It took three hours a day in the makeup chair, a blonde wig, and eight prosthetics to turn movie star Charlize Theron into former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, Jay Roach’s movie about the toxic work culture of sexual misconduct at Fox News. The pressure was on: Playing a real person is one thing — but embodying one of the most visible players in broadcast? Someone who, at their peak, reached millions of viewers a day? That’s on an entirely different level. But Theron pulls it off. The resemblance really is uncanny, so much so that I spent the first several minutes after the character’s introduction trying to catch a glimpse of the actress underneath the mask.
Physical transformations have long been considered a surefire path to an Oscar — just ask Rami Malek and his Freddie Mercury teeth, Gary Oldman’s Churchill fat suit, or co-star Nicole Kidman’s (who plays Gretchen Carlson in Bombshell) Virginia Woolf nose. Theron herself is no stranger to the theory; in 2004, she won her first and only Oscar for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, a role that required her to gain 30 lbs, shave her eyebrows, and wear prosthetic teeth. It makes sense, then, that her Kelly transformation is earning Theron awards season buzz. She’s been nominated for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award, and is predicted to score an Oscar nod for Best Actress when the nominees are announced on January 13.
Still, Theron’s physical leap towards Kelly is but one aspect of her powerful performance. Even more challenging were the mental gymnastics required to understand — if not endorse — Kelly’s worldview, often at odds with Theron’s own.
Bombshell opens with Kelly at her professional peak: It’s 2015 and she’s a Fox News powerhouse, about to moderate a Republican presidential primary debate. That’s where things get complicated, as Kelly incurs the ire of then-candidate Donald Trump, prompting his famous comment to CNN: "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."
The movie then tracks Kelly’s sudden career downturn as Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) pressures her to make peace with Trump, the network’s favored candidate. She reluctantly does so, but the incident is framed as yet another example of Ailes’ coercive grip on his employees, a pattern of behavior that goes hand in hand with the allegations Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) exposes by the end of the movie.
And yet, this is still the same Kelly who insisted on air that Santa Claus is white. She’s the same Kelly who would then leave Fox for The Today Show on NBC, only to leave a year later after a scandal surrounding her defense of the racist use of Blackface on Halloween.
"This was not a person who was easy for me to wrap my arms around," Theron recently said during a post-screening panel in Los Angeles. "From afar it looks like we have nothing in common — obviously, I'm a liberal and a lot of these women have said things that have been deeply upsetting to me. But at the same time, as a woman, understanding what each of them went through and understanding what Megyn was facing, especially in those two weeks where she didn't step forward and she didn't support Gretchen [Carlson], that's when I emotionally tapped into her because I started to see similarities between us, dare I say that."
So, you have a proven Oscars darling who executive-produced and starred in a movie about a topical, newsy subject, and also underwent a physical makeover to do it? Should be a shoo-in, right?
Any other year I’d say Theron had this one on lock. But the 2020 Best Actress race is still wide open, mainly because another performance based on a real-life American icon: Renee Zellweger’s turn as Judy Garland in Rupert Goold’s Judy.
Judy is a deeply average biopic, but Zellweger’s performance is exceptional. Taking place in the final months of Garland’s life, the movie follows her from Los Angeles, where she’s nearly homeless and scraping by, to a gig at London’s Talk of the Town club. It’s a last-ditch attempt to revive her waning career and save enough money for an upcoming custody battle. But the damage wrought by years of drug and alcohol abuse, not to mention a childhood spent under the scrutiny of abusive Hollywood executives, goes too deep. The power of Zelleweger’s performance is that she makes us root for Garland, cheer for her, even as we know she’s not going to make it. She allows us to dream and believe along with her, hoping for a future that never comes. It’s a delicate balance, and she toes the line with acrobatic grace.
Like Theron, Zellweger spent hours in hair and makeup to get the right look for Garland, donning a brown wig and dark contacts to conceal her naturally fair features. She also wore a prosthetic on the tip of her nose, false teeth (which she had to learn to sing with; take that Rami Malek!), and had her face painted with a spider web of fine lines to reflect the toll of years of hard living. She’s also nominated at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, and a veteran Oscar-winner, having won Best Supporting Actress in 2004 — the same year as Theron’s Monster win — for Cold Mountain.
For Zellweger, this is a comeback role, her first big movie after years of semi-retirement from acting. In a way, it’s a meta-reflection of her performance in Judy, except this time, we can see a happy ending. After all, Garland herself never won an Oscar, though she was honored with the Academy Juvenile Award for her 1939 performance in The Wizard of Oz — this could be her last chance.