This is the blog of the Magazine Writing class at the University of San Francisco for Fall semester 2017.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Good or Bad Profile?
It’s an established fact. Some women can’t stand being pregnant, getting big and bloated, and hauling around a giant stomach, and some women, for reasons probably understood by Darwin, love it. That Angelina Jolie is one of the latter can be seen in any of the thousands of pictures of the actress—who was, after all, impregnated by Brad Pitt, which is like being impregnated by a future man or a star child—that began to proliferate in the celebrity weeklies and supermarket tabloids in the spring of 2008, by which time Jolie, who is carrying twins, had bellied out like a sail.
“I love it,” she told me, smiled, laughed, then said, “It makes me feel like a woman. It makes me feel that all the things about my body”—she raised her hands as she said this, her fingers as long as those of a point guard, and made the squeezing motion commonly used to suggest fruit that is particularly ripe—“are suddenly there for a reason. It makes you feel round and supple, and to have a little life inside you is amazing.
“Also,” she continued, dropping her voice, leaning in, “I’m fortunate. I think some women have a different experience depending on their partner. I think that affects it. I happen to be with somebody who finds pregnancy very sexy. So that makes me feel very sexy.”
Jolie was sitting in the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas. For the previous few months, she had been living in Smithville, just outside the state capital. On the way to our meeting, she dropped two of her children off at the school they will be attending until Pitt wraps Tree of Life,the movie he is making with Terrence Malick. (“I would be the worst person to explain it,” Jolie told me. “I think there’s something existential about it. It’s a kind of nuclear 1950s family, and [Brad] is a strong father.”) The other children—there are four altogether: six-year-old Maddox (adopted in Cambodia in 2002), three-year-old Zahara (adopted in Ethiopia in 2005), two-year-old Shiloh (her daughter with Pitt), and four-year-old Pax (adopted in Vietnam in 2007)—were being tended to, on a ranch the couple had rented, by the nannies and tutors who tag after the Jolie-Pitts in a ragged caravan.
I asked Jolie what kind of help she employs.
“We don’t ever have anybody spend the night,” she said. “We may have to adjust that when the next one comes. But we do have ladies that work with us, and they’re also from different cultures and backgrounds. One lady’s a Vietnamese teacher—wonderful. One is of Congolese descent from Belgium. Another is from the States and is really creative and does art programs.”
See our slide show of Angelina Jolie’s complete Vanity Fair spreads and covers. Plus: Rich Cohen offers avideo tour of Jolie’s amazing transformations. Above, photograph by Patrick Demarchelier.
It’s as if the Jolie-Pitts are pioneering a new genre of family, with children from every global hot spot and parents who are beautiful and famously not married. “People have made a lot out of it that we’re not,” she said, “but we both have been married before, and it’s very easy to get married, but it’s not easy to build a family and be parents together. And maybe we’ve done it backwards, but we certainly feel married.”
When Jolie came into the Four Seasons, she looked around quickly, then crossed the floor like a pilgrim, with her head down, like someone used to being noticed, or bothered, like someone who does not feel safe. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “The roses had the look of flowers that are looked at.” She went through the lobby the way a shark goes through the ocean, quickly and smoothly. You detect her presence not by her face, which she can obscure or render ordinary in that way of celebrities, but by how people around her react—the flurry in the water. She carries herself with strange dignity, as if she were an emissary of a secret order, a messenger from a lost kingdom. You see it in every picture. Shot after shot. She’s a princess, an aristocrat. I mean, the woman knows how to be photographed, where to look, where the light comes from. (Us says they’re just like us, but Us is wrong about them, or wrong about us.) She’s not quite flawless in person—she’s more real, human. It’s the same product, only it’s been taken out of bunting and plastic and set in this ordinary place, as opposed to the dreamworld cooked up by set designers and admen.
We sat near a wall of windows in the back of the hotel restaurant. As we talked, people circled around her as debris orbits a planet. This is called gravity. She wore a silky maternity dress under a blue blazer, the sort worn by stand-up comics, and Frankenstein. After a while, she took off the jacket, and there were her arms with their hieroglyphic tattoos, each telling another story, another legend from her already legendary life: wild teen years, marriage to actors Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton.
