Looking back on pre-‘Monster’ Charlize Theron

In advance of her reportedly strong performance in “Young Adult” (which I haven”t seen yet, but Kris recently enthused over), I”ve been on something of a Charlize Theron kick lately. I”ve always liked the actress – she has about as much spiky, couldn”t-give-a-shit character as it”s possible for someone who appears to be made of fine bone china to have – and the last few years have been dispiriting ones for her fans.

Her cameo in “The Road” was a frustrating tease of her firepower, she was committed but oddly constrained in “The Burning Plain” (where Jennifer Lawrence and Kim Basinger vied for best-in-show honors), and was defeated by the most cursory of characters in the muddled “In the Valley of Elah.” She had more to offer in “Sleepwalking,” but no one was there to see it; meanwhile, let us not even speak of “Hancock,” a feeble third-wheel girlfriend role for which she could hardly have been more overqualified.

Theron”s been at risk of becoming one of those actors for whom one Oscar-winning next-level role remains the sole peak – she have followed it up with a second nomination two years later, but for a dutiful performance in a film (“North Country,” in the likely event that you”ve forgotten) it”s impossible to imagine anyone watching twice. And yet even through some lean years, Theron”s never attracted the kind of critical snark reserved for such post-Oscar underperformers as Halle Berry – partly because her triumphant turn in “Monster” (recently featured in our list of the greatest Oscar-winning biopic performances) is too immense a display of talent to put down to fluke, partly because she”s never actively off-key in even her most ill-judged projects.

Or is it because, breakthrough that “Monster” was, it wasn”t a completely unpreviewed announcement of her gifts? Rifling through Theron”s pre-Oscar CV turns up any number of unworthy scripts and thankless eye-candy roles, but a closer look at the films reveals she was working well above her pay grade in an awful lot of them. She has knowingly dippy comic zeal in the otherwise threadbare Jonathan Lynn retread “Trial and Error,” she sharply embroiders an underwritten part against an intimdating ensemble in James Gray”s “The Yards,” she obligingly vamps it up in two lesser Woody Allen flicks with a sparkle in her eye that says she knows better is to come. (Why hasn”t he used her since?) Along with Erykah Badu, she even dodges the treacle-quicksand of “The Cider House Rules,” finding clear emotional notes in the script”s ersatz assemblage of feeling.

At the time, I wondered if I was projecting too much into these performances, particularly given that I was living in South Africa at the time – a less-than-impartial critical environment where the Benoni native”s every performance, even in utterly unsalvageable hatstand roles like “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” was greeted with cheers and grand predictions for the future, even if still we kvetched about the alien pronunciation of her surname. (It”s tuh-RON, people. And give the ‘r” a roll.) Was I drinking the Kool-Aid of my compatriots? Was she that good, or did we just want her to be?

The chief exhibit in my case for Theron, prior to “Monster,” was an especially ignoble one. Taylor Hackford”s 1997 occult legal thriller “The Devil”s Advocate” is a gleefully empty-headed slab of high-spec trash in which a deranged Al Pacino, playing Mephistopheles himself, decides to do enough acting for two men – which is just as well, since Keanu Reeves ain”t doing any. Pacino”s performance is the kind of take-no-prisoners hamming from under which co-stars rarely emerge alive, and yet the film is somehow stolen by Theron, as Mary Ann, Reeves”s naïve apple-pie trophy wife who moves to Manhattan, bobs her hair and conveniently loses her mind at some speed.

It”s a role as stupid as anything else in the film, psychologically tenuous and borderline misogynistic in its shortcut to female pregnancy hysteria, and yet a wild-eyed Theron sells it, her gaze lending the character an awareness that exceeds the knowledge the script has written for her, and playing her breakdown as a gradual diminishing of resources rather than an escalation of tics. It”s exemplary between-the-lines playing – she cracked my personal Best Supporting Actress ballot for 1997, and while that list would likely look very different if I reassembled it today, she”d still be very much in the running.

I hadn”t seen “The Devil”s Advocate” in well over a decade when I recently stumbled upon it, approximately halfway through, during some late-night channel-hopping with a friend who hadn”t seen it before. “Is that Charlize Theron?” he asked uncertainly, as the actress”s then-fuller face, framed by unfamiliar dark hair, flashed on screen in one of the film”s many sub-“Rosemary”s Baby” setups. “She was really good even then, wasn”t she?” he observed a few minutes later, after Mary Ann had improbably but intensely topped herself with broken glass. She was. She still is.

So, who else was on the Theron train before the Academy climbed on board?