Is there a movie star that the public is more wary of than Angelina Jolie? Tom Cruise has become the punchline to an overextended joke. But bring up Jolie in conversation and you’re apt to hear something like fear.
Beneath the complaints about how weird she is, or the desperate claims she’s not that beautiful or talented, or the disapproval over her breaking up Brad Pitt’s marriage to Jennifer Aniston, snakes a thin coppery current of unease. It’s always been something with Jolie. At first, it was her goth look and her tattoos and her public affection toward her brother.
Then, it was her marriage to Billy Bob Thornton and the vials of each other’s blood they wore around their necks. (If “Wuthering Heights” were published today, there’d be people worrying that Heathcliff and Cathy don’t seem to be making healthy choices.) Motherhood is a role fetishized across the board, from Tea Partiers to NPR junkies. When Jolie took it on, it was taken as more proof of her essential weirdness. People look at Jolie and think, You can’t trust her.
I’m not the first critic to note that director Phillip Noyce puts the public’s distrust of Jolie to use in his ace spy thriller “Salt.” For most of the picture, we don’t know whether Jolie’s Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent or a Soviet mole. The question of Salt’s allegiance is finally answered, but Noyce’s masterstroke is that he makes the answer irrelevant to the pleasure of watching the splendor of Jolie in her full leonine regality.
“Salt” would be an engrossing, fleet, well-crafted entertainment in any season. In the midst of the elephantine waste of most summer blockbusters, it’s a reminder that there can be more to action moviemaking than thudding incompetence. But it’s most interesting as a meditation on the singularity of Angelina Jolie, who may be the most commanding star presence in the movies right now.
If we discuss her in terms of presence, it’s because, with occasional exceptions like the unsatisfying “A Mighty Heart,” Angelina Jolie seems not so much interested in acting on screen as being. You could argue that too many lousy pictures like “Wanted” or “Gone in 60 Seconds” or ” Beowulf” have diminished her reputation — until you remember that even in the days of “Gia,” “Playing By Heart,” “George Wallace” and “Girl, Interrupted” it was easier to get people to discuss her as a tabloid freak than to take her seriously as an actress. That’s nothing new. It’s always harder to convince people that a beautiful woman can act.
As much as we might wish to see Jolie get to do something more than action movies, even one as good as “Salt,” you have to wonder if perhaps she’s become too powerful a presence to be cast in everyday roles. Once we could accept movie goddesses as part of the power and beauty of cinema. You didn’t expect to encounter a creature like Ava Gardner or Elizabeth Taylor in real life, but they seemed right at home on-screen, a world scaled to the enormity of their presence. It’s harder for us to accept the existence of such creatures in a time when empty irony rules and the governing ethos is the cultural fragmentation and segregation of the digital age.
The moment that may have revealed her stature as a movie goddess better than any other might well be the Jennifer-Brad-Angelina triangle. In the onslaught of gossip, very few people were willing to talk openly about how the Pitt-Jolie match made sense. It was easy to cast Jennifer Aniston as our version of poor Debbie Reynolds. Really, she was our version of Eddie Fisher. (It also made perfect sense that a match that busted up a marriage came to be during the making of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” a dark romantic comedy in which the very institution of marriage is an incitement to murder.)
When you listen to the women who don’t like Angelina Jolie, it’s impossible not to hear something in their voices that tells you they consider her a threat to all those nice, sensitive girls. But we’d already seen evidence of that on screen. No action heroine of Jolie’s will ever commit a killing as lethal and thorough as the one Jolie administered to Winona Ryder in “Girl, Interrupted.” Cast in a supporting role in Ryder’s pet project — “The Bell Jar” as princess fantasy — Jolie, as the bad girl, without breaking a sweat, stomped all over the picture’s moon-eyed, poetic suffering leading lady. It was akin to hearing the Sex Pistols in 1977 and believing, for a moment, that you’d never have to listen to the Eagles again.
But it’s wrong to assume that women are the only ones frightened by Jolie. How can Angelina Jolie not seem like a threat in an age that makes a movie star out of Amy Adams, the perfect movie-star crush for men who never got over being smitten with their first-grade teacher? I don’t know if it’s possible to watch Jolie and not feel as if she’s scrutinizing everything in front of her, including the audience. She may be the most appraising actress ever to look into a camera. Each line reading, each gaze sizes up whoever is in front of her and God help anyone who doesn’t measure up.
That kind of power comes at a price. There are very few performances able to stand up to such an on-screen partner. It’s no accident that, for most of “Salt,” Jolie is by herself. She’s thrilling to watch in motion, leaping from the roof of one moving truck to another, zooming through stalled traffic on a motorbike, kicking and punching and whirling. But for much of the movie, we’re simply watching her alone, putting together some spy gadget or information in her head.