A Game of Therons
Let’s talk about Charlize Theron. Last month, after my wife and I finally rented Young Adult, I found myself brought up short by a startling realization: Theron may be the best young actress we have. I’d always been in awe of her work in Monster, of course, which, as Roger Ebert rightly notes, is one of the great performances of all time, starting, like Andy Serkis’s Gollum, as an awesome special effect, then creeping its way back toward humanity—although the rest of the movie is strangely undeveloped, as if it simply condensed, like dew, around Theron’s portrayal. When you consider that only a couple of years later, Theron was playing the lovely Rita on Arrested Development, you realize that we’re dealing with an actress of daunting range and versatility who has often been underestimated, like Penélope Cruz, because of her beauty. Young Adult is a showcase for all her best qualities: she’s funny, devastating, and totally fearless, even if, once more, she’s often better than the movie around her.
I had to repeat these facts to myself more than once after seeing Snow White and the Huntsman, in which Theron, it pains me to say, is resplendently awful. It’s a shame, because I’d been looking forward to this performance—if not the rest of the movie—for a long time. Unfortunately, just about everything about her approach is misconceived, and it isn’t even artful enough to make for good camp. In her thorny crown and raven’s-wing robes, she looks great, and director Rupert Sanders frames her in striking ways, but when she opens her mouth, she’s betrayed both by the script and by a few basic miscalculations. She starts at a high pitch of intensity that leaves her with nowhere to go, and although she grows louder and more strident as the movie drags on, she’s never truly frightening. (Her appearance on Top Chef, in which she seemed to be trying out aspects of her Evil Queen persona for the amusement of the other guests, was much more interesting.)
Watching her, I was oddly reminded of Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which he plays my favorite of all movie villains. In his chatty memoir The View From the Bridge, director Nicholas Meyer writes of watching Montalban play the part for the first time, and notes that while the performance was skilled and professional, there was one problem: he delivered every line at the top of his lungs. Meyer’s response, when he had a chance to discuss the role with Montalban, was brilliant, and it’s one I wish Sanders had followed:
I began [with] something like this: “You know, I read Laurence Oliver say somewhere that an actor should never show an audience his top. Once you show an audience your top, they know you have nowhere else to go…”
Montalban did not jump up and toss me out but narrowed his eyes in attention. “Another thing,” I went on before I could chicken out. “The really scary thing about crazy people is you never know what they’re going to do next. They can be very quiet but that doesn’t reduce the terror because at any second they might leap—”
Montalban, to his credit, took the advice to heart—his response, according to Meyer, was “You’re going to direct me! This is wonderful!”—and it shows in his final performance, which is a marvel, for all its operatic qualities, of nuance, understatement, and deathly quiet. (Consider, for instance, how gently he whispers to Chekov, even while lifting him by the front of his spacesuit: “Why?” You can watch the moment at the 2:00 mark here.)
Just imagine how much more interesting Theron would have been, if, like Montalban, she never showed the top of her range: if she had played the queen as cold, quiet, and serenely convinced that she was the hero of her own story. (Why, really, would an Evil Queen need to rant and rave if she already holds everyone around her in thrall to her power?) Theron certainly could have delivered this performance—as Young Adult amply demonstrates, she can be a subtle, resourceful actress—but, like Montalban, she needed someone to direct her. Rupert Sanders has talent, and he delivers what is basically a calculated simulation of an epic fantasy film with considerable visual skill, but as Joseph Kosinksi demonstrated with Tron: Legacy, the fact that a director makes beautiful commercials doesn’t always mean that he knows how to tell a story. It’s too bad, because all the pieces were there. All that was missing was the magic.