Beauty wins Revlon endorsements. Ugly wins Oscars. Charlize Theron proved it, bloated and gruesome, as a lesbian serial killer in Monster. Now she’s out to prove it again as a single mother on welfare with broken nails and a battered face, slaving away in the slag pits of the Minnesota iron mines in the arduous film North Country. She’s one of the few genuine beauties who could have been cover-girl material back in the glam days of Lana, Hedy and Ava. She can also act. One of these days, we might even get to see her Lancômed to the eyebrows in strapless moiré silk and high-heeled Manolos. Meanwhile, she’s aiming a black eye at the vacant spot on the mantel where her Oscar needs a baby brother.
That’s how we first see her in North Country, playing an abused wife named Josey Ames who sports the kind of split lip and swollen shiner usually reserved for bare-knuckle heavyweights. This time, Josey fights back. She wipes off the blood, scoops up her two kids and flees to her parents back in the snowy, burned-out butt end of northern Minnesota, where she left home in disgrace as a rape victim and unwed mother years ago.
Although her long-suffering mother (another deeply honest and riveting performance by Sissy Spacek) feels compassion for Josey’s hardscrabble life, her father (Richard Jenkins, the funeral-director patriarch from Six Feet Under) has never forgiven the daughter he regards as a slut. Josey doesn’t waste much time seeking approval or licking her wounds. She’s got to get a job, rebuild her life and support her kids, and the only game in town that pays real wages is the filthy, dangerous mines where local fathers, husbands and sons who have broken their backs for generations are now being forced to endure the sudden invasion of women on the work force.
This is a real hell, where female miners are exposed to the harsh and rugged labor of a male-dominated world, resented and ridiculed, and subjected to shocking and even life-threatening ordeals, both physical and emotional. From their humiliating medical exams to their punishing assignments hauling rocks from the quarries, driving trucks, lifting heavy machinery and inhaling fumes that lead to crippling diseases, Josey and a handful of desperate women take whatever the men dish out. Scraping toxic grease and oil from huge engines and grinding machines, being subjected to daily sexual advances, meeting hostility and hate in every dark hole in the mine, their only escape from the dirt and dreariness of their lives is sex, alcohol and violent ice-hockey games. When Josey takes her grievances to the president of the company, instead of sympathy, she’s offered a choice: worsened conditions or instant resignation. Resenting her first sign of strength, the men increase the hardships against Josey’s friends and co-workers—leaving dildoes in their lunch boxes, destroying their locker room, smearing the walls with excrement—until Josey finally declares war. When she quits, it’s not because she’s taken all she can, but because she’s given all she’s got. The result is a class-action lawsuit that changed the laws protecting women against sexual harassment in the American workplace, and a compelling issue-empowered movie in the tradition of Silkwood, Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich.
The film is “inspired by” the true story of Lois Jenson, who sued the Eveleth Mines in the Mesabi Iron Range in 1988, and adapted from the book Class Action, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, who, for reasons that have never been explained, were halfway through their research when the subject of their story washed her hands of the project and has since refused to cooperate with the publication of the book, the paperback edition or the movie. Names have been changed and some of the plot points fictionalized, but nothing can dilute the impact of a story with this much courage and humanity.
It’s a rich, complex experience, informed and elevated by an exemplary band of dedicated artists on every level. In her first American film, acclaimed New Zealand director Niki Caro brings the disenfranchised, granite-faced Minnesota miners to life with the same dignity and quality as the misunderstood Maoris in her acclaimed Whale Rider. The great cinematographer Chris Menges has captured the psychic and physical desolation of the Iron Range’s ravaged industrial landscape with a wintry chill that is almost beautiful, like the optimism beneath the small town’s surface ugliness. Michael Seitzman’s script provides a valiant look at a certain kind of working-class woman and derives its strengths from closely observed details and emotions instead of the obvious movie clichés of action, sex and violence.
And the impeccable cast grabs your heart through sensitivity to the human condition, not aggression: Woody Harrelson is surprisingly understated as the reluctant lawyer who defends one vulnerable woman against a corporate Goliath; Frances McDormand is heartbreaking as the friend who has given her life for the mines and now enters the courtroom at the eleventh hour to change the outcome of the trial from her deathbed; and Ms. Spacek, in a small but pivotal role, is dynamic as a mother torn between two loyalties who finds the inner conviction to stand up and be counted on her own terms.
