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Angelina Jolie jolts a man’s world: action films

$20 million salary for "Salt" shakes up genre norms

The National Organization for Women should send Angelina Jolie a nice cheese basket (or vice versa).

The world's most famous actress-humanitarian might not have single-handedly erased gender inequality in the movie industry, but she sure has struck a major blow for actresses. How else to explain her $20 million payout for Sony's next big summer release, "Salt," an action project that originally was written to star a man -- no less than Tom Cruise?

"It's definitely unusual that a female has become an action star," "Salt" producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura says. "But it's a funny thing. She's not a female action star; she's an action star. She's really the first female to transcend gender. I don't think it's occurred before."

To di Bonaventura's point, a star must be in some rarefied atmosphere when a one-hander lead role in a huge studio action tentpole is rewritten from male to female. It's akin to the groundbreaking result when 25 years ago Jerry Bruckheimer had the white lead in the "Beverly Hills Cop" screenplay refashioned so it could star a 22-year-old black actor named Eddie Murphy.

Then again, given Jolie's track record, it's not so much of a stretch.

In the past 10 years, she has starred in five action-dominated films that have averaged $124 million in domestic grosses. Worldwide, those grosses total nearly $1.5 billion. Again, that's just her action roles -- "Wanted" (2008), "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (2005), "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" (2003), "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" (2001) and "Gone in 60 Seconds" (2000).

The Philip Noyce-directed "Salt," in which Jolie plays a CIA spook accused of foreign espionage who must go on the run, looks prepared to push that total upward when it opens July 23. Industry tracking a week out has it opening north of $30 million, but its only competition that weekend is the kid-friendly "Ramona and Beezus" and the second week of "Inception," which means interest is likely to spike as it gets closer to opening.

"Wanted" opened at $50.9 million against "WALL-E" two summers ago, and "Smith" opened at $50.3 million in 2005. (The following weekend, July 30, has even less competition, so holdover grosses could be strong with good word-of-mouth.) And 58% of Jolie's action grosses, on average, come from international audiences.

Jolie hasn't worked for the studio since "Girl, Interrupted" in 1999, and though she's considering a "Cleopatra" biopic there with producer Scott Rudin, Sony already has Brad Pitt's and her next projects: "Moneyball" and "The Tourist."

"The Tourist," a reworking of the 2005 French thriller "Anthony Zimmer," will open in February. That film pairs her with one of the most bankable male movie stars in the world, Johnny Depp. As Elise, a seductive femme fatale, Jolie gets to show off her sensual side and her active one when killers start chasing the patsy she has put in harm's way.

No actress in Hollywood history has been able to chisel out the supremacy Jolie has in a male-dominated genre. Actually, her achievement is bigger than that. Her standard deal, which she received for "Salt" and "Tourist," is matched by only one or two other actors in the world, with $20 million up front, a hefty first-dollar gross percentage plus other sizable ancillary benefits. She already was getting $15 million for "Smith" and "Wanted."

"The fact that she is in the entertainment industry and can approach a male salary is an anomaly," says Lori Watson, a Ph.D. and director of women's and gender studies at the University of San Diego. "Maybe she can command a salary, but she can't break through the expectations that women are supposed to be beautiful and sexualized and fit a certain mold and behave in a certain way."

That might be true, but Jolie's unique success makes her the negative image of every other actress in Hollywood -- an unstoppable boxoffice force in an action context and a non-entity in the romantic comedy ghetto. (She also happens to be a mother of six, but that's neither here nor there.)

So Jolie is one-of-a-kind in any number of ways -- not least in how she has cemented her status. Looking at the character dynamics in her past few films, Jolie consistently was cast in a role reversal in which she is the traditional "man" in the scenario. In "Wanted," James McAvoy was the weaker, inexperienced "woman" who needed to be trained and hardened to survive. In "Tourist," she's the slick, in-control prime mover manipulating the milquetoast, ordinary guy. And then there's "Salt," the literal transformation of a role that at one time was set for Cruise.


Over the years, mostly thanks to the efforts and vision of director James Cameron, audiences have been treated to a rare female lead who can handle herself in a gun or fistfight. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in "Aliens" in 1986, Linda Hamilton in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" in 1991 and Zoe Saldana and Michelle Rodriguez in "Avatar" last year all represented strong, confident women ready to knock some heads.

Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich carved out B-movie franchises as action heroines in the fantasy-horror genre -- Beckinsale with "Underworld" and Jovovich with "Resident Evil." And Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore threw themselves into action camp with the successful "Charlie's Angels" movies -- but those were highly stylized three-handers, and all three thesps have quickly retreated to more traditional roles in the years since. (Diaz did just jump on a motorcycle with Cruise in "Knight and Day," but so far that has grossed just $62 million in the U.S.)

