Angelina Jolie: an actor of style and a director of substance | Observer profile | Film

The meeting with Angelina Jolie was going so well. The Vanity Fair reporter Evgenia Peretz was welcomed into the “11,000 square foot beaux arts mansion” in Los Feliz, which the 42-year-old actress and her six children acquired after her divorce last year from Brad Pitt.

Peretz marvelled at the “rolling lawns, lush trees”, the kitchen “worthy of a Nancy Meyers movie”, the “charming grey library with a library ladder”. When the interview hit the stands in July, however, it prompted an outcry from Team Jolie and controversy over comments she made about the casting process behind her latest film.

First They Killed My Father, a drama about the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia adapted from Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir, opened to enthusiastic reviews last week at the Toronto film festival (the Guardian spoke of its “genuine artistry” and “real ferocity”). It marks Jolie’s fourth feature as director, after In the Land of Blood and Honey, about the Bosnian war, and Unbroken, set in a Second World War prisoner-of-war camp, as well as By the Sea, the story of a failing marriage that starred Jolie and Pitt. All her films have been about conflict of one sort or another.

Now Jolie is fighting her corner against Vanity Fair, which quoted her as describing an unsettling audition to find the right actor to play the young Loung Ung. According to the magazine, the children all came from deprived backgrounds. Each was asked to pretend to steal a pile of money, from the table before them, imagining what they might spend it on. In the next step, each child was then “caught” in the act of theft by the casting director; the part went to the one who gave the best and most convincing lie for the theft. The process was said to replicate an episode in the life of a character in the movie.

“Srey Moch [the successful candidate] was the only child that stared at the money for a very, very long time,” Jolie told Peretz. “When she was forced to give it back, she became overwhelmed with emotion. All these different things came flooding back. When she was asked later what the money was for, she said it was for her grandfather.”

Vanity Fair and Peretz have resisted the demands of Jolie and her lawyers to remove the offending material, while Jolie claims that the audition has been taken out of context, saying that “a pretend exercise in an improvisation… had been written about as if it was a real scenario”.

It would be easy in the middle of this brouhaha to lose sight of the ways in which it embodies the idiosyncratic narratives that make up Jolie’s persona. How many other directors (let alone female ones who happen also to be A-list stars) would find themselves in the position in the first place of making a film like First They Killed My Father? This isn’t the sort of undertaking you agree to because of the brownie points it gets you in the industry; four films in, we can be fairly sure that Jolie is serious about this directing lark.

Most important, though, is the prominence of children in this whole sorry tale. Children from slums, orphanages, circuses. Precisely the sort of settings, in fact, from which Jolie’s three adopted children come, beginning with her eldest, Maddox, whom she adopted when he was a baby sleeping in a cardboard box suspended from the ceiling of a Battambang orphanage. Now 16, he is credited as an executive producer on the new film.

Celebrity-fixated tabloid media have trivialised Jolie’s appetite for adoption, just as they did to Mia Farrow and Madonna before her, but it would be churlish to cast aspersions on someone who has demonstrated such commitment to altruism and humanitarian work.

She is a UN special envoy and has lobbied for the rights of child immigrants in the US as well as fronting Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative to stop rape and sexual assault being used as weapons in war zones. (William Hague, who launched PSVI alongside her, said: “Angelina has done so much. She is very, very knowledgeable about this. She is incredibly dedicated to the cause.” The Independent remarked in 2015 that Hague was stepping down from his role as leader of the House of Commons “to spend more time with Angelina Jolie”.)

Her willingness to subject to playful scrutiny her image as a rapacious serial mother does her credit. Though her detours into escapism are increasingly rare these days, she made a mainstream acting comeback in 2014 in Maleficent, Disney’s live-action adventure, where she brought flesh-and-blood suffering and a certain wry humour to a staple character of fairytale villainy: the witch who cursed Sleeping Beauty to a 100-year lie-in.

