With her Oscar-nominated performance as Monster’s rage-filled serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Charlize Theron is the latest Hollywood beauty to prove she’s not just a pretty face. Of course, the Academy has always been impressed by movie stars who trash their glamorous images for the sake of more-than-skin-deep impact. But as a love-starved woman who sells herself for sex until something inside her snaps, Theron daringly does more than make herself look bad. She plays a wanton murderer who is never more harrowingly convincing – or sympathetic – than when she is gunning down victims.
And in pulling the trigger, Theron joins a long, but small, tradition of actresses nominated for playing women who kill. Sometimes it’s stone-cold homicide, or a crime of passion, or firing in the line of duty, or even self-defense. But since killing is usually a man’s job – on screen, as in life – deadly dames tend to stand out. Even for the Academy.
The list goes back all the way to 1930, when the second-ever Oscar race included two stage veterans nominated in murderous roles: Ruth Chatterton for Madame X, playing a murderess whose lawyer is the grown son who never knew her, and Jeanne Eagels as the pent-up plantation wife in The Letter who impetuously slays her lover after learning he has a wife on the side. But when the votes were counted, neither was a match for America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford, who, in her own bold career move, chopped off her trademark ringlets to play a reckless Southern flirt in Coquette.
And that established an early pattern. Yes, studios occasionally would cast women in Oscar-worthy roles that allowed them to take action, even to bear arms. But their characters weren’t much of a departure from the Hollywood norm: These women never got to play cops, gangsters, soldiers, or cowboys. They were still mostly wives, mothers, daughters, or lovers whose domestic crises drove them to get a little hysterical (how female of them) and overreact – often by firing away until the gun was empty. For their boldness, they might get invited to the Oscar dance, but their peers were not nearly so quick to elect them prom queen. The one exception to the rule was Scarlett O’Hara. As the unlikely killer who shoots a Yankee interloper in the most reluctant of self-defenses, Vivien Leigh claimed the Best Actress Oscar for 1939’s Gone With the Wind.
One year after Leigh’s win, Bette Davis got a nod for the Jeanne Eagels role in William Wyler’s remake of The Letter, one of several homicidal heroines she played. But Ginger Rogers took the trophy for portraying a career girl caught between two men in Kitty Foyle. Davis was back in the running in 1942, as a calculating matriarch who declines to assist her dying husband in The Little Foxes. This time, she lost to Joan Fontaine, as a far more helpless woman who fears her husband is trying to kill her, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.
Killer chicks started getting a little sexier later in the ’40s, with the birth of film noir and the femme fatale. And as arguably the greatest fatal femme, Barbara Stanwyck pretty much commanded a nomination for the way her smoldering housewife manipulates Fred MacMurray’s insurance man into offing her husband in Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity. As dazzling a performance as it was, she almost didn’t take the part, telling Wilder she was ”a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines, to go into an out-and-out, cold-blooded killer.” Such was the prevailing state of mind in ’40s Hollywood, an era dominated not only by film noir but by the ”woman’s picture” – epitomized by Stanwyck’s fellow nominees Claudette Colbert, as a wartime mom-on-the-homefront in Since You Went Away, and Ingrid Bergman, as an innocent wife imperiled by her scheming husband in Gaslight. Bergman was the favorite to win that year, and she didn’t disappoint.