“How pregnant are you?,” I asked.
“I don’t want to say,” she said, smiling sadly. “A few months. I only know, if I do say, people will start stressing on our due date.”
When Pitt or Jolie shoots a film (they never work at the same time; there is always a parent around), the entire family goes along, bringing familiar things from home—though there is no home—in an attempt to re-create the world as it existed in the last place, and in this way they give their children a semblance of normalcy, routine.
For the Jolie-Pitts, there are no particulars: no particular cities, no particular towns. Only backdrops, locations. Texas. Before that, Prague. Before that, somewhere else, each made to stand for HOME in all capitals, which, of course, is a fantasy—a memory from someone else’s past, backstory from a character Jolie has played. This illustrates a bigger point: she is a Method actor in reverse; whereas a Method actor brings the things of her life into her roles, Jolie brings her characters’ stories into her real life. Which is why, though Jolie is an outstanding actress, she’s a more outstanding celebrity. It’s not that she becomes the character—it’s that the character becomes her. Disturbed youth (Girl, Interrupted), wild child (Gia), humanitarian (Beyond Borders), married (sort of) to Brad Pitt (Mr. & Mrs. Smith).
“In my father’s generation, the product was 80 percent of what you were putting into the world, and your personal life was 20 percent,” Jolie says. “It now seems that 80 percent of the product I put out is silly, made-up stories and what I’m wearing.”Photograph by Patrick Demarchelier.
When I asked why she made Wanted, the big-budget action movie co-starring James McAvoy and Morgan Freeman, she said, “Because I had just done A Mighty Heart and was scheduled to do Changeling, which is about the kidnapping of a child. And I had lost my mom. And I knew I was in this odd, fuzzy state going from one loss and kidnapping to another loss and kidnapping. Then Wanted came along. It’s about being physical and jumping and running and being violent, and instinctively I knew I needed to do that.”
It has been a hectic few years for the 33-year-old Jolie. She lost her mother, adopted children, appeared in films, and dominated tabloids, in which her history and every move have been carefully analyzed: how, though her father (Jon Voight) was a famous alum of the school (Hollywood), she turned up all alone in the hallways, then, just like that, became the talk of the big year-end blowout (Oscars), sidled up to the best-looking boy in the school (Pitt), looked at his popular cheerleader girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston), saw no competition, and stole him away, in the process forcing those who follow such things (everyone) to re-write the hierarchy of the lunchroom.
There were also the causes, the charity work and refugees, appearances before the United Nations and the Council on Foreign Relations—Angelina is a new kind of movie star in just the way Barack Obama is a new kind of politician. But I don’t want to give the impression that this story is tied to any one of her films (like this month’s Kung Fu Panda, in which she voices a tiger, and which I won’t be writing about) or causes. Angelina Jolie is larger than a conventional news peg or nut graph. She’s won the biggest awards, been among the highest-paid actresses ever (a reported $20 million for Mr. & Mrs. Smith), and, what’s more, she has become an obsession to women in America, who recognize her as an archetype. In other words, talking to Angelina Jolie in 2008 is like talking to Elizabeth Taylor in 1951, or Doris Day in 1956, or Mary Pickford in 1917. Here is the star at its peak, neither climbing nor descending.
When the waiter came over, Jolie ordered with that peculiar joy of the beautiful, well-tended woman freed by pregnancy—an omelet with everything save the peppers. We talked over the course of the meal, time drifting by, food coming, going, being replaced by newer food. When she laughed, she covered her mouth with the back of her hand. When she was moved, she looked out the window, eyes watery, far away. She talked about her family, her career, her relationship with Pitt. “After my last divorce, I said I was absolutely going to marry somebody in another field, an aid worker or something. Then I met Brad, everything I wasn’t looking for, but the best man, the best father I could possibly wish for, you know? I don’t see him as an actor. I see him very much as a dad, as somebody who loves travel and architecture more than being in movies.”
She hopes Pitt will spend more time working on architecture—though he’s in fact not an architect. “He just has an eye for it,” she said. “You hear people talk about design or buildings, and assume, especially when somebody has another career, ‘Oh, that’s a hobby.’ Like somebody coming into money appreciating Picasso. But I have seen him design, with his partners, everything from hotels to studios. Or in New Orleans, with other architects, re-doing a shotgun house with green architecture, bringing light in, angles of the sun in summer and winter, how that would affect the rooms. He’s taught me so much about the homes we live in.”
