There's one person who's pretty much inescapable in movie theaters at the moment, and that's Charlize Theron. Last weekend, she was the evil queen Ravenna in "Snow White and the Huntsman," and this weekend, she's the biggest name (although not the biggest part) among the ensemble cast of "Prometheus" — a film that she was originally pegged to play the lead in. And in a few weeks, she'll start filming on the long-gestating "Fury Road," George Miller's return to the "Mad Max" world. Between those three, she's become the queen of the blockbuster world, and with a performance in "Young Adult" that might have been her most widely acclaimed ever, Theron's as big a star as she's ever been.
But curiously, it's taken a little time for it to happen. Theron's been a familiar presence on screen for fifteen years now, since breaking through in "2 Days In The Valley" and "The Devil's Advocate," and it's a decade since she won a Best Actress Oscar for "Monster," which looked to make her a megastar. But while there were highpoints over the last few years, there have been more hits than misses. So what happened, then?
Well, a lot of it likely comes down to the failure of "Aeon Flux." The adaptation of the MTV animated series was the first major project Theron signed on to after "Monster," and it was a fairly canny move at the time, we suppose. It gave Theron a chance to remind everyone that she wasn't just the character from "Monster" with a cat-suited action role, and the possibility of a new franchise, and one with a female director, no less, in the shape of Karyn Kusama. Unfortunately, the film was a gaudy, poorly scripted mess and a significant box office flop. Rather than accepting that the film was poor, prognosticators decided that Theron (and female-driven actioners in general) wasn't a draw, and it became harder for her to get films financed afterwards, even with a second Oscar nod for "North Country" and a hilarious guest star run in "Arrested Development" in the same year.
It didn't help that her smaller projects didn't quite land either. She practically moved mountains in a fairly thankless role in "Crash" director Paul Haggis' vastly underrated "In The Valley Of Elah." The film was rejected by audiences, as were many of the Iraq-war themed pictures around the same time. She'd earlier co-starred with her then-boyfriend Stuart Townsend in "Head In The Clouds" and would later appear in his directorial debut, "Battle in Seattle," and again, neither received very good reviews or many eyes on them, although they look like "Avatar" next to Bill Maher's "Sleepwalking" or Guillermo Arriaga's "The Burning Plain," both of which barely received much of a theatrical release in 2008 (it's tempting to note that the end of her relationship with Townsend in 2010 seems to coincide with a new hunger to work).
After "The Burning Plain," she did star in the would-be super hero tentpole "Hancock," although given how little she featured in the marketing campaign, it's hard to give her much credit for that film's success. And other than a brief, effective cameo in "The Road" the following year, she pretty much was absent from screens for three years, until her storming performance in last year's "Young Adult." And that film may be key: Theron's always shown a lack of vanity (see "Monster"), but her last three turns have all had one thing in common. Namely, that they're all unsympathetic roles that some actresses would shy from, and yet Theron revels in them, and manages to lace all three with a degree of humanity– in 'Snow White' and "Prometheus," arguably more so than is present in the script.
It may also be that she's benefited from the lack of truly A-list actresses in Hollywood — Angelina Jolie was approached for her parts in both "Prometheus" and "Snow White and the Huntsman," but was busy on her directorial debut, and there's only so many actresses you can go to after her. But as recently as two years ago, Theron was never mentioned as a possibility in the wide-ranging actress search for "Gravity," surely something that's changed now. Is she ready to challenge Jolie at the very top of the tree? Perhaps. She's isn't the lead in 'Huntsman,' "Prometheus" or "Fury Road," which helps to insulate her if they don't work, but at the same time, she'll take a certain amount of credit for their success ("Prometheus" is already looking promising if the international box office carries over to the U.S. this weekend).
What she needs to do to truly cement her return is to take the lead role of her own series or franchise. She's developing sci-fi picture "Agent 13" with "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" director Rupert Wyatt, but even that would see her take a supporting role to a male actor. However, another outlet for Theron seems to be producing, with her Denver & Delilah shingle developing several features and TV shows, including an HBO project with David Fincher and more recently, a contemporary version of the "Hatfields & McCoys" for television.
Clearly, we're just at the beginning of what we'll be seeing from Theron in coming years. And with 'Snow White' delivering at the box office and "Prometheus" looking to do big business as well, it looks like stardom's finally caught up with Charlize Theron, who will likely have more options and projects coming her way than ever before.