The Star Market: Is Charlize Theron Mounting a Cruel Comeback?

Charlize Theron. Photo: CHANCE YEH/

She’s widely thought of as one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood, but Charlize Theron is about to get ugly. In Jason Reitman’s new Young Adult, Theron gleefully inhabits a spiky blonde bitch, while next year, she plays a sorta-baddie in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and then a full-on Evil Queen in Snow White and the Huntsman, where her take on the character is so compelling that after the recent trailer was released for Huntsman, most web commenters turned their backs on poor Snow White to take up membership on Team Queen. Theron has always been good at going bad (as her Oscar for Monster proves), but are these films enough to pull her out of a notable recent slump? To find out, we asked industry insiders one simple question: If Charlize Theron were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: Born in South Africa, Theron emigrated to New York as a teenage model, then headed to Los Angeles with the intention of working in movies. It didn’t take too long: Her striking second role was as the blonde femme fatale who wasn’t afraid to tussle while topless in 2 Days in the Valley, which she followed up with a supporting part in That Thing You Do!, the directorial debut of Tom Hanks. Theron continued to work steadily, booking parts in The Devil’s Advocate, Woody Allen’s Celebrity, and The Astronaut’s Wife, while Best Picture nominee The Cider House Rules helped to establish her as something more than just a bombshell.

It was in 2003 that Theron had the best year of her career, with the one-two punch of box-office success with The Italian Job and critical acclaim (and an Academy Award) for Monster. Since then, like many Best Actress winners, Theron has fallen into a fallow period of middling star vehicles and negligible indies, with the significant exception of 2008’s Hancock. Expect that to change soon, though, because Theron has an impressive lineup on the way: Beyond Young Adult, she’ll be seen in Prometheus, Snow White and the Huntsman, and George Miller’s Mad Max reboot.

Peers: Reps interviewed by Vulture have a hard time naming Theron’s peers, largely because her range is so wide. She’s in the same league as well-regarded dramatic actresses like Rachel Weisz (41) and Kate Winslet (36), but Weisz doesn’t do comedy, and Winslet, while beautiful, doesn’t have the same sex symbol heat as Theron. Gwyneth Paltrow (39) and Angelina Jolie (36) are frequently up for the same dramatic parts, but aside from Paltrow’s stint on Glee, neither works very much in comedy, either. Meanwhile, traditional comediennes like Jennifer Aniston (42) and Drew Barrymore (36) compete with Theron for the funny stuff, but they lack the gravitas Theron has when it comes to more serious parts. Only a handful are in the running for nearly every part Theron is: Amy Adams (37), Reese Witherspoon (35), and Anne Hathaway (29) all compete for both comedies and dramas, but all three lack the physicality that Jolie has showcased her entire career and that Theron displays so easily in an action movie like Snow White and the Huntsman.

Market Value: Despite her inarguable fame, Theron has only been in two movies that have made over $100 million, and she was the love interest in both: The $106 million grosser The Italian Job and the monster hit Hancock, which made $227 million. Not that she capitalized on the latter, since she hasn’t appeared in a single wide-release movie since Hancock came out in 2008, and her films since then — Battle in Seattle, The Burning Plain, and The Road — all stiffed. If you take a look at the rest of Theron’s filmography, most of her movies fall into a box-office spectrum between $20 and $60 million dollars. Among them, The Cider House Rules, Monster, and The Devil’s Advocate all performed pretty well, but several of the movies really built around Theron’s star wattage, like Aeon Flux and Sweet November, couldn’t even crack $30 million.

What Hollywood Thinks: And yet, despite that somewhat worrisome track record, there’s suddenly a buzz around Theron like there hasn’t been in a long time. “It’s a nice little renaissance,” says one agent, “After the Oscar, there was a little bit of a funk. Aeon Flux didn’t work. In the Valley of Elah didn’t work. For a while, she didn’t even have an agent — just her former United Talent Agency manager, J.J. Harris. But for all his bluster and bullshit, she’s been having a very strong go with Ari Emanuel.”

