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Before the title appears, the film opens with the written prologue: "Based on a true story." The film begins with images of Aileen "Lee" Wuornos as a little girl as Charlize Theron, as Wuornos, describes her dreams of being discovered and becoming a beautiful and rich movie star. The offscreen narration ends as she explains that one day the dreams "just stopped." The title Monster then appears onscreen. Wuornos' offscreen narration is heard intermittently throughout the film. Within the story, Wuornos is called "Lee," never Wuornos or Aileen.
At the end of the film before the police are shown leading Lee away after her trial, a title card appears explaining that Lee and Selby never saw each other again and that Lee spent twelve years on death row. A written list of organizations and people that the producers wished to thank appears at the end of the film. Among them are Wuornos' friend Dawn Botkins and the Seminole County Court. The following written disclaimer appears in the closing credits: "While this film is inspired by real events in the life of Aileen Wuornos, many characters are composites or inventions, and a number of incidents depicted in this film are fictional. Other than Aileen Wuornos, any similarity to any person, living or dead, is not intended and purely coincidental."
The film eliminates the early part of Wuornos' life. According to Wuornos' biography, Wuornos was born Aileen Pittman in Rochester, MI on February 29, 1956. Her teenaged parents separated months before she was born, and her father, Leo Pittman, subsequently committed suicide while serving a prison sentence for child molestation. Her mother Diane, overwhelmed by the responsibilities of single motherhood, abandoned Aileen and her older brother Keith, who were then adopted by their maternal grandparents, Lauri and Britta Wuornos. Pregnant by the age of fourteen, Aileen was sent to a home for unwed mothers to deliver the baby. After their grandmother died in 1971, the children became wards of the court, and Aileen soon dropped out of school, becoming a teenage hooker to support herself as she drifted across the country. In 1976, after a series of arrests for violations such as drunk driving, disorderly contact, assault and disturbing the peace, Aileen hitchhiked to Florida, where she embarked on a life of crime, using the aliases of Lori Grody, Susan Blahovec and Cammie Marsh Green.
In June 1986, Wuornos met lesbian Tyria Moore, who in the film is called "Selby Wall," at a gay bar in Daytona. The two became lovers, and after their passion faded, they remained close friends and traveling companions. As noted in the biography, after a series of arrests for petty crimes, Wuornos was becoming increasingly belligerent, at times going out of her way to provoke confrontations. At bars and truck stops, she would thumb rides, supplementing her prostitute's income with theft. On December 13, 1989, the body of Wuornos' first victim, Richard Mallory, was found, shot three times in the chest with a .22 pistol. From that date to November 19, 1990, the bodies of five more men were found, all victims of gunshot wounds. Several of the bodies were found naked.
Although Wuornos was suspected of killing a seventh victim, his body was never found. Witnesses had seen two women in one of the victim's cars, and suspect sketches were drawn from their descriptions. Over the next few weeks, four callers identified the woman as Tyria Moore and Susan or Lee Blahovec. Their movements were traced through hotel receipts. Fingerprints, eventually identified as Wuornos', placed her at one of the murder scenes. Wuornos had been pawning her victims' possessions, and the police used the pawn receipts to track her to The Last Resort, a biker bar in Port Orange, FL, where she was arrested on outstanding warrants while police finished building the murder case against her. A day after Wuornos' arrest, Moore was found at her sister's home in Pennsylvania, where she agreed to help the police in return for immunity from prosecution.
In a series of telephone calls to the then-imprisoned Wuornos, who was unaware that the police were taping them, Moore begged Wuornos to confess to spare Moore from prosecution as an accomplice. On January 16, 1991, Wuornos summoned detectives and confessed to six killings, all allegedly performed in self-defense. Wuornos' trial for the murder of Richard Mallory began on January 13, 1992. Wuornos took the stand as the only defense witness, claiming Mallory had violently raped and beaten her. After ninety minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict and recommended the death sentence. Months later, an NBC television reporter discovered that Mallory had served ten years for violent rape in another state.
