Charlize Theron: Past And Present

CBS News Sunday Morning contributor David Edelstein reviews the roles of Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, both past and present.

Charlize Theron plays a sexually harassed miner in North Country, and it's a role she was born to play. No, I'm not being funny. There was a time when no one expected she could act any more than people in "North Country" expect her character can mine.

Sometimes being "This Year's Blonde" can be an occupational hazard. That's why Theron played serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster." She gained weight, she added fake jowls and teeth, and she worked up this mesmerizing weird swagger. But it wasn't just her physical transformation that blew you away. It was how she got so deep inside Wuornos' bizarre hopefulness that her subsequent fury was both horrifying and moving.

Well, if you believed the media spin about "Monster," you'd think Cindy Crawford had just gained weight and added fake jowls and teeth that made her look like a calf's head in a butcher's window and people said, "Hey! She's not just This Year's Blonde!"

Well, Theron was always a sensational actress, ever since an injury forced her to give up dancing. In her first major role in 1997, as Keanu Reeves' wife in "The Devil's Advocate," she made a seamless transformation from a bubbly, effervescent, baby-fatted faced blonde to emaciated madwoman basket-case. In Woody Allen's "Celebrity," she was one of those rare model types who could subtly make fun of her own beauty, as if it had nothing to do with her. And, of course, it doesn't.

In some ways, she's a dime-a-dozen goddess. I mean, she's not that much more distinctive looking than many other willowy and burnished gorgeous women on magazine covers. It's the tension between that soft face and sneaky wit that makes you watch her — that and her immersion in her roles. What made her so astounding in "Monster" wasn't just her physical transformation — it was how she got so deep inside serial killer Aileen Wuornos' bizarre hopefulness that her subsequent fury at the world was both horrifying and moving.

As Josey Aimes in "North Country," Theron remains a fascinating actress, with those soft blue eyes and cheeks and that hard, unfussy delivery. She cries a lot, but the tears don't seem actressy — they gush out of Josey in spite of her resolve. The film is inspired by the story of the first successful class action sexual harassment case, and it really works you over. Josey's husband beats her, her father demeans her and the men at the mines scrawl epithets in feces in her locker room. Her plight would make Oliver Twist say, "What a rough life."

The theme isn't just sexism — this is also a study of dying blue-collar towns and hangers-on who think women are stealing their work. Director Niki Caro made "Whale Rider," and the template is similar-except there's no friendly whale to whisk the heroine away. Only the great Frances McDormand telling Josie to toughen up.

Last week, Bill Maher said, "Theron has to be sexy again. We get it. You are a serious actor." I bet that's just the sort of thing that made her want to play a serial killer of men.