Friday, June 24, 2005

GQ March 04 - Angelia Jolie

Dark Angelina: Only a few years ago, Angelina Jolie was on the fast track to the tabloidville. So what happened to transform the wild child into a 12 million per film leading lady who moonlights as a United Nations Ambassador at large?

Can we start with Billy Bob? Well, where else? Fact is, she can pinpoint the moment everything changed. She will tell you that she knew in the moment, as it was happening –not just later, looking back– that she was changing, and that this meant everything around her would change, too. This feels different, she thought. This is a change… very cinematic. But then, Angelina Jolie’s life has always been cinematic, transparent; she’s always been an X-ray of a person –to others, to herself.

She and Billy Bob were still doing their marriage as Carnaval then, still living day in and day out with their hands clutching the third rail of… something. Still crowing to everyone who’d listen (which was everyone) about how "dark" they were, how she felt she was "going to die every few minutes when we’re having sex", how they’d "just fucked" in the limo. Still smearing their blood all over everything, signing notarized documents in it, writing love oaths in it on the headboard of their bed, carrying it around in silver his and her lockets. She seemed gleefully self mutilating and willfully incoherent, even aphasic –not at all unlike the feral, operatically doomed girl children she played in Gia and Girl, Interrupted. She had a way of immersing her almost unbearable beauty in arrant unbeautifulness. You’d see her in the tabloids looking as if she’d just put herself through an industrial dishwasher –chafed, fetal and pink, in need of a shell– and think, "You mustn’t let her kind into the light! If the light touches her skin, she’ll die!" All of it –the blood, the boastful pansexuality, the endless tattoos, the pet rat in the bedroom, the grave plots she bought for their anniversary, the "suffering"– seemed a bit… pubescent, a masque of interestingness.

Was it a cry for help, as Barbara Walters would say?

Would it pass?

Would this goth kook live to see her thirtieth birthday?

The moment, then: She’d just returned from Cambodia, having finished filming there for the first Tomb Raider movie, to the Beverly Hills spread she shared with Billy Bob. It was late at night. Billy Bob was downstairs in his recording studio working on his "album", which the world would soon greet with a thunderclap of mockery. Angelina was upstairs in their bedroom thinking about the country she’d just left and feeling… shame.

As she explains it:

"Americans, we… I thought I knew what suffering was. I had no idea what suffering was. I had never seen real poverty. And I had never met people like that. People who had been through war, genocide, occupation. People whose children had had their legs blown off thirty years after the war had ended by land mines that had been waiting for them in the soil –but who still had humor and grace. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t read about these… things in my history books in school. I was angry and ashamed at what I didn’t know. It’s not that I suddenly wanted to ‘help’. More that I had a sudden need to find out what else I didn’t know."

"So as soon as I came back, I got a bunch of books. That night, I just sat in the bedroom surrounded by books and atlases and UN reports and maps, learning about Cambodia and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and Laos and Vietnam. While I was doing this, Billy was downstairs recording his album. Something about that registered. I actually thought, ‘This will be the moment that our marriage divides’. And looking back, that was, absolutely, the evening it did. It may seem really weird to people who live together every day, but for people who spend months and months apart doing films, it is possible to wake up one day and realize, you’ve changed."

"It was the information about refugees that I was most drawn to. So the next morning, I called Washington and found a sister agency of the UN. I said, ‘I just want to learn about refugees. In Cambodia, in Africa, everywhere’. So they invited me to Washington. I went down to the studio and told Billy, ‘I’m going to Washington’, he looked at me and said, ‘Okay. Good luck. Bye. Have a nice trip’. I think he thought it was a nice thing. It wasn’t where he was being called to at the moment. Not that he was in any way not a good person… Later, when I got the call that I would be allowed to travel to Sierra Leone, I remember being really excited and emotional about it. But he… it was a weird thing. He didn’t want me to go through that door. He said he didn’t think I’d be safe. But he didn’t offer to come along, either. And so I left. And when I came back two weeks later, I was a very different person."

Do you belive it? If a writer had fictionalized Angelina Jolie’s life to date in a screenplay, would you belive the feelgood character transformation between the first and third acts? Would you belive that a rheumy vampira unable to see beyond the miasma of her own "despair" could, in less than three years’ time, become a worldly wise humanitarian? Would you accept the embodiment of Lara Croft –a character whose respect for Third World cultural treasures ranks with the Taliban’s– as a crusader for the rights of Third World refugees? Would you buy the scene in which Angelina testifies before Congress? Or the scene in which she goes on CNN and in plain, coherent language deliberates on the plight of East African refugees? Or the scene in which she says with newfound blunt sanity, "If you make 10 million, you can give away five and not miss it" –then donates more than 6 million to help Afghan refugees, establish a Cambodian wildlife preserve and rebuild a Sri Lankan hospital? Or –perhaps most implausibly– the scene in which she adopts a Cambodian orphan and becomes an ardent single mother?