She talked about the paparazzi, how the business has changed. “It’s our media,” she said. “People always slow down for a train wreck. It’s like junk food. If you don’t feel good about yourself, you want to read crap about other people, like gossip in high school. You don’t understand why it’s there, but somehow it makes a lot of people feel better.
“In my father’s generation, the product was 80 percent of what you were putting into the world, and your personal life was 20 percent. It now seems that 80 percent of the product I put out is silly, made-up stories and what I’m wearing.”
Perhaps because she was pregnant, Jolie seemed interested mostly in talking about children. I asked what kind of parent she is, how she disciplines, rewards. She laughed and said, “You end up hearing yourself saying all those clichéd parent things: ‘I don’t care who started it, but I’m here to finish it.’ ”
She told me she was following a system, which she’d read about in a magazine, whereby children are rewarded with sticker stars, which can be redeemed for treats, thus not only controlling them but also teaching them the basics of capitalism. More important than any of that, she said, “is how my mom raised me, which is to figure out who I was and try to enhance my individual personality and not get in the way of it.
“But I can really discipline the kids when I need to.”
I asked if there is a special bond between a mother and a child she has carried as opposed to a child she has adopted. She said, “No,” thought a moment, then added, “I had a C-section and I found it fascinating. I didn’t find it a sacrifice and I didn’t find it a painful experience. I found it a fascinating miracle of what a body can do.”
Jolie has children from three continents—I asked if this was intentional.
“Yeah, absolutely intentional,” she said. “When I was growing up I wanted to adopt, because I was aware there were kids that didn’t have parents. It’s not a humanitarian thing, because I don’t see it as a sacrifice. It’s a gift. We’re all lucky to have each other.
“I look at Shiloh—because, obviously, physically, she is the one that looks like Brad and I when we were little—and say, ‘If these were our brothers and sisters, how much would we have known by the time we were six that it took into our 30s and 40s to figure out?’ I suppose I’m giving them the childhood I always wished I had.”
I asked what that first adoption was like.
“After my last divorce, I said I was absolutely going to marry somebody in another field, an aid worker or something,” Jolie says. “Then I met Brad.” Photograph by Patrick Demarchelier.
“A nurse came with Maddox and left 10 minutes after handing him over,” she said. “I stared at this little guy. I didn’t know what to do. I called my mom. I remember saying, ‘Do kids have 2 or 10 bottles a day? I’m at a loss.’ I had never babysat, let alone … ”
I asked about Shiloh’s birth—they decided to have the baby in Namibia, far from the paparazzi.
“We were in this little hospital in Africa when Shi was born,” she said. “I don’t think there was anybody else in the hospital. It was just a little cottage, the three of us. It ended up being the greatest thing. We had wonderful doctors and nurses. It was lovely, very personal, all three in this sweet room. We had an American doctor with us, who had met the Namibian doctors, and they worked in tandem because it was a C-section and my first and we didn’t know the country. He spent a few weeks with us. There was only one pediatrician in town, and one anesthesiologist, who had to come in for that—you have to plan it.”
“Where does the name Shiloh come from?,” I asked.
“It’s a biblical name,” she told me, “but we didn’t name her for that. It was a name my parents almost named their first child—there was a miscarriage: Shiloh Baptist. Because my father had been shooting in Georgia and that was the most southern name [my parents] could come up with. It’s a name I always liked. I used to go under it in hotels: Shiloh Baptist. I’d gone under it when [Brad] called hotel rooms where I was staying.”
She spoke about religion—her mother’s religion, how she planned to raise her own kids. “[My mother] was Catholic but also a child of the 60s,” said Jolie. “She stopped going to confession at one point because she was having sex before marriage. To me, she represented what religion should be. She never preached. If things didn’t make sense to her, she never just accepted it. I had Communion, but she never forced me to go to church.
