One of my fondest memories of Pauline Kael was a weekend at her home in Great Barrington, Mass., just a few months before she died. Newsday critic Gene Seymour and I spent two nights catching her up on a fantastic new actress, Angelina Jolie, whom she had seen once in a Mike Newell comedy, "Pushing Tin" (1999), and been delighted with. Pauline didn't care much for "Girl, Interrupted," the film for which Jolie won the best supporting actress Oscar (neither did Seymour, who earned a hearty laugh by dubbing it "Snakepit 90210"), but she howled gleefully every time Jolie reduced one of the other actresses in the film to mere window dressing.
"Those poor actresses," she said. "She's absolutely fearless in front of a camera. This girl would scare the crap out of Jack Nicholson in 'Cuckoo's Nest.'" Kael's favorite performance was Jolie as the doomed bisexual supermodel Gia in the HBO film. "My God," she exclaimed, "this girl could play both the Brando and Maria Schneider roles in 'Last Tango'! Where in the world did she come from?"
From where indeed? One of her earlier directors called her "an extraordinary-looking creature, like some weird, undiscovered orchid." Never having attended college, Jolie is unencumbered by the jargon-riddled baggage that passes for modern education. The instinctual power of her work is refreshingly devoid of the anesthetizing layers that plague so much American acting. Her responses to everything are visceral and direct, a quality that has earned her a fandom that cuts across class, sex and even political lines. While other celebrities exhaust themselves trying to stay hip, Jolie, who offers no indication in her interviews that she has any knowledge or interest in popular culture, defines hip. Apparently oblivious to the mockery of a large portion of the mainstream press (such as the New York Times, which headlined a story "Can Angelina Jolie Save the World?") and even the cheap collegiate cynicism of "Saturday Night Live," Jolie, like the existential man whom French intellectuals used to worship, chooses her own loyalties and responsibilities without deference to conservative or liberal pieties.
She is often referred to in magazines as Hollywood royalty, but Angelina the actress isn't really her father's girl or anyone else's. Like Athena, she seems to have sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus -- except that her estranged father, Jon Voight, isn't her Zeus; she inherited his talent but not his instincts. (Combine Voight with Jolie's beautiful mother, the French Canadian Iroquois actress Marcheline Bertrand, and her uncle, Chip Taylor, the rock singer who wrote "Wild Thing," and you might have something). Jolie is both her own Zeus and Athena, constantly re-creating herself. She may be the first great movie star ever to have no antecedents. Film critic Parker Tyler thought the pantheon of movie gods and goddesses in every era to be new versions of their predecessors; Marilyn Monroe was a reincarnation of Jean Harlow, Liz Taylor of Theda Bara, etc. But Jolie doesn't evoke previous movie goddesses; there is a touch of her godmother, Jacqueline Bisset, who, like Angelina, was considered the most beautiful actress of her time but who was a dull screen presence compared to Jolie.
There is, perhaps, a hint of the spirit of another Hollywood brat, the young Jane Fonda, in her, though it's difficult to picture Jolie ever settling into such a doctrinaire sociopolitical stance as Fonda's in the late '60s. Jolie is so independent she doesn't even qualify as a feminist, unless the definition can be extended to a woman who loved so fiercely that she carried a vial of her husband's blood around her neck. As for politics, Jolie's activism hasn't lent itself to easy answers and finger pointing but to front-line involvement ("My first job today," she wrote in her journal about her U.N. missions, "Notes From My Travels," "was measuring the medicine powder at the therapeutic feeding center. Under the age of five -- extra nutrition. Pregnant -- measured. I wanted to be careful not to measure a spoonful too short.")
Jolie's real influences don't appear to be other actresses, past or current, but, as Kael hinted, the great male screen rebels like Brando and Nicholson. Her performances in "Girl, Interrupted" and especially in "Gia" might be the most powerful American acting of the last 20 or so years. It's impossible to imagine any other American actress in those roles; at her best, Jolie makes nearly every other actress of her generation look timid. (One felt afraid briefly for Gwyneth Paltrow -- by no means a lightweight herself -- when Jolie's leather-clad, eye-patched fighter pilot in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" zeroed in on her. "What," she asks Jude Law, her voice dripping with contempt, "is that?")
