(R) 2 1/2 stars

The buzz among critics over Monster started last year. I heard from fellow reviewers about a jaw-dropping performance by Charlize Theron, who combined her skill with makeup, false teeth and a weight gain to portray Aileen “Lee” Wuornos, infamous as “America’s first female serial killer.”

The movie opened during the holiday season in New York and L.A., so that it would qualify for the Academy Awards, and quickly began garnering awards from film groups, mostly for Theron’s work. She won a Best Dramatic Actress trophy at the Golden Globes last Sunday, and is up for a Best Actress Oscar.

-Charlize Theron in ‘Monster’-  After eagerly awaiting the movie for months, I left the theater thinking, “That’s it?” Sure, the transformation of Charlize Theron from glamorous movie star to chunky weathered thug is impressive, but I wondered why the filmmakers didn’t simply cast someone who more closely resembles Aileen Wuornos. There are plenty of female character actors who would fit the bill.

Then I noticed that Theron is one of the producers of the film and realized that, while Monster is being presented as an unflinching portrait of a murderer, it is really a star vehicle for Theron, designed to make audiences “ooh” and “aah” over her willingness to ugly up for art. Awards groups looooove to give prizes to female actors that ugly up for art.

The stunt casting would be OK if everything else worked, but that’s not the case here. What writer/director Patty Jenkins has crafted plays like a chunk of a bigger film. She focuses on an intense, but brief period in Wuornos’ life where she falls in love with high maintenance cutie Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) and offs a few men.

The acting is fine, but the emotions we witness lack resonance because the story is out of context; so much so that I felt the need to go online to learn more. If you plan to see the film, I suggest you read the following, which I paraphrase from a long article titled “The Myth and the Reality” by Marlee MacLeod. You can read the whole thing at www.crimelibrary.com/serial4/wuornos/index.html.

Aileen Wuornos was the daughter of Leo Dale Pittman and Diane Wuornos, who married Pittman when she was 15 and had two children with him. Mom divorced Dad less than two years later, a few months before Aileen was born. Dad, a child molester and a sociopath, hanged himself in prison in 1969. Overwhelmed by single motherhood, Mom abandoned the kids and her parents adopted Aileen and her brother Keith, raising them as their own along with their biological offspring. They did not reveal their true relationship to the kids.

All did not go well. Grandpa was a heavy drinker and a severe disciplinarian, and the children were rebellious. The situation was exasperated when, somewhere around age 12, Aileen learned the truth about her birth parents. She got pregnant at 14 and was sent to a home for unwed mothers, where she gave birth to a baby boy that she put up for adoption in 1971.

That year, following the death of Grandma, mother Diane invited the kids to move from Michigan to Texas and live with her in an orderly home. They passed on the offer and Aileen, now known by her friends as Lee, quit school and began hitchhiking and selling her body.

Over the course of the next few years, Grandpa committed suicide, brother Keith died of throat cancer and Lee moved to Florida, meeting and marrying an elderly man with a comfortable income. He soon obtained a restraining order against Wuornos and an annulment, after she was arrested for lobbing a cue ball at a bartender’s head. He claimed that, after spending his money, she beat him with his own cane for not coughing up more cash.

Over the next few years, she moved from one failed relationship to another, forging, stealing and having sex for money. In 1981, when she believed her current boyfriend was going to end their relationship, she became suicidal. After getting drunk, she bought a gun, but instead of shooting herself, she ended up robbing a supermarket while wearing a bikini.

That little stunt got her a stay in prison. Her stint behind bars was followed by a return to her old patterns, including visits to gay bars. In 1986, she met 24-year-old Tyria Moore (her name is changed to Selby Wall in the film) at a club in Daytona. Then what you see in the movie happens. For a while, there was a feeding frenzy for book deals, involving detectives, relatives and even Wuornos, who appeared not to know that Florida law prohibits criminals from keeping the money from such ventures.

Now famous, the jailed woman told her story to many people, tinkering with it along the way. Into the circus came 44-year-old Arlene Pralle, who saw Wuornos’ picture in a paper and wrote her a letter. “My name is Arlene Pralle,” she said. “I’m born-again. You’re going to think I’m crazy, but Jesus told me to write you.” After a few collect phone calls, she became Wuornos’ adviser and defender, describing their relationship to Vanity Fair as “a soul binding. We’re like Jonathan and David in the Bible. It’s as though part of me is trapped in jail with her. We always know what the other is feeling and thinking.”

She arranged interviews for Wuornos and hit the talk show circuit herself, casting Wuornos as a product of a troubled upbringing who killed only to protect herself. In November of ’91, Pralle and her husband legally adopted Aileen Wuornos.

When she finally was convicted of first-degree murder, Wuornos exploded at the jury, screaming, “I’m innocent! I was raped! I hope you get raped! Scumbags of America!” Despite defense claims that she was mentally ill and “a damaged, primitive child,” the jury unanimously agreed that she should receive the death penalty. At a later court appearance, she pleaded no contest to the murders of three more men, in order to “get right with God.” When given three more death sentences by the judge, she muttered an obscenity and gave him the finger.

At two subsequent hearings in ’92 and ’93, she pleaded guilty to two more murders and received two more death sentences. Because the body was never found, no charges were brought for the murder of a seventh man.

After years of appeals, Wuornos gave up the fight, sending a letter to the Florida Supreme Court that included the statement, “I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.” They agreed to let her fire her lawyers and stop the appeals. Following a stay of execution for a mental exam, she was executed in 2002. Her last words were, “I’d just like to say I’m sailing with the Rock and I’ll be back like Independence Day with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mothership and all. I’ll be back.” The reference to the Rock means Jesus. What the “mothership” means is anybody’s guess.

Hopefully, this information will make your trip to Monster a richer experience for you than it was for me. Or, if you feel like watching a based-on-fact story of murder, uneducated poor people and sexual confusion, you might consider renting Boys Don’t Cry, a film that features human beings instead of bombastic ciphers.


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