“Brad got me this great thing for Christmas. It’s a bookshelf that has a book on every religion. That’s how we plan to raise our kids. Teach them about all religions. They can pick one or be a student of all of them. We’ll celebrate Kwanzaa for our girl. We’ll celebrate moon and water festivals for our boys. We’ll take them to temples in certain countries. Also to church.”
As we spoke, the conversation kept cycling back to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, who neglected her own acting career—she had studied at Strasberg—to raise her children, James and Angelina. She died in January 2007, of ovarian and breast cancer. She was 56 and had been sick for eight years. “And in those years,” said Jolie, “she met all my children, helped me be a mom, helped me grow into a better woman, and taught me about dying.”
Angelina’s mother, who, in the absence of Angelina’s father, became her compass and lodestar, was the unacknowledged presence at the table. The more Jolie spoke, the more certain this presence became. “When [my mother] passed, I realized that somebody who lives life with that kind of dedication to their family is the most noble,” she said. “I was aware of it growing up. I admired her. And I loved her. But in her passing she reminded me what matters. And what’s most fun—to put yourself aside for these other little people you’re raising.”
Jolie could not talk long about her mother without filling up and spilling over, without her voice creaking, without tears, real tears, flowing down her cheeks. “Mad always knew my mom was sick,” said Jolie. “So when it happened, I sat him down and I told him how some people believe there’s a heaven where everybody goes and is together again. And they believe it’s very white and beautiful. And some believe—he’d just seen Casper—there are ghosts who are people and they are always around. And some believe it’s a long peaceful sleep. When I told him, and I was crying, ‘Grand-mère died today, we won’t be able to see her anymore, but she’ll always be around,’ he said, ‘Like she’s here now? Like she’s in that chair?’ And I said, ‘Well, I suppose she could be.’ And he accepted it. It’s funny. It’s like we teach kids the things that we want to believe. Then we see that they have such beautiful faith and it helps them go to bed and we’re in the other room not sleeping well.”
Jolie was crying when she said this.
“I had to be responsible for getting the morgue to pick her body up,” said Jolie. “She was in Cedars [Sinai, in Los Angeles]. All I had to do is remind myself that she’s my best girlfriend and she’s not in any more pain. I’m so happy for her. As much as I miss her, I’m a good enough friend not to have wanted her to stay in pain any longer.”
Jolie stood up. “I have to use the bathroom,” she said. “It’s a great thing about being pregnant—you don’t need excuses to pee, or to eat.”
When Angelina was young, she watched a screening of The Champ, a remake, starring her father, of the Hollywood classic. In the last scene, the boxer, pressed on by his worshipful son, wins the title, becomes the champ, then dies on the trainer’s table. When Jolie saw him, expiring, then lifeless, she thought he was dead. For real. “I freaked out,” she told me. Which marks the moment, I am convinced, when the film world and the actual world ran together in her mind. Which is not so unusual. When I saw the movie, I too thought Jon Voight was dead. I am a little surprised, even now, when I see him. Of course, this was greatly amplified for Jolie. It must have registered in her subconscious as a metaphoric truth.
When we were talking about Voight, I asked Jolie about Coming Home—the movie for which he won the best-actor Oscar, in 1979. “Actually,” she said, “I’ve never seen Coming Home.”
“Because that was when my father left my mom, and the woman who he cheated on her with is in the film.” (When rumors surfaced about Jolie and Pitt, who was then married to Aniston, Jolie denied them, saying, in essence, Look, this is what happened to my mother, so I could never do it to another woman.)
“Artists raise their kids differently.… Our focus is art and painting and dress-up and singing,” Jolie says. “It’s what we love.” Photograph by Patrick Demarchelier.
Jolie’s relationship with Voight is famously dysfunctional. They do not talk. They are officially estranged. Like Syria and Israel. And yet he is everywhere in her life. She looks just like him. (It’s disconcerting to recognize the face of an aging man on a beautiful woman.) His example as an actor—not just any actor, but one of the best of that gritty era—clearly had an effect. (When I asked if she had seen Midnight Cowboy, Jolie said, “You realize you’re asking somebody if they’ve seen their father play a prostitute?”) Her first appearance on-screen was in one of his films—Lookin’ to Get Out (1982), which he co-wrote and starred in. It’s about New York cardsharps, one played by Voight, the other by Burt Young, grandly fat in a Hawaiian shirt.