Of course you wouldn’t. Because a screenwriter did write such a movie, which did get a made –Beyond Borders, starring Angelina Jolie as a young, beautiful, shallow American woman, a proverbial refugee from herself, who leaves her life of comfort to… crusade on behalf of Third World refugees– and nobody bought a damn word of it. (From The New York Times: "[Beyond Borders] has strong language, sexuality and shameless and scandalously cynical re-creations of third world suffering and violence that aren’t even relieved by on-screen alcohol consumption").

And yet… and yet… it’s true. Jolie’s role as a good ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees isn’t some half assed hobby devised to drum up humanitarian cred. She has journeyed –often without press and always at her own expense, which a UN official has called "exceptional"– to war zones and refugee camps in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Congo, Jordan, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Ecuador, Pakistan, Tanzania…

Everywhere she’s gone, she’s taken copious notes –some of which have been compiled into a book that Simon & Schuster published last fall (Notes from My Travels: Visits with Refugees in Africa, Cambodia, Pakistan and Ecuador). Encountering Angelina Jolie, author, is a curious thing. One wonders how aware she is that the experience of reading what she writes takes place at two levels, that one absorbs the subject matter –the raw facts of refugeeism– at the same time one absorbs the fact this is Angelina Jolie writing about the raw facts of refugeeism. A typical excerpt from her visit to a Sri Lankan orphanage:

"I ask if they remember their parents, about 6 out of 90 raise their hands… They ask what I do –I explain. Then they tell me no one wants to be an actor. "Good choice", I say, "it’s a silly life. A teacher is more important".

And from a camp on the Colombian/Ecuadorean border:

"[I] meet a man whose wife and children were killed in front of him… He is a little man, wearing a gray & black sweater and work shirt. You can see he has tried to dress well… There are so many holes in the sweater. His gray hair is combed back and his eyes are sad. I would guess he’s in his late 50’s. Kind face. Handsome man. Very gracious… He keeps being reminded to please speak slowly so they can translate… I think he’s speaking fast because he is so uncomfortable with this memory. He seems to want to get through it as quickly as possible… Suddenly tears well up in his eyes and he can’t speak. [The translator] says, ‘I asked him how his family was killed’… The man apologizes. Can you imagine? Someone apologizing because they can’t tell you how their family was killed… As he left, we thanked him for talking to us. He thanked us for listening… He picked up our empty coffee cups, I suppose, out of habit.

That last bit about the coffee cups, the humbling humility of the man, resonates, does it not? Without being at all "writerly" it colors and deepens everything that precedes it, tweaks a First World reader’s tendency, perhaps, to think of a Latin American man as a menial.

The way Jolie writes about what she has seen matches the way she speaks of it in person, in a way that is quietly fascinating –and fascinatingly quiet. The prose is invariably unfussy, and less concerned with her own reactions to things than with the things themselves. She never fetishizes the bedraggled people she meets. Nor does she attempt to show or use guilt. One might suspect, given her previous histrionics, that the charge Angelina Jolie gets from her work in the Third World could carry a whiff of the unseemly; of celebrating the awfulness, of sucking at the black teat of the world’s despair –of her own sense of "drama". (Think of Sally Struthers’s bloated swoonings). But even when a dramatic reaction is called for, she strives to be merely descriptive –"… in front of one of the old tractors there are 2 men hanging from hooks… I think at first, they are dead. They’re not"– as if to completely separate her two lives: the one she lives with these people, whose griefs weigh more than the world can bear, and the silly actor’s life that has made hers one of the world’s most famous faces.

Can we talk about that face now? Can we talk about the woman’s beauty? Well, how can we not? It is, as all else with Angelina Jolie, so exaggerated, so undiluted, that to speak of it in mere morphological terms –the lip cleavage, the puma eyes, those great heaving… blah, blah– is like pointing out the sun. There it is, yes, quite obvious –but if you try to comprehend it directly, to look right into it, you’ll go… blind, mad! Better to try to understand it indirectly –in terms of what effects it has, and what it brings forth.

Know this, then: in the world of radical plastic surgery, the aesthetic established by Angelina Jolie’s face –ripely round yet violently angular– so resonates that her surname has become superfluous. "Angelina" is a look, a commodified, objectified thing, to which whole web sites are devoted. (Apparently, the plumped lower lip with the arroyo carved down the center –in case of flash floods, one presumes– is very difficult to achieve). And a journalist I know who’s writing an article about surgical Angelina-ism recently interviewed a 31 year-old woman who will soon be embarking on a forward repositioning of her entire forehead to achieve the arched eyebrows intrinsic to "Angelina".