Angelina Jolie is the most popular movie star in the world in every conceivable way but one: She isn't popular. At least not in terms of selling movie tickets. Tabloids, sure. Magazines, from Marie Claire to Vanity Fair to Reader's Digest, yes. She's the empress of Web sites (the best one I've found is Souliejolie.com, but you may have trouble getting on it, as I often have, because of the heavy traffic). But she's not popular in movies. Jolie created the first truly kick-ass female action hero in films, Lara Croft -- Croft's closest living relative would be Diana Rigg's Emma Peel on the old "Avengers" television series -- yet she isn't a substantial box office draw. The overstuffed "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," thanks in large part to all the silly postproduction gossip, may change her box office status, if temporarily, but to what avail if she has to appear in the same kind of movies to sustain it? (It does have one unforgettable sequence with Jolie, dressed in a black plastic dominatrix outfit, breaking a man's neck, then slipping on a raincoat, walking off a 40-story building and sliding down a cable to the sidewalk and into a cab. Director Doug Liman is a hack, but we thank him at least for that scene.)
On the whole, what David Thomson wrote in Salon regarding her performance in the 2001 Nicolas Cage vehicle "Gone in Sixty Seconds" remains true in 2005: "Angelina Jolie is ... the kind of treasure that no one has the least idea how to handle." Most of her recent screen appearances have amounted to co-starring roles in big productions where she enters from a side door and then takes over the film -- in "Shark Tale" as a pillow-lipped fish, the kind of femme fatale part she has never played on-screen; as the snake-wearing mother of Colin Farrell in "Alexander," in which the tedious Accent Police got on her for delivering her lines in a Slavic intonation that was actually the high energy mark of the film; and in "Sky Captain," where she's hustled in and out of the story by filmmakers so astonishingly obtuse as to not realize that it's Angelina we're interested in and not some insipid romance between Jude Law and Gywneth Paltrow. Match Angelina with either one of them or get all three involved, and you've got a movie.
Some critics are quick to suggest that Jolie's dark and intense sexuality is part of the reason for her lack of box office success. There might be something to that. Jolie is less classically feminine than any A-list actress. Ultra-female she is, but not feminine. (Her one attempt at playing a standard woman's role, the blond newscaster in "Life or Something Like It," doesn't get off the ground until a scene where she goes punk and leads a group of striking bus workers in singing "Satisfaction.") I don't think her inability to play conventional women's roles limits her appeal to straight men -- who, judging from the number of magazines calling her "the sexiest woman alive," are intrigued by her. If the number of female celebrities (Kate Beckinsale, most recently) who have gushed over her is any indication, she touches a chord in a lot of women. What Jolie's razor-edged sexuality does do, however, is limit the kind of roles that she can be cast in.
Film critics have always been fond of saying about a talented new actress that "you want to cast her in everything," but what's remarkable about Jolie is how many roles you don't want to see her in. She can play Lara Croft she might be the only actress who can play Lara Croft -- but she's unthinkable as a Charlie's Angel (which she turned down) or in almost any part played in recent years by Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry or Meg Ryan. She's too strong, too much of a presence -- as her director in "Girl, Interrupted," James Mangold, put it, "She plays every role like it's her movie." You can't picture her in a James Bond movie because she'd take the movie away from whoever was playing Bond. (She might, however, as she herself suggested, be perfect as a Bond villain.) In fact, in virtually none of her films has she ever played a character defined by male concepts of traditional female sexuality. You wouldn't want to see her as a hooker with a heart of gold, a frustrated suburban housewife or the loyal wife who roots her husband on to victory -- in other words, about half the roles available to top Hollywood actresses.
One of the best examples of the jujitsu Jolie can do on our attitudes toward movie sexuality was her performance in the elegant thriller "Original Sin," released in 2001. Instantly dismissed by critics -- the fate of almost any film done in an odd style by an unknown director -- "Original Sin" deserves a second look, particularly for the performances of Jolie and the sweetly reticent Antonio Banderas. Directed by Michael Cristofer, the playwright ("Shadow Box") who had previously directed Jolie in "Gia," "Original Sin" is a wonderful piece of stylish trash ("I loved it," Kael wrote on the envelope when she returned the copy I loaned her) made from the noir mystery "Waltz Into Darkness," by the cult favorite Cornell Woolrich (best known as the author of the story that became Hitchcock's "Rear Window"). "Waltz Into Darkness" had been filmed before, most notably by François Truffaut in 1969 under the title "Mississippi Mermaid," starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve. Woolrich's novel, set in late 19th century New Orleans, is about a widower who takes a chance on a mail-order bride who turns out to be an enigmatic adventuress -- like all men in these kinds of stories, he is pulled into a web of deceit and murder.