There was a knowingness about Jolie playing a woman who must fight to overcome her natural antipathy to children, especially given the proliferation of them in her off-screen life. Even that was eclipsed in the area of biographical frisson by the poignancy of the scene in which Maleficent howls in agony as her wings are hacked off. Coming so soon after Jolie’s preventive double mastectomy and oophorectomy (her mother, the actress Marcheline Bertrand, had breast cancer and died in 2007 of ovarian cancer), it was impossible not to read this is as an expression of real pain lightly disguised.

Those of us who believe Jolie has a nice line in casual, unshowy intensity – the evidence is there in everything from her Oscar-winning turn as a psychiatric patient in Girl, Interrupted to her tender portrayal of the widow of the journalist Daniel Pearl in A Mighty Heart – have bemoaned her increasing absence from the screen.

Clint Eastwood, who directed one of her most moving performances, as a mother whose child goes missing in Changeling, captured her particular bind well. “She reminds me a lot of the actresses from the golden age of movies in the ’40s,” he said in 2008. “She’s been on the cover of so many magazines in recent years and she is hampered by having one of the most beautiful faces around, so sometimes people tend to overlook that she is a really fine actress and a terrific talent.”

It could be argued that Jolie herself is among those to have misused that talent. With only a few exceptions, her film choices have been downright baffling. In the wake of her Oscar win, she threw in her lot with the action genre to play the videogame character Lara Croft in two dull fantasy adventures and made a succession of pictures that were either rum (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) or dumb (Wanted, Salt) before starring opposite Johnny Depp in The Tourist, a caper so stupid that it became a byword for glossy Hollywood witlessness.

No one movie really mattered that much, though, because her relationship with Pitt (which began in 2005 after they starred together in the thriller Mr and Mrs Smith, leading to the ghastly compound name Brangelina) had become the star attraction.

It was that, rather than any single performance, for which she was now best known. For a woman of her intelligence, that can only have been galling.

So perhaps it’s no coincidence that she made her 2011 directing debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, immediately after the debacle of The Tourist. Since then, she has appeared in just three films, and one of those (Kung Fu Panda 3) was in voice only. There’s a Maleficent sequel in the offing but fans of her acting work will probably have to get used to her absence from the screen.

Unless, that is, you count the ongoing performance of her divorce from Pitt, played out now in magazine spreads straight from the A-listers’ break-up playbook. Neither of them has emerged from this with much distinction.

He did a GQ photo-shoot in three national parks and gave a soul-baring, toe-curling interview (“I get up every morning and I make a fire… it makes me feel life”); she opened her doors to the New York Times (“…barefoot on the porch of her luscious new home…”) and Vanity Fair. And we know how that ended.

But her current PR snarl-up shouldn’t overshadow the fact that she has gone out on a limb to make a film that looks starkly at another nation’s traumatic suffering. “Once you get exposed to what’s really happening in the world, and other people’s realities,” she said recently, “you just can’t ever not know and you can’t ever wake up and pretend it’s not happening. Your entire life shifts.” The question now is where that shift will take her next.

THE JOLIE FILES

Born Angelina Jolie Voight on 4 June 4 1975 in Los Angeles, California, to the actors Marcheline Bertrand and Jon Voight. She committed herself to acting at the age of 16. She has been married three times and has six children.

Best of times Winning an Oscar for her role as the disturbed mental patient Lisa Rowe in the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted. She has also won a host of awards for her work on conservation, refugee rights and women’s issues, including the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award, an honorary Oscar awarded periodically, which she was given in 2013. In 2014, she was appointed an honorary dame commander by the Queen.

Worst of times Her split from Brad Pitt. Their 12-year relationship became a media obsession. She filed for divorce from him in 2016 and has custody of their children: Maddox, Zahara, Pax, Shiloh, Knox and Vivienne.

What she says “I never expect to be the one that everybody understands or likes. And that’s OK, because I know who I am and the kids know who I am.”

The New York Times

What others say “Angelina has done so much. She is very, very knowledgeable about this. She is incredibly dedicated to the cause.”

William Hague on Jolie’s work tackling sexual violence in conflict zones.

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