Know this, too: she really does have the Lara Croft physique. Up close, it’s just… patent.

And yet in person, she doesn’t play it, doesn’t unleash it. Her manner is all civility and professionalism, with no whiff of the feline you want to touch, no?, yes!, persona most female stars slip into when sitting for profiles in men’s magazines. (She also has point perfect table manners, which tend to steer a mind away from its baser leanings). This is all in keeping with her reputation in the industry as an anti diva who shows up for work on time, doesn’t go in for perks, eats with the movie crews she works with and never creates scenes other then the ones being filmed.

You see, Jolie’s is not a nonchalant, above it all kind of beauty. She has renounced the magical power, bestowed upon all female stars, to create the impression that she is ignoring you even as she is talking to you. (That is to say, the power to re-create for any given male the experience of lusting after the hottest girl in his high school– a girl whose eternal refusal to register his existence was exactly what made her so insanely alluring). Just the opposite. Jolie’s is a beauty that stares back at you. Scrutinizes you. Alarms you. Nothing in her look –or in her manner, or in her life as a whole– is about concealment, or buffering. (She has no agent or publicist –unheard– of for stars with even a fraction of her wattage). Like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland before her, Jolie is relentlessly transparent; she seems to believe that relinquishing this transparency would deprive her of her power, as she once put it, "to capture moments of people" –to fully witness life. Though this nakedness has often rendered her fragile and freakish, it has always served, somehow, to magnify her beauty. Her transparency even has a literal component –the elaborate tongues– of –flame patterns drawn by the raised veins of her forearms. (Jolie calls this her best physical feature). You can sit near Angelina Jolie and, from certain angles, literally see her pulse, see the blood careening through her body. It makes you think, simply: blood! Then: she was once a cutter, wasn’t she? And then: That is just –literally, figuratively, ontologically– hot.

And to think: This is a woman who, after losing Billy Bob and adopting her baby boy, Maddox –consider that these events were more or less simultaneous– forswore sex for more than a year before telling Rolling Stone that she was "ripe for the plucking".

The question must be asked.

"I have now taken a lover", she declares. Said with a straight face –and she’s not even a nineteenth century consumptive! (Though she is half French).

"Male or female?".

Jolie smirks.

God, the lips on her! The circumference of that smirk –like a goddamned pie plate! Is there anyone else on the planet whose smirk plays as a broad, even a slapstick, gesture?

"Male", she says. And then smiles. "Although I’ve been relieved every time it’s been speculated on in the press" –rumors have variously put her with Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, and Kiefer Sutherland, with whom she’s costarring in this mont’s crime thriller Taking Lives– "because nobody’s got the right guy".

"Then tell me who it is", I say.


"Tell me".


Several weeks after our interview, she and Colin Farrell –she plays mom to his Alexander the Great in Oliver Stone’s upcoming biopic– are seen canoodling on camels in front of the Great Pyramids. (Says Jolie: "We are not a couple, just friends").
I ask her if she ever feels estranged from her own image on the big screen.

"What do you mean?"

Well, I offer, offscreen you handle your sexuality with such straightforwardness, whereas Lara Croft seems to send… mixed messages.

"What do you mean?"

That seamless silver bodysuit, for example –the way it screams, Check out this suh-WEET-ness!, at the same time that it hermetically seals off all those curves.

A blinding smirk.

"Okay, it is often estranging", she says. "I like it better when the person I’m playing has a strong accent. Then I can say ‘Ah, that’s not me’".

Perhaps the greatest testament to the transcendence of Angelina Jolie’s beauty is that she has not been at all diminished by the fact that she has made a lot of really bad movies. Instead, she has emerged from such laughable fare as the first Tomb Raider and Life or Something Like It and Beyond Borders seeming more radiant, more smoldering, more glamorous. Even Julia Roberts has never possessed such invincibility. Explanation: despite the supporting actress Oscar she won for Girl, Interrupted, Angelina Jolie is less about acting than stardom; because of her unembarrassed openness both as an actress and as a person, one can’t help but process her on and offscreen lives as a single phenomenon. What she does in godforsaken faraway places with people who have never heard of a Cineplex does affect the way those of us who have perceive her beauty, and what it seems to suggest to us. Before she adopted her boy and began her missions, the beauty suggested a locked inward gaze: Witness me, it pleaded, I am an icon of pain! Now that those eyes of hers have been turned from her navel and out into the world, the beauty carries an entirely different injunction: Witness these other worthy people!

