Ever since “Alien” clamped itself upon our cultural psyches — much like the outer-space thriller’s frightening facehugger in 1979 — many of us have been patiently waiting for another actress to stand out in a role that equals, if not tops, Sigourney Weaver’s take-charge she-warrior Ripley: A female who is fierce without having to compromise her gender or be upstaged — or worse, rescued — by a male cohort. In other words, a sister who does it for herself while also saving the world.
Many have tried, from Brigitte Nielsen (“Red Sonja”) and Halle Berry (“Catwoman,” Storm in the “X-Men” films) to Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and Milla Jovovich (the “Resident Evil“ series). A few have come close, including Linda Hamilton in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Uma Thurman in both “Kill Bill” volumes, Angelina Jolie in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and its sequel, Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” franchise, Noomi Rapace in the Swedish version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “Prometheus,” and Scarlett Johansson as Marvel’s Black Widow and in “Lucy.”
But it looks like we finally have a truly worthy candidate this summer, one who appears in a much-anticipated blockbuster that bears a man’s name but is actually one of the most pro-feminist action adventures to hit the big screen since Thelma met Louise.
Never mind that Warner Bros. continues to get its star-spangled panties in a twist over how best to handle a “Wonder Woman” feature. The studio already has a wonder woman for the ages as Charlize Theron finally fulfills her destiny to be the next great female action hero as the War Rig-commandeering Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” opening Friday.
Some expected 2005’s “Aeon Flux,” based on a futuristic animated TV series and directed by Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight”), to earn the lean, mean and statuesque South-African-born Theron that mantle — especially on the heels of her best actress Oscar win as a serial killer in “Monster” and her second nomination as a sexually harassed mine worker in “North Country.” But the muddled sci-fi actioner was a universally panned, monotonous mess.
However, few will have that reaction to this super-revved revival of the post-apocalyptic franchise from Australia that helped to launch Mel Gibson’s career in 1979 and is once again directed by George Miller, who also oversaw sequels “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1982) and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985).
The much-delayed return to the barren and brutal desert wasteland where nomadic survivors battle it out for whatever resources are left might be seen as a vehicle for Gibson’s replacement as “Mad” Max Rockatansky: Tom Hardy, the much-admired British actor who doesn’t quite possess household-name status despite being in such major-league box-office hits as ”Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”
But so far most of the attention is being paid to Theron, down, dirty and shorn of her locks, who is clearly in charge as her imposing character recruits a reluctant Hardy to help her transport five rescued female sex slaves to safety. Physically, this is a pair of equals. Romantically, they haven’t got time for such nonsense amid the relentless mayhem that has been supersized for the IMAX 3D era. Early critical reaction has been mostly upbeat and the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score currently stands at 100% positive.
According to Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald, “Fury Road” has “a propulsive energy and outrageous creativity lacking in most studio productions of this scale.” And goodly portion of that creativity comes from putting a woman in the driver’s seat instead of just being an accessory to a man. As Time, in a story about how Miller recruited “Vagina Monologues” writer and activist Eve Ensler as a consultant on the film, points out, Hardy isn’t the star of “Mad Max.” Theron’s Furiosa is.
“Charlize’s character is also really fierce,” Ensler says. “But at the same time, she’s compassionate. And that’s a hard thing to pull off.” As for her five female companions, the flight to freedom forms the film’s their journey: “Women who are willing to give up enslaved comfort for liberation and risk death to do it. It’s the rising feminine rebelling against the patriarchy.”
There is definitely a method to Max’s madness this time and, as a result, Theron is able to deliver an intensely complex portrayal despite the action-packed entertainment’s severe lack of dialogue (one estimate from The Australian says she says just 100 words – while Hardy only utters about 40). It’s not dissimilar to Ripley’s situation as the silent lone survivor of a blue-collar spacecraft crew at the end of “Alien.” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Rentrak, was among those duly blown away after a Los Angeles screening last week.
“Theron is a revelation,” he says. “Clearly, she and director George Miller worked feverishly to create this stunning characterization of a woman on a mission of rage and redemption. Vulnerable yet invincible, Theron’s Furiosa is a truly unique and powerful character that transcends gender expectations and stereotypes to create one of the most notable, unique and thrilling performances in the annals of film.”
Theron, 39, seems to have been building to this moment of recognition for nearly her whole career, starting with a non-speaking role in the 1995 horror sequel “Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest.” Here are 10 reasons why she was the perfect choice to take female action heroism to the next level:
1. She grew up in a volatile environment. The only child grew up on a dirt farm near Johannesburg and her parents ran a construction business. In Esquire’s current cover story, Theron recalls how when she was 8, she drove around in a motorized vehicle built by her dad, complete with flatbed for toting various animals. The actress also says she was not immune to homeland’s history of turmoil and violence. “On the street where I was raised – 75 percent of the people who lived on that street are not alive anymore. For nothing. Life means nothing.“ In fact, her mother Gerda, was a victim of domestic abuse. She ended up shooting her alcoholic husband when he threatened both her and her daughter during a drunken rage. It was ruled to be an act of self-defense.