While another agent thinks she is regarded as a dramatic actress who can also do comedy, our first agent insists, “If she’s as good as everyone says she is in Young Adult, there’s nothing she can’t do as an actress, because she [also] clearly has the dramatic chops, and she has the physicality to do these action movies; that’s about as wide a range as one can get.”

“I think the fact that she’s so protective and hidden, that makes her more special,” says one top press rep, “She’s not on every magazine under the sun, so people want more: ‘Who is she? What is she?’ Even [George] Clooney — who is very private — is  more in the public eye because of his relationships.”

That said, Theron is no Garbo. “She understands the strategy with campaigns,” says this Über-flack, “When there’s a reason to be out there, she is. But she’s not out there, every day and night on a red carpet — and people gravitate to that. Because she’s not working twelve months a year, people think when she does something, ‘It’s probably a hidden gem!’ She only picks projects that she’s passionate about. And still, at the same time, she’s relatable. She keeps to herself, and manages a personal and professional life. At least in the public eye, that she seems to balance it all is so important, because people are trying to do the same thing with their own lives. And so she can be the spokesperson for Dior, because she’s very ‘all around.’ I gravitate towards more actors that are under-the-radar, and as a publicist, that’s my philosophy when it comes to press: Your work has to match your press. If you haven’t worked in six months, you shouldn’t be on the cover of magazines. In a perfect world, your body of work should match how the public perceives you.”

“I like that she never comes off like some sort of fame whore,” agrees our second rep, a talent agency partner, “She’s a class act: You never read weird, crazy-ass person stuff about her. She’s just an artist. Okay: So she’s a little fussy. But I don’t like when they’re all over the marketplace all the time — the same fucking faces, over and over again. She clearly challenges herself; tries to transform herself. There is literally not one negative thing I can say about her. I think she’s doing what she should be doing, keeping it versatile. She’s a long-haul actress.”

The Analysis: Welcome back, Charlize! The well-liked actress is surging again after a filmic slump, and from the looks of it, she has no intention of letting her comeback go to waste. The commercial appeal of Young Adult may be relatively modest, but it’s a film that will reestablish Theron creatively before a string of potential box office hits waiting in the wings. In a studio climate that’s pretty tough even for Oscar-awarded actresses in their late thirties, it’s unusual for some of Theron’s biggest movies to potentially be ahead of her.

Theron is regarded as picky, but then again, her pickiness is finally paying dividends. “She was offered J. Edgar. And Gravity, that [Alfonso] Cuarón movie,” notes one of the agents we spoke to, adding, “They want her for Oblivion with Tom Cruise, but I don’t see how that even would work, schedule-wise.” Says a third agent, “There is a good job being done for her. I think she’s making some interesting choices, like going from Young Adult to do the George Miller thing.” Also a smart move: Her upcoming action movies will be sold heavily on Theron, but she’s not out there on her own. Her role in Prometheus is a significant supporting part in a deep ensemble, while Huntsman and Mad Max back her up with other big stars in the lead roles.

Ultimately, all the reps we spoke to were impressed by Theron’s clear intention to keep pushing herself onscreen in the service of good material. “Remember As Good As It Gets?” said one agent. “That role was, until the very last moment, going to be played by Holly Hunter. Then, at the last moment, she left it, and Helen Hunt won the Oscar. But if [Hunter] had decided to move forward on it, she’d have won the Oscar, too. The role in Young Adult is that strong. If she pulls it off, she’s certain to get another Oscar nomination, but not just because it’s a great part, but because she’s doing something with it that’s really, really hard for an actor to do: You’re actually the villain, and yet, somehow, the audience is still pulling for you. She’s essentially playing the Julia Roberts role in My Best Friend’s Wedding, where she’s actually the bad guy, trying to steal her friend’s man. And yet: You root for her.”

The Bottom Line: Theron is suddenly capitalizing on all the potential she had after winning the Oscar for Monster, and though it may be overdue, we say better late than never. Her box-office stock depreciated a little bit over the last decade, but we recommend that you buy now while the entry point is affordable, because Theron’s about to take off again.

Buy/Sell/Hold: Strongest Possible Buy

The Star Market: Is Charlize Theron Mounting a Cruel Comeback?