On January 31, 1992, Wuornos was sentenced to death. On March 31, 1992, Wuornos pleaded no contest to three other murders, ending her testimony by turning to the prosecuting attorney and saying, "I hope your wife and children get raped..." The judge in the case gave her three additional death sentences. In November 1992, she received her fifth death sentence and in February 1993, after pleading guilty to yet another murder, received her sixth death sentence. After spending twelve years on death row, Wuornos refused to continue appealing the sentences, and on October 9, 2002, was executed by lethal injection. From the execution chamber Wuornos purportedly stated, "...I'm sailing with the Rock and I'll be back like Independence Day with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mothership and all. I'll be back."
Although not depicted in the film, Wuornos was befriended by Arlene Pralle, a forty-four-year-old "born again" Christian, who saw Wuornos' picture in the newspaper and contacted her. Throughout 1991, Pralle appeared on talk shows and in tabloids to defend Wuornos. On November 22, 1991, Pralle and her husband legally adopted Wuornos, saying that "God had told her to."
According to a November 2003 Variety article, Patty Jenkins, who wrote and directed Monster, obtained the rights to letters Wuornos wrote to her close friend and confidant Botkins during the twelve years she spent on death row. A March 2003 Los Angeles Times news item added that Jenkins also corresponded with Wuornos. The Variety article noted that Jenkins resisted pressure to turn the project into a "slasher film," and instead wanted to humanize Wuornos by "focusing on the surrounding circumstances rather than the killings." In a December 2003 New York Times article, Jenkins said that she made the film to "tell the truth" [by finding] the space between the man-hating lesbian serial killer [trumpeted by the press stories] and the feminist hero." In a December interview in LA Weekly, Jenkins explained that she created the fictionalized character of Wuornos' friend, "Thomas" (portrayed by Bruce Dern in the film), to convey that Wuornos was more of a misanthrope than a man-hater.
Although evidence recounted in biographical sources strongly suggests that Wuornos' first victim raped and beat her, as dramatized in the film, the rest of Jenkins' account of the murders was fictionalized. In the LA Weekly interview, Jenkins stated that she imagined the murders as having their own narrative arc, saying, "I wanted the first and last murder to be like bookends. In the first murder, he's a murderer and she's the victim. By the last murder, she's a murderer and he's the victim."
A September 2003 "Variety Life Supplement" in Variety noted that Jenkins had to persuade the film's financiers to hire Charlize Theron over Kate Winslet and Heather Graham. Theron, who cut her hair, gained thirty pounds and wore a prosthetic overbite to play Wuornos, put her salary into the finishing costs of the film. Although a September 2002 Back Stage West Drama-Logue item stated that Lion's Gate had greenlighted the project, which was to begin shooting in Los Angeles in October 2002, Lion's Gate was not involved in the production. The film was shot in Daytona Beach, Port Orange, Winter Park, Kissimmee and Orlando, FL, the actual locations in which Wuornos committed her crimes. Monster marked the first feature-length film for Jenkins and Theron's first credit as a producer.
Several other works have been based on the life of Wuornos. Two documentaries directed by Nick Broomfield focused on Wournos' life: the 1992 film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, in which Broomfield interviewed Pralle and Wuornos, and the 2004 film Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, co-directed by Joan Churchill, in which Broomfield interviewed Wuornos and Botkins. A teledrama, Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story, starring Jean Smart and directed by Peter Levin, was broadcast on November 17, 1992 on CBS. According to a November 16 1992 Variety news item, Moore and writer Jackelyn Giroux filed a motion to stop the broadcast on the grounds that the producers never obtained permission from the principals depicted in the film. An opera entitled Wuornos, written by Carla Lucero, opened in San Francisco on June 22, 2001. In 2002, Sue Russell published the book Lethal Intent, dealing with Wuornos' life.
Monster was selected as one of AFI's top ten films of the year and Theron won the 2003 Award for Best Breakthrough Actress presented by the National Board of Review. Theron also won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture-Drama, the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, an Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead and an Academy Award for Best Actress. Jenkins won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, and the film also received a nomination for Best First Screenplay from the Independent Spirit Awards.