2. Theron fended for herself at an early age. She found her ticket out of South Africa after winning a contract as a model in Italy at age 16 and went to New York at 18 to pursue her dream of becoming a ballerina and studying at the Joffrey Ballet School — one that was dashed after she suffered a knee injury. Still, such physical training would serve her well when preparing for her more rigorous film roles such as Furiosa.
3. She knows how to raise a ruckus. At 19, Theron moved to Los Angeles to look for film work. As legend has it, she attracted the attention of her first manager after engaging in a heated shouting match with a bank teller who refused to cash a check from her mother that was meant to pay her rent.
4. She learned action speaks louder than words. Hollywood first took notice of her in her first speaking role as a lethal bleached-blonde Scandinavian Amazon named Helga in the Tarantino-esque crime thriller “2 Days in the Valley” from 1996. However, her steamy topless sex scenes with James Spader were easily upstaged by the vicious catfight between Theron, memorably slinky in a white Spandex jumpsuit, and co-star Teri Hatcher.
5. She survived turkeys and soared in smaller roles. Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with a beauty like Theron and for too long wasted her as mere eye candy in such sub-par efforts as “Reindeer Games” with Ben Affleck and “The Legend of Bagger Vance” with Matt Damon, both from 2000. As she has said of that time, “I kept finding myself in a place where directors would back me but studios didn’t.” She did manage to make stronger impressions in supporting parts in Tom Hanks “That Thing You Do” (1996), Taylor Hackford’s “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997) and two Woody Allen films, “Celebrity” (1998) and “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” (2001). Her trust in directors led her to stick by “Fury Road’s” Miller even when weather conditions and other troubles delayed the shoot for about five years.
6. She can take matters into her own hands. Oscar voters are often impressed when actors de-glam for a role. Nicole Kidman’s 2002 win for “The Hours” is often partly attributed to the prosthetic nose she wore to play author Virginia Woolf. But Theron went much further when she won best actress the following year as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster,” gaining 30 pounds and wearing false teeth to mask her alluring looks. It’s doubtful she would have been in the running for Furiosa if she hadn’t taken such measures to get Hollywood to take her seriously. Footnote: “Monster” director Patty Jenkins is the currently in charge of Warner’s “Wonder Woman” movie.
7. Theron can bounce back. “Aeon Flux” did the actress few favors. But it did give her the chance to show how tough she is after suffering a serious neck injury while performing a series of handsprings 10 days into shooting. The film, along with “North Country,” also allowed her to rank number seventh on The Hollywood Reporter’s 2006 list of highest-paid actresses when her asking price rose to $10 million per film.
8. She can be beautiful and scary. Theron took a three-year break from the big screen but came back with a bang in Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” in 2011. As Mavis, a writer of young-adult books who suffers from self-delusions, the actress’s silver-screen siren appearance took on a cruel veneer as she tries to reunite with her very married high-school sweetheart on the occasion of his first baby’s birth. As David Thomson wrote about her performance in New Republic: “We already know the kind of courage Charlize Theron possesses from ‘Monster,’ the movie for which she won the Oscar as a desperate prostitute carrying at least thirty pounds over the actress’s weight with a face that had been beaten up too many times. In a way, ‘Young Adult’ is braver still because it lets Mavis look so good.”
9. She can hold her own in a summer blockbuster. Theron followed “Young Adult” with meaty secondary roles in two 2012 big action pictures. Kristen Stewart was the female lead in the fantasy adventure “Snow White and The Huntsman,” but her Snow White would have been left adrift without Theron’s wicked sorceress standing in her way. That Theron is returning for “The Huntsman,” the 2016 prequel, confirms her importance to the project. The actress also held her own in “Prometheus,” a sci-fi thriller tied to the universe of “Alien.” Theron was originally pegged to be the heroine Shaw, but instead took on a villain-ish part as a chilly corporate type. She nonetheless was involved in some strenuous action scenes including running in 30-pound boots across a sandy landscape.
10. She is woman enough to handle Sean Penn. As talented as he is, Penn can be a bit of an ornery cuss at times — as ex-wives Madonna and Robin Wright could probably attest. But Theron wisely became friends with the actor for 20 years before they decided to become a couple in 2014. Considering that she confirms that she and Hardy often butted heads on the “Fury Road” set (or, as she puts it, “We fuckin’ went at it, yeah”) but ended up respecting one another proves she knows how to handle contentious personalities. Besides, she finds Penn to be quite the hunk. As she told Esquire: “He’s hot. He is hot. You’re a 40-year-old woman sounding like a 16-year-old. There’s something beautiful about that.”