Cristofer relocates the story to late 19th century Havana (actually shot in Mexico), probably to take advantage of the location and also to accommodate Banderas' accent. Retooling the script around his female star, Cristofer retains its lurid pulp quality but turns the femme fatale theme on its head by letting Jolie's character dominate the plot midway through the film. She stops being the victim or fantasy figure associated with the genre and becomes the protagonist. Jolie is terrific playing a character for which there is almost no movie precedent (the great Deneuve, in Truffaut's version, played the role as the classic shallow man-trap). She is a woman who has suffered through every form of degradation, committed the grossest of crimes, and still believes in the possibilities of dignity and love. (In one remarkable scene, facing gang rape from vengeful gamblers whom she has cheated, she glares at her attackers as if to deny them, at least, the pleasure of seeing her suffer.)
"Original Sin" is often scary stuff, particularly in scenes that look as if they were intended to reflect the dark corners of Jolie's psyche. For instance, a scene in which she bonds with a lover performing a ritual with knives, a practice Jolie had often discussed in interviews. And in a sly joke, concealed from all but those who happen to catch it in the credits, the character of Satan in a stage production who is also her lover is played by her brother, James Haven. It's as if Jolie was giving the finger to a press that foamed at the mouth when she told the world how much she loved her brother after winning the Oscar.
If "Original Sin" had been a thriller in the traditional mode, it might have been a success, but critics and audiences alike were jolted by its weirder aspects and by the ways in which it subverted the noir themes -- in other words, for probably the precise reasons that Jolie was drawn to the material in the first place.
It isn't so much that most of her other movies have been bad as the way in which they are bad. The writing in American movies has never been more abysmal, the characters not really written but sketched into what is always an action or sex comedy framework. (Nearly all Hollywood films are action movies or sex comedies; "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" tries to up the ante by splicing the genres.) Real actors must essentially do the work that screenwriters used to do and create their own characters from whole cloth. (Mike Newell, who directed one of her best roles in "Pushing Tin," conceded, "There really wasn't much there on the page for her character. She filled in the blanks.") Jolie has done this in a long series of films that are notable mostly for her performances, movies that you might not see at all if you didn't stumble on them while perusing the vast left field of cable TV. The combination of the young Jolie and Joyce Carol Oates' unsparing novel about a high school girl gang should have produced a film that made her the James Dean of the '90s. If the rest of "Foxfire" (1996) has been as tough as her portrayal of "Legs" Sadovsky it would have, but the script's touchy-feely mode was at odds with Oates' and Jolie's edges. Her best role and her best performance before "Gia" was in "George Wallace," John Frankenheimer's fine, too-little-seen television biography of the Alabama governor, in which Jolie played a status-hungry Southern girl forced into maturity when her husband is paralyzed by an assassin's bullet.
It's intriguing to think what directions Jolie's career might have gone in had she hooked up with a strong director like Frankenheimer at an earlier age. Meanwhile, we're left to wonder why Hollywood's best directors don't get off their asses and build projects around the movies' most exciting actress. Can't Martin Scorsese see that Jolie's energy is precisely the cure for the slack in his recent work? (Jolie would have ignited the role of Jenny, the pickpocket, in "Gangs of New York," but she would have looked as if she could have eaten Leonardo DiCaprio alive. Imagine if she had been paired off with Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher!) What's wrong with Quentin Tarantino? Can't he see that his work is now feeding off of itself and that what he needs to recharge is a dynamo like Jolie?
This woman has much to tell us about our fantasies, fears and aspirations. But she can't do it through the medium of supermarket tabloids. Are America's best male filmmakers afraid, perhaps, that Angelina Jolie unleashed would threaten their status as auteurs? Because she would, you know.