Charlize accepts Half-Life Award (includes video)

The French poet and musician Serge Gainsbourg once said, “Ugliness is in a way superior to beauty because it lasts.” You get a sense that Charlize Theron might agree-but you also get a sense that such concerns of ugliness vs. beauty just don’t matter to her.

See, Theron is a classic screen beauty. The South African-born actress started as a dancer, as did Audrey Hepburn. She has the physical virtues that make her a natural for such roles as the dark heroine in Aeon Flux, the model muse to Kenneth Branagh’s stand-in Woody Allen in Celebrity, or as Peter Sellers’ put-upon lover in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Beautiful actresses are a dime a dozen. But actresses who transcend mere beauty are a gift.

And so it is that besides the roles that accentuate her acting as well as her beauty. She has carved out sincere respectability as somebody who can act, period. Her role as Aileen Wuornos, the notorious female serial killer, not only require that she take on a grand physical transformation but also that she take on the tough language and demeanor of a woman whose pain and rage come in equal measures of unpredictability. The role didn’t just silence her critics-it got most of them to emphatically admit that Theron was so much more than a pretty face that she deserved the highest praise bestowed upon an actress: an Oscar. Theron won her statue, just as Hepburn and Streep before her. You get a sense it won’t be her last.

Indeed, not more than two years later she was in the running again for another character role, of a female miner in remote Minnesota forced to endure severe sexism in North Country. Her physical transformation is impressive albeit less drastic than for Monster, but as with that role it’s not the look that captivates, it’s the way Theron inhabits the role. In Josie Aimes Theron makes you feel the pain of a woman so alienated in her own community that her father won’t even stand up for her. You feel it and it hurts. Then, on the other hand, you see the strength and cunning she has as Aeon Flux. Her physical traits and dancer background are tools: she knows that her body is an instrument, not a hindrance, and she knows how to use it.

And yet, she is not a country unto herself. She has worked alongside the biggest male names in Hollywood and never wilted in their presence. On the contrary, in films like The Devil’s Advocate, The Astronaut’s Wife, and 2 Days in the Valley, she has kept the films from careening into dangerously masculine territory, and we should thank her for it.

All of this and Theron is barely into her 30s. Even if, as Gainsbourg hints, her physical beauty may change with the passing of time, what Theron puts on the screen will not change, because what’s up there is neither beauty nor ugliness-it’s honesty, and that’s what really lasts forever.