When Voight was nominated for an Oscar in 1986 (Runaway Train), he took Jolie to the ceremony. “I remember having to pee,” she told me. “I remember him not winning.”
When she won her best-supporting-actress Oscar, in 2000, for Girl, Interrupted, she thanked Voight, calling him “a great actor but … a better father.”
Their relationship, always rocky, fell apart as she ascended, perhaps because she ascended. It happened in public, but only sort of. It was like a scene acted behind gauze—you could hear the voices, but the words were impossible to make out. Voight wanted to control his daughter—that’s what some people said. He was critical of her relationships, her image as a reckless party girl. Jolie broke off communication with him. Even legally dropped his name for her own (Jolie is her middle name), shedding Voight as the rocket sheds a booster. Voight went on Access Hollywoodto call his daughter out. He spoke to her right through the lens, as the televangelist speaks to the sinner, saying, Touch the screen and repent!
When I asked Jolie about her father, she said, “We’ve decided not to be public about our relationship.”
Then: “I will say we have spoken … and hadn’t spoken for six and a half years. Which is good. Or it needed to happen.”
Then: “We don’t really have a relationship, but we’re in contact. And wish each other well.”
Then: “I think we’ve realized there’s been too much discussion. Him discussing me publicly. I’ve had to comment on him. I think it’s best that, if we try to have any relationship in the future, we do it quietly.”
Jolie lived with her mother and brother in Snedens Landing, a picturesque New York suburb on the west bank of the Hudson River. Before high school, her mother sold the house and moved the family to Los Angeles, where Jolie attended Beverly Hills High. It was in these years that she cultivated her image as a punk, ran with a bad crowd, turned disreputable and skanky cool. She was, in many ways, a typical product of the 70s-era divorce. In her childhood, you see the kernel of the need: her longing for a big family, rooms filled with voices, houses filled with people.
I’m giving them the childhood I always wished I had.
She wanted to act from the beginning. I asked why so many movie stars seem to be the children of movie stars: it seems like a blatant case of nepotism.
“Artists raise their kids differently,” she said. “We communicate to the point where we probably annoy our children. We have art around the house, we have books, we go to plays, we talk. Our focus is art and painting and dress-up and singing. It’s what we love. So I think you can see how artists in some way raise other artists.”
Jolie began to land screen roles when she was in her teens and early 20s: Cyborg 2 (1993—if you haven’t seen the first one, you’re lost), Without Evidence (1995), Hackers (1995). Even in these films, which range from fairly crappy to real crappy, you see she has a tremendous gift. It’s not that you believe her—it’s that you don’t care if she’s believable or not. She’s just great to watch. Sexy in an unusual way. Damaged, elusive. Like she’s hiding something, knows something. Your eyes picked her out of a crowd. She was therefore noticed early, touted, pegged, with every critic predicting a breakthrough, which came with George Wallace (1997), in which she played the wife of the demagogic southern senator (Gary Sinise), who, shot by a fanatic, is confined to a wheelchair—it won her a Golden Globe. Or the HBO film Gia (1998), in which she played Gia Carangi, a hard-living fashion model who died, at 26, of aids. Or Girl, Interrupted (1999), in which she played a beautiful psychotic confined with the less beautiful, less psychotic Winona Ryder (one going up, one going down) to a booby hatch—it won her the Academy Award.
By charting Jolie’s credits, you map her life—with each role adding something to her persona:
Hackers, in which she met her first husband, Jonny Lee Miller.
Gia, in which she played a lesbian, so, for a time, had a much-publicized relationship with a woman (model Jenny Shimizu).
Pushing Tin, about air-traffic controllers, in which she hooked up with her first great love, Billy Bob Thornton.
Girl, Interrupted, in which she played so became crazy—these were the years of the wild child, of saying, like the character in the movie, whatever came into her head, soul-kissing her brother at the Oscars, climbing all over Billy Bob in public, sucking on his ear, wearing his blood in a vial around her neck, etc., etc.
Beyond Borders, in which, according to the press release, Jolie played Sarah Jordan, an American socialite who abandons her sheltered life to work on behalf of refugees in the world’s most dangerous hot spots. By then, Jolie was herself working just about full-time on behalf of refugees, traveling on U.N. missions, writing, giving speeches.
