought, even if for a split second, that we somehow could have still made that relationship work, if we were in Michael’s shoes.
This stylish and maddeningly complex spy action/thriller is brought to us by some of the team behind John Wick, so it should come as no surprise that Theron was asked to bring an extremely demanding physical prowess and intricate attention to detail to her role as a stoic British spy tasked with taking an important list out of East Germany mere days before the Berlin Wall came down. Her natural, cool badassery is on full display during dialogue-heavy scenes, but it’s during the raw, violent and meticulously choreographed fight scenes that she proves herself as an action star to be reckoned with. A “single take” sequence near the end of Atomic Blonde is living proof of Theron’s dogged dedication to her craft. It’s pretty obvious that some digital trickery was used to stitch various takes into a “single one,” but it’s impossible to fake the long stretches of action where she showcases an almost animalistic fervor as we watch her literally put her body in harm’s way.
Furiosa might be Theron’s most iconic character to date, and for good reason. It’s hard to show up in the fourth installment of a major franchise and completely upstage its central character. Yes, your neighborhood, post-apocalyptic road warrior Max Rockatanski (Tom Hardy, taking over from Mel Gibson) is never really the main character in the Mad Max series, save for the first film. He’s a typical western anti-hero, who finds himself serendipitously thrown in the middle of dangerous conflict that eventually gives him a reason to exist beyond his raw survival instinct. That being said, it’s hard to pinpoint any truly memorable protagonist besides Max in the franchise. The villains are always colorful and fascinatingly bizarre, but how many good guys can you count that actually made a mark? That all changes when Furiosa steps into the scene and injects a stalwart fighting spirit and a hope for redemption into the indifferently violent and cruel world of Mad Max. Theron’s intense energy and subtle emotional depth is key to the creation of such an impactful character.
The conceit that a beautiful female star should make herself “look ugly” with pounds of make-up in order to snag an easy Oscar is such a cliché, that even making a joke about it sounds stale and overplayed at this point. It would be a lazy and uneducated approach to put Theron’s Best Actress win in this category, since her transformation into notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ heartbreaking drama goes beyond her becoming downright unrecognizable in the role. (Roger Ebert famously did not know it was her in the role when he first saw Monster). Anything we had previously known about Theron’s persona and demeanor as a movie star is completely stripped away as she embodies this extremely troubling, yet inherently tragic figure with her very being. This is one of those once in a lifetime performances, where the critics’ shamelessly hyperbolic go-to cliché line, “So and so doesn’t just play this part, he/she becomes this person” can be written without a hint of ironic detachment.