This article isn't specifically about the two actresses -- in art, there isn't a lot of versus, or at least I don't think there should be. This article is more about me and my reaction to actresses. In particular, I generally have greater regard for actresses before, say, the seventies than I do modern actresses in a way that I don't feel about modern actors. I don't hesitate to say that Russell Crowe is the equal, as an actor, as, say, Humphrey Bogart. I do, however, hesitate to say Charlize Theron is the equal to Joan Crawford. I realized the reason why, or at least part of the reason, while watching Crawford's The Damned Don't Cry -- the difference is Aeon Flux.
In particular, Joan Crawford never made Aeon Flux, whereas it one of the defining roles of Charlize Theron's career. There's a big generality here, too, and that's the important difference -- Joan Crawford never has the opportunity to be in Aeon Flux.
Looking at Theron's acting abilities, I don't think it's far to say she's an inferior actress to Crawford. And, certainly, not every movie Crawford did was a masterpiece . . . but in every movie Crawford was in, the quality of her acting mattered. Whereas, Charlize Theron and other actresses like her in this regard (notably Angelina Jolie) are in dismal action movies -- movies that no amount of acting skill can meaningfully improve. Theron's skill as an actress was simply irrelevant to the quality of Aeon Flux, much in the same way it's difficult to imagine Ed Norton being able to improve, say, Schwartzenegger's Last Action Hero.
Nowadays, marque actresses are capable of sabotaging their acting careers with awful movies -- but there is another difference, here, that we must acknowledge. Male actors can become stars through action movies. Female actors become stars because of their acting and then make terrible action movies. So what happens is . . . we see Girl, Interrupted and go, "Wow, Jolie can act" and then Jolie makes Tomb Raider and we wince. Whereas, with actors, we often see Mad Max and then, when watching The Year of Living Dangerously, we go, "Oh, maybe Mel Gibson can act."
But, for actor who has built their career on nuanced performances (a category that includes almost all actresses), an action movie is a sucker's bet. Most action movies make their stars look at least slightly and quite often very ridiculous and there's nothing that an actor's ability can do about it. Not only can you see it in Theron or Jolie's career, you can see it with Nick Cage's career. I admire the man's dedication to geekery and if you go back to the early days of his career (you know, everything before Leaving Las Vegas), he's a fine actor. He still is a fine actor -- he plays every ridiculous comic book action role he's been in with the same straight intensity that he brings to his more "serious" projects. It's just that with most of them, it doesn't matter. No amount of acting skill could save Ghost Rider. No amount of acting skill could save National Treasure. They're inherently absurd roles and they make him look inherently absurd. He's been in so many silly movies at this point, it's hard to remember Adaption or Leaving Las Vegas.
This is worse for women, because of sexism. To which I've fallen prey again. It's good that actresses are able to get the same sort of lousy action movies that have built men's careers for decades. But when comparing past actresses to current ones, I've allowed those bad movies to influence me past the point of reason because of the sexism inherent in living in a world dominated by men.