In 2005, Jolie appeared in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, in which she played an assassin, living undercover as a working wife, who is married, unbeknownst to her, to another assassin (Brad Pitt), who is equally ignorant, equally undercover. It was in the course of this shoot that she met up with Pitt, though, she would explain, they did not actually get together until later. There is something revealing, even iconic about this movie, though it’s not great. First, you get to see the courtship, on-screen, of two of the biggest stars of the day; the very moment they fall in love, so the very moment Aniston is torpedoed, sent tumbling to the reef. I really do think this relationship, the fact that Jolie seemed to just go over and take him, is part of her aura. It was a terrific career move, even if she did not mean it to be. It gave her a sheen of invincibility. But there is something else about the movie—especially the scene in which the assassins sit down for a quiet dinner. The text is killers undercover, but the subtext is movie stars pretending to be a normal couple. That’s what the scene is really about. The oddity, the strangeness of that life—how movie stars pretend to be human, like us, but know quotidian American supermarket life only from research done while preparing for just such roles.
Green is the new black, or so they say. The wig was Jolie’s idea. Photograph by Patrick Demarchelier.
Imet Jolie again in Washington, D.C., at the Hay-Adams, one of the oldest hotels in the country. It’s across the street from the White House. She had come to town with her two daughters—“Brad took the boys to L.A.”—to attend a ceremony, where she would give an award to the widow of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, Mariane Pearl, who she portrayed in A Mighty Heart, then give a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. We talked in the restaurant downstairs from the lobby, in a banquette where she would not be seen, so not bothered. She ordered lobster-and-crawfish bisque and a salad. She then gave me a copy of the article we had discussed in Texas: star stickers, kids, control.
She said, “Maybe this will help.”
Here’s what I was thinking: My God, how does she know of the craziness in my house?
Here’s what I said: “How did you become involved with refugees?”
“I traveled to Cambodia for the first Tomb Raider,” she told me. “I got to this country and expected broken, angry people, and found smiling, kind, warm people. We were doing one shot, and they said, ‘Don’t move to the side, because there are mines over there.’ I’d go to the market and see the land-mine victims. That was one step in realizing there was so much of the world I was blind to.”
Jolie took several trips with the U.N., visiting, among other countries, Cambodia, Pakistan, and Sierra Leone.
It seemed to me this was her world, her concerns, and Brad Pitt had been swallowed up by it—become part of her scheme.
She shook her head.
See our slide show of Angelina Jolie’s complete Vanity Fair spreads and covers. Plus: Rich Cohen offers avideo tour of Jolie’s amazing transformations. Above, photograph by Patrick Demarchelier.
“This was actually one of the things that brought us together,” she told me. “Though he wasn’t as publicly active, I found him to be very aware of the world, very curious, very compassionate. In his private way, he had been doing a lot. When we met, we realized our common goals were that we both wanted to be involved in the world and see what we could do. We have similar interests but different approaches. He’s more involved in rebuilding New Orleans, environmental issues, green sustainability. I am more refugees. But when it comes to common goals—orphans, orphans’ rights, children—we support each other. It brings us together and makes our relationship work.”
The conversation drifted back to the media, the paparazzi. I asked if she ever reads tabloid stories about other people, other stars—I mean, everyone has a guilty pleasure.
“I would never do that,” she said, “because I have good friends I would be reading about and I don’t want it even in my head … a negative fairy tale about somebody I like. I don’t want it in my thoughts. I owe it to them not to pay attention. I know it’s not true. Over 95 percent of what’s said about us is entirely untrue.”
As Jolie spoke, a woman in a sensible pantsuit, the sort you might find at Talbots, came over. When Jolie looked up, this woman, in a single breathless phrase, said, “My-husband-is-over-there-and-is-a-huge-fan-and-I-am-not-someone-who-asks-for- autographs-and-saw-Nicolas-Cage-and-did-not-even-go-over-because-he-is-such-a-freakish- clown-but-you-are-better-and-different-so-please- would-you—”
She shoved a napkin in front of Jolie, who smiled and signed.