So is Angelina Jolie, now 28, going to make it to her thirtieth birthday? Indeed. She’s banished the toxins from her system. Banished Billy Bob, with his "music career" and his pathological fear and hatred of Komodo dragons and Shakespeare and Louis XIV furniture and Benjamin Disraeli’s hair and his insistence on driving around a certain coffee shop seven times every morning.

And, perhaps more important, banished her father, Jon Voight (literally, by legally removing "Voight" as her surname), with his serial appearances on Access Hollywood and Inside Edition rambling about his daughter’s "serious mental problems". (Voight began a string of peculiar public pronouncements about his daughter’s doings in the spring of 2002, as she was adopting her son. Though she’d not yet gone public with her plans, and though she and Voight hadn’t spoken in almost a year and a half –he learned the news from his exwife and Jolie’s mother, the French actress Marcheline Bertrand– Voight took it upon himself to announce at an Academy Awards luncheon that he was about to become a grandfather; his announcement actually delayed the boy’s American visa). Interestingly, just as the first Tomb Raider movie catalyzed a change in Jolie’s domestic arrangements, it seems also to have exorcised whatever it was about her relationship with her famous father, who left her mother when Jolie was 6 months old, that had always plagued her. It was Jolie’s idea to cast Voight as Lara Croft’s father –a globe trotting adventurer who never had time for his daughter– and for each of them to tailor their dialogue to mirror their real life frictions. Says Lara: "You let me down". Says Pops: "I did what I thought was right". Once articulated on screen, the sentiments lost their power in this world, the world of matter, to linger and corrode. Now, when Jolie speaks of her father, her tone, though unwarm, isn’t bitter.

"After [the first Tomb Raider] he said some very ugly things to me about what he thought I was like as a person and how I was conducting my life. At first I was completly surprised and injured by it. But then things became clear to me: this is a person who for the most part has either been absent from my life or been creating a lot of ugliness in it. And even though he is related to me. I don’t have to listen to what he says. I don’t have to care. And I don’t have to have him in my life. For myself, for my son, I need to be healthy –I don’t need drama– and it’s perfectly all right for me to determine that in order to make that happen, I don’t want him around."

The funny thing about Jolie’s new life, her new way –sane, planned, aimed at the long term– is that the less hysterical (in the clinical sense) she has become, the more interesting.

"Don’t get me wrong", she says. "I love movies. For much of my life, I needed them –they were my only outlet for expression. But now the thought of being trapped for four months in a sound studio, or even in one country, is hard for me. Of course I appreciate what movies bring me" –12 million for the second Tomb Raider– "and I’m grateful for it, but now when I work, I find myself looking forward to the chance to get back into what I consider the real world". Have all these changes in her life affected her acting?

"Believe it or not, I used to rely on certain crutches, certain devices, before performing in really emotional scenes. Sometimes I’d use music, listen to a song right before filming, that would remind me of something powerful. But one thing I used to do a lot –the thing that always filled me with a deep sadness, and was always one of the things that could make me cry– was just to dwell on my feeling that I would never become a parent. Because for whatever reason, I spent most of my life convinced that I would never be stable enough to be a parent. Maybe I was internalizing other people’s perceptions of me, believing that I could be passionate and ferocious but never maternal and nurturing. Whatever the reason, all I had to do was think I will never be someone’s mother, and I could easily become emotional for a scene."

She then begins to talk about her life with her son.

"Maddox still sleeps with me, because he came home so late, and because we travel so much –I don’t want him to be alarmed by the fact that he’s often waking up in a new room. I think the best part of my days now is that waking up. I’ll open my eyes, and there will be this big beautiful Asian face right in front of me, staring back –he’s always awake before I am. And there we are, nose to nose, and him with his mohawk and his big eyes, saying ‘Momma?’. The fact is, he calls a lot of things and people ‘Momma’. Sometimes I’ll start to correct him –‘No, that’s not Momma’– then I’ll look where he’s pointing, up to a billboard with a picture of me in that big silver outfit, and I’ll have to say, ‘Uh, yes, I guess that’s Momma’."

She continues: "He’s got this thing where he’ll be watching cartoons, and he’ll say, ‘That’s Momma and that’s Maddox’. The thing is, the Momma character is always a bit psychotic, usually in a bizarre outfit, and always wicked and nutty. The other day he was watching Sleeping Beauty, and as soon as Maleficent showed up, he went ‘Momma!’. A couple of friends were with us in the room and started trying to make me feel better. ‘Don’t worry about it, Angie –it’s because Maleficent has darker hair, and her bone structure…’. But, of course, that’s not it.

"The fact is", Angelina Jolie says, smirking, "I’ll always be the Evil Queen".