That grizzly botched execution in Oklahoma has reminded me of all the movies in which central characters are put to death by the state. Usually the actors involved win Oscar nominations for their troubles. Susan Hayward, who was marched to the gas chamber in 1958’s I Want to Live, took home a Best Actress statuette for her emotional performance. Michael Clarke Duncan, playing a gentle giant who goes willingly to the electric chair in 1999’s The Green Mile, was nominated as Best Supporting Actor. Four years earlier, Sean Penn’s rapist-character died by lethal injection in Dead Man Walking, after cleansing his soul by confessing his crimes. Penn was Oscar nominated, though it was Susan Sarandon who won the big prize for this artfully crafted drama. Playing a real-life death-penalty opponent, Sister Helen Prejean, she put forth arguments against state-sanctioned killing that still linger in my brain.
Then there was Aileen Wuornos. Charlize Theron nabbed the 2003 Oscar for transforming herself from a glamour-girl to a scruffy, raw-boned hooker who killed seven men before dying in Florida’s death chamber. The film version, called Monster, does not shy away from the brutality of Wuornos’s crimes. But it also creates sympathy for this self-appointed “first female serial killer” by playing up her victimization, both by the men who were her “johns” and by the female lover she was trying to impress.
My source for the real story of Aileen Wuornos is Lethal Intent, a recently re-released true-crime account by journalist Sue Russell. Russell, who has been investigating Wuornos’ life since her arrest in 1991, does not overlook the harsh events that shaped Wuornos’s world from childhood onward. But she is also well aware that Aileen was a pathological liar who would say anything to get attention. Early on, she bragged to a friend that “there’ll be a book written about me one day,” and she once tried to commission a ghost-written autobiography. Her real goal (emphasized in the movie’s opening voiceover) was to turn herself into a celebrity, maybe even a movie star. In prison, following her sensational arrest, she demanded recognition from her fellow inmates: “Do you know who I am? I’m Aileen Wuornos of television.”
There’s nothing wrong with dreams of glory, but Aileen seemed determined to turn herself into an avenging heroine. According to Monster, which takes Aileen’s court testimony at face value, she first killed in response to a brutal rape. The evidence, though, strongly suggests that her motive was robbery: she took possession of her victim’s cash and car, then concocted a dandy story to cover her misdeeds.
In one other key respect, the movie twists facts to ratchet up sympathy for its protagonist. In real life, Aileen’s lover was a cheerful, pragmatic lesbian named Tyria (or Ty). It was she who was to become the #1 witness for the prosecution, possibly in a frank bid to save her own skin. Monster transforms Ty from a hefty, feisty dame into the waiflike Shelby. As played by the petite and saucer-eyed Christina Ricci, Shelby is something of a sponge, petulantly demanding that Aileen provide her with good times and a house by the beach. In this version, Aileen kills repeatedly because she loves not wisely but too well.
For me, the most truthful moment in Monster is Aileen’s slaying of a Good Samaritan who thinks he’s stopped his car to help a lady in distress. Ironically, he’s played by Scott Wilson, one of the killers from 1967’s In Cold Blood. Yes, he was hanged at the end of that film. No Oscar nom, though. Sometimes you just can’t win.
Here’s Sue Russell’s frank response to Monster, first published in the Washington Post and now featured on her website, http://www.suerussellwrites.com