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The buzz about the new movie Monster is all about actress Charlize Theron, who plays Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos. It's a remarkable performance by the statuesque South African beauty. Tall, leggy, and -- in Tailpipe's opinion -- one of the tastiest dishes in the movies, Theron has somehow turned herself into a bulky, wild-eyed gunsel in trucker's clothes. In the movie, Theron, who put on a doughy 30 pounds for the role, becomes a virtual dead ringer for the woman she plays.
Macho behavior aside, though, the movie's obvious plea for sympathy for a serial killer is getting vigorous thumbs down from some who had the misfortune of rubbing up against Wuornos. "They're not going to let the facts get in the way of a good movie," quips Ric Ridgeway, the lead prosecutor in Wuornos' first trial in Daytona. Ridgeway vividly remembers the day in 1992 when Wuornos turned to him in open court and hissed, "I hope your wife and children get raped in the ass."
Assistant State Attorney Anthony Tatti, one of Ridgeway's co-counsels in the case, says that the movie doesn't rank very high on the entertainment scale but that Theron nails the part. "It's not just the makeup but her mannerisms," he says. Watching it is almost like sitting through Wuornos' trial again, he adds.
Those "mannerisms" included a reckless willingness to mix it up with men and a temper that seemed always to be simmering in the background, like oil in a hot skillet. Then there was her penchant for murder, of course. Wuornos was supposedly the first American female serial killer. She dispatched her victims violently, killing them one by one with a gun rather than poisoning family members or smothering babies in their cribs, as less liberated women used to do. After confessing to killing seven men -- mostly would-be johns whom she had picked up while hitchhiking on Florida interstates -- she was executed by lethal injection in October 2002. She spent most of the last ten years of her life on women's death row at the Broward Correctional Institution.
Theron squeezes the part for all it's worth, showing Wuornos terrifying job interviewers, pummeling strangers, and gunning down her victims with lunatic fury. She confronts the world with a wild, repugnant, grimacing expression, as if she were smelling something disgusting. She also shows a tender streak in her treatment of an innocent-seeming lesbian lover (played by Christina Ricci).
Tailpipe himself came out of a screening of Monster last week with a welter of feelings. Aside from the spot-on movie portrayal, who was this scourge of hot-to-trot men? Was her execution, as the movie suggests, a miscarriage of justice? Even for a softy like Tailpipe, that's a little hard to swallow. It wasn't.
Film director Patty Jenkins says Wuornos was far from the "monster" of the movie's title. "Aileen was the total opposite of most serial killers," Jenkins says. "She never had that cold, vacant detachment, like Ted Bundy had. She had too much emotion going on." In the movie, Jenkins deftly sketches the dreary childhood of abuse and isolation that, she says, inevitably pointed Wuornos in the direction of sexual exploitation. Truckstop whores don't get treated very delicately. "Once you're on that road," Jenkins says, "there's no escape."
So, as somebody put it in another movie, West Side Story, Wuornos was depraved on account of she was deprived. Cold comfort to her victims (and their families), even the slime balls among them.
Ridgeway, now chief assistant for the Fifth Circuit State Attorney's Office in Ocala, says he has heard the old "mental disability" excuse before. "I guarantee you that every individual against whom a death warrant has been signed says he suffers from some mental illness," he says.
Even Wuornos' defenders were intimidated by her monumental rages. Her first lawyer, Tricia Jenkins (no relation to Patty), experienced the wall-shaking anger from close range. "Even the movie doesn't capture how intense it could be," the lawyer says. "There were so many breaks in the trial because of it. They'd put her in a holding cell, and it would be my responsibility to calm her down. She'd go off in a second, and then she'd be very childlike, affectionate, asking forgiveness. It's something I have a lot of difficulty describing."
Was Tricia Jenkins herself ever attacked by her client?
Jenkins hesitates. "That's privileged information," she says. (Tricia Jenkins' criticism of the movie is Ricci's portrayal of Wuornos' girlfriend as gentle, innocent, and petite. The real personage, Tyria Moore, was "very aggressive and large," Jenkins says. "She was the one who'd get violent in bars and start fights." Moore, whom Jenkins says she has heard is a forklift operator in Virginia, couldn't be reached for comment.)
Despite the prosecutors' criticisms, Monster is no gauzy, cleaned-up view of a stone-cold killer. The most disturbing parts of the movie show Wuornos gunning down men whose only offense was wanting a quick, sordid highway-side thrill. Patty Jenkins doesn't make the hard-line feminist mistake of portraying all of Wuornos' johns as slobbery creeps who, because of their carnal desires, deserve felon status. Several, in fact, take a sincere interest in Wuornos, one even offering to take her in.
Wuornos murdered because she could no longer tell the difference between abusers and needy customers willing to pay money for a few moments of physical contact, Tricia Jenkins says: "There was lots of abuse from men picking her up. Her fuse became very short."
After she was convicted in January 1992 of the murder of her first victim, Richard Mallory (Wuornos lashed out at jury members, calling them "scumbags of America"), she pleaded no contest to three other murders and guilty to two more (the seventh victim's body was never found). She then gave up her right to appeal, turning away lawyers who sought to help her.
Tailpipe has heard too many stories of innocent people being executed to support capital punishment. But Wuornos seems to be the exceptional case -- the killer whose crime had been indisputably proved and who, conveniently, really wants to die. "If ever the death penalty was appropriate," Ridgeway insists, "it was appropriate for her."
Fort Lauderdale attorney Raaj Singhal became Wuornos' court-appointed lawyer near the end of her life, when he represented her in a formal complaint about alleged abuses by the corrections officers on death row. "She had a wide range of complaints," Singhal says, "including charges that the guards were verbally abusing her, urinating in her food, sending sonic radio waves at her." At times, Wuornos would talk about how happy she was that she was being executed, he says: "She was almost giddy about it." She even told family members that she would return a few months afterward. (For the record, Wuornos did not "return" on June 9, 2003, as she had promised.) Singhal became convinced that she was mentally ill and, therefore, not "competent to be executed." The state shouldn't accept mentally deranged "volunteers" for the death chamber, Singhal argued.
A through-the-looking-glass argument, if ever this gas-spouting cylinder heard one. Who else but crazy people would "volunteer"? The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it's cruel and unusual punishment to execute the mentally ill. It was a ruling that itself has turned out to be cruel. Psychotic inmates in other states are now being brought back to sanity with drugs so that they can be led, clear-eyed, into the death chamber. This was the case in Arkansas two weeks ago, when 44-year-old Charles Singleton was put to death after psychotropic drugs brought him close enough to sanity to legally execute him. What could be crueler than that?
There's an old joke about a man who's about to be executed by a firing squad, until a doctor steps in, saying, "You can't kill this man. He has a raging fever." Would nursing him back to health first -- or curing Wuornos -- have been more humane?
Despite a short, court-ordered examination by a panel of psychologists, Singhal's efforts to have Wuornos reevaluated failed, and on October 9, 2002, she was led where she desperately wanted to go: to the death chamber. Rest in peace.
As for Charlize Theron -- take it from Tailpipe, she's got the Oscar. From Quasimodo to Rain Man, it's the mental defectives who win every time. You can take that to the bank.