director Patty Jenkins
Over the past five years, since I watched the documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) and have since seen a number of television documentaries dedicated to her, Aileen Wuornos has become a more and more tragic figure to my mind. I never felt that attracted to seeing the big Hollywood version of her life, the movie, Monster, which brought actress Charlize Theron a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Wuornos. But as her story continued to eat at me, as it still does, I became more curious and interested in the adaptation.
Writer/director Patty Jenkins clearly empathizes with Wuornos, but her take on Aileen’s story is focused on the last couple of years of her life, most particularly on her lesbian love affair that arguably brought Wuornos some long-desired but rarely glimpsed love and happiness. It’s a love story at its core, but strangely and significantly, Wuornos’ real life lover, Tyria Moore, is recreated as “Selby Wall”, a girl with a story not entirely unlike Moore’s but doubtlessly different from Moore’s. It’s always strange when films, “based on a true story” find such significant breaks with their bases, and certainly much fiction is embedded in any retelling of any story. It’s not so much that it flouts the truth of her story but that it flouts what is at its core, the “truth” of Jenkins’s story.
However, something much more pointed and impossible to ignore really nagged at me: the “ugly” make-up that was plastered on the very beautiful Charlize Theron to make her resemble Wuornos. Let’s keep in mind that this film is titled, “Monster”, more of an ironic point about Wuornos’s murder spree than her physical appearance. However, I kept looking at Theron-as-Wuornos and kept staring at her face. Theron put on some 40 pounds to play her (fair enough), but the make-up started with age spots and receding hair to a strange “lack” of eyebrows, and ultimately finished with some horrible fake teeth. Now to some, this was part of the power of the film, to place a beautiful South African actress into a “costume” so unlike herself to give her over to a total character. But the thing is it seems like they made her as ugly as they could, a “monster” of sorts, with her somewhat repulsive visage.
Wuornos, at the time of her murders was about 33 years old, while many of the images of her are from her last years in prison, up until her execution at 46. She had the roughest, most brutal of lives, aged well beyond her years, but she was not an ugly woman, probably even less so during her brief reign of terror. And it’s not so much that I’m trying to defend her physical beauty but rather to decry her rather extreme ugliness as portrayed in the film. This is perhaps highlighted even further in that her cinematic lover is Christina Ricci, who wears only a bad haircut and baggy clothes as her paramour. The actual Tyria Moore was nowhere as cute at Ricci.
This focus on physicality is at the heart of the film in which a beautiful actress makes herself ugly to step into such a role. I don’t mean to take anything away from Theron, per se, her ability to mimic Wuornos’s speech and tonality, the way she holds herself and moves, all that feed into her performance are all her own. And it’s good.
The real story behind Wuornos, a girl horribly abused from childhood, abandoned by a child-predator of a father and her mother, kicked out from her grandparents house when she became pregnant at 14, a girl who began trading sex for money or favors before she was a teen, is so incredibly sad and brutal that it’s stunning. None of these facts justify her crimes, with the possible exception of her first murder which was likely in defending herself against a rape, but they do indeed speak to an understanding of a human being who the world would come to think of as “a monster.”
Where Jenkins seeks redemption for Wuornos in her failed love affair, she abandons Wuornos on other levels. The love affair is a compelling one, a flawed relationship of two people “in need” as much as “in love,” a relationship doomed to failure through poverty, mental illness, addiction, and tragedy.
Physicality is foregrounded by the nature of the make-up and the transformation made for the role. A “monster” is ugly somewhat by definition, either physically or by the nature of the beast itself. Wuornos’ crimes were monstrous, surely, but was not her entire life monstrous? Her beaten-down appearance by hard life and hard living corrupted her physically and mentally. But in many ways, the film denies her beauty, a more transcendent beauty as well as a literal one.