But it is really Charlize Theron whose triumphant performance gives the film its thunderous center. From her hangdog introduction to her final assertiveness, she demonstrates every nuance, every frailty, every exhaustion and every hope of a loser who redefines herself. From the slope of her shoulders to the proud lift of her chin, she moves into the mind and soul of Josey Ames the way Sally Field established squatter’s rights on the persona and spirit of Norma Rae. It’s a memorable and touching portrayal of a certain kind of woman who is vital and determined instead of neurotic and victimized. Hers is a trenchant portrait of a degraded footnote to gender politics, raised up and transformed by the soaring power of the uncrushable human spirit. And let’s face it: She’s still something to marvel at, even in overalls.
Carol the Clown
Tick. Tock. Carol Channing has always reminded me of a walking alarm clock. And during a career playing Lorelei Lee, Dolly Levi and a cartoon alley cat named Mehitabel, she developed a reputation for being one of the world’s most delectable dumb blondes. She is none of those things, as you will quickly learn if you are lucky and wise enough to hitch, hike, cab or grift your way over to Feinstein’s at the Regency, where she is singing, clowning and otherwise strutting her stuff (through Oct. 22) in a rare nightclub act that she calls The First 80 Years Are the Hardest. I guess you could call it a “cabaret comeback,” since she hasn’t appeared in an intimate setting in more years than the Hilton sisters can count. Some people were born to make comebacks. If they stay away too long, the public demands their return to the center spot. The indefinable and indestructible Carol Channing, I am happy to say, is one of them. She is, I am even happier to say, in terrific shape. And the welcome applause on her opening night was louder than anything they’ve heard over at the U.N. all year.
The first time I ever saw Carol Channing, I was 16 years old, on a family vacation and sitting at my first ringside table in the show room of the old Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. The drums rolled, the trumpets blared, the pinspot lit her exploding lemon-pudding wig, and my contact lenses fell out of my eyes and onto the floor. I was on my hands and knees, blindly feeling the carpet. My relatives were on their hands and knees, the people at the next table were on their hands and knees, and before I could whisper “Let me die right here, under a table in Vegas, before this embarrassment ends,” Carol Channing was on her hands and knees, calling for a flashlight and milking the applause. My lobster-faced predicament, and the way she shaped my mortification into improvised comic genius, turned into … material! It gives me great pleasure to report that, at the Regency, she hasn’t changed at all.
The marshmallow fluff has been replaced by a sensible and attractive silver bob, the rolling eyes once made up for target practice are softer and friendlier now, and at an age when most showbiz veterans fall asleep after the 6 o’clock news and a snifter of Ovaltine (she’ll be 85 in January), Carol Channing is just getting her second wind.
The evening is unplugged from start to finish. I wish I could tell you what I saw and what it’s all about, but I know when I’m licked. In a fire-engine red double-breasted tuxedo with rhinestone buttons and a sequined vest, she talks about her first audition for the legendary Abe Lastfogel at the William Morris Agency, when she came down from Bennington College and performed a Haitian corn-grinding chant praying for rain. (I couldn’t make this stuff up.) Doing her best Sophie Tucker imitation, she quotes the best advice that old trout gave her about what to wear when she opened in Vegas: “To the boys around the crap table, a low-cut dress is just another place to lose the dice.” Then she rhapsodizes about some of the traffic that has paraded through the dressing rooms of her career: Tallulah, Merman, a flotilla of visiting royalty from every nation, and the Queen Mother, to whom she once tossed a diamond during a command performance, and then wanted 12 more for the children of her chimney sweep.
In a voice that sounds like a cross between Ernest Borgnine and a foghorn on Frisco Bay, she sang her trademark songs: “Little Rock” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Hello, Dolly!”, with the audience singing along. People shouted out favorites, and sometimes she even remembered them. She dazzled with the same old “Cecilia Sisson” routine she performed when I was 16—the specialty routine about a failed star who couldn’t survive talking pictures because she whistled through her teeth like a wind through the Grand Canyon. It brought down the house. O.K., the act isn’t really much more than a long, rambling monologue that takes on the style of a ditzy stream-of-consciousness that is positively Faulknerian. The structure is as disorganized as Fibber McGee’s closet.
The show is called The First 80 Years Are The Hardest, and there are times when it might possibly be best enjoyed if you are in your 80’s, too. Still, a genuinely happy time full of fun, amazement and charm is guaranteed. Is she giving up and giving in? Are you crazy? A new doctorate degree from Cal State now entitles her to be addressed as “Dr. Channing,” she’s an honorary member of an Indian tribe in Oklahoma, she recently married a junior high-school sweetheart she hadn’t seen for 70 years named Harry Kullijian (whom she drags to the stage for a soft-shoe duet), and Michele Lee and Celeste Holm surprised her with new restorations of all of her Tonys, Golden Globes, and lifetime-achievement awards, which were stolen last year in a robbery. She deserves all the attention, accolades and applause she can get. The first 80 years may have been the hardest, but Carol Channing is finally living on Easy Street.