Television has been a better training ground for the female action archetype.

Jessica Alba launched her career in "Dark Angel" (Cameron again!), Jennifer Garner was fierce as the college student/spy of "Alias," courtesy of J.J. Abrams, and Joss Whedon birthed "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and "Dollhouse" (Eliza Dushku).

It's notable that Garner dabbled in action on the big screen in "Daredevil" and its spinoff "Elektra," but quickly returned to the world of romantic comedy when those failed. Alba suited up for the "Fantastic Four" movies but had very little to do. And while Scarlett Johansson's turn as Black Widow in "Iron Man 2" looked promising, but that was a small part and no one expects her to spend much more time in the blow-'em-up genre.

Other top actresses still command huge audiences in less surprising contexts.

Sandra Bullock has reminded everyone that she can draw major bank, in feel-good drama ("The Blind Side") and traditional romantic comedy ("The Proposal"). And Julia Roberts is likely to clean up in "Eat Pray Love," an August release from Columbia. But she won't be jumping from bridges to moving cars and throwing roundhouses at Richard Jenkins (unless that mooning trailer is terribly misleading).

Like those women, Jolie also has an Oscar on her mantle, and a genuine yen to tackle challenging parts in adult dramas such as "Changeling," "A Mighty Heart" and "Girl, Interrupted," which got her that gold statuette (and an asterisk for oddest acceptance speech). But Jolie has also contributed her voice to three animated toons -- "Kung Fu Panda," "Beowulf" and "Shark Tale" -- that have grossed another $1.2 billion worldwide.

Jolie's not bulletproof. She's had her misfires and middling movies ("Taking Lives" and "Beyond Borders" come to mind), but she's got the dramatic acting chops and the athletic prowess to sell herself in almost anything (though even her prestige movies don't always bring in the big bucks). So what, precisely, can't she do?

Well, just one thing, actually.

Romantic comedy.

She did try it once, in "Life, or Something Like It" in 2002, and the $14.4 million domestic gross sent a message she and her reps, including Media Talent Group's Geyer Kosinski, clearly noted. Being paired with a lightweight like Ed Burns didn't help. And therein lies part of the problem.


Jolie comes across as such an unearthly mix of striking beauty and ass-kicking aggression that few would believe she could ever be just one of the parts of a love triangle. Imagine her in a romantic tug-of-war with Meg Ryan in her heyday. Or Reese Witherspoon or Katherine Heigl today. The lucky guy in question would make his decision before the opening credits sequence was over.

"She's too strong, she's too forceful," says Hollywood historian David Thomson ("Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles"). "And that's not just her screen character. It's her public character, too. She's not got that sort of availability for romance. She isn't really sentimentally appealing. She needs to be doing strong things -- crazy things, sometimes -- to work on screen."

Put another way, Jolie is tough for female audiences to get behind. She's threatening. Whether accurate or not, many perceive even Jennifer Aniston to have been a victim of Jolie's sharkish charm after husband Brad Pitt became smitten with Jolie during the shoot for "Smith."

"My feeling on the ground is at the beginning of that relationship a lot of women viewed her as a homewrecker," says Watson. "But since then, her charitable work, her adoption, her work with the U.N., and the work that they're doing in New Orleans and her public face as a mother appeals to a lot of women as a kind of person who has A) a completely supportive partner that a lot of women would like and don't have, and b) someone who can manage a family and a career and is committed to those mainstream values even if she lives in a very different, romanticized, Hollywood rich kind of way."

Even as she's brought more women into the fold, Jolie is still not doing a Garry Marshall film anytime soon. And she doesn't need to.

Women support her well enough in strong dramatic parts. When "Changeling" opened in fall 2008, the real-life period drama pulled in audiences that skewed 61% female, and her role as the widowed Mariane Pearl in "A Mighty Heart" the previous summer drew mostly women, as well. But again, these movies don't make as huge returns because in this case it is the men who aren't being drawn to see them.

In the action field, Jolie's demos split more traditionally. "Wanted" audiences were 52% male, with moviegoers split fairly evenly under and over 30. "Smith" brought in an audience that was 56% female (her co-star might have had something to do with that).

But how long can that appeal last? The flip side of the picture is that her fans are beginning to slide more heavily into the over-30 crowd, which isn't surprising for films like "Changeling" and "Heart," but could take a fatal bite out of that teenage male audience that wants to see her bend bullets and look at the camera over a naked, tattooed back. Sooner rather than later, they're going to want to see a new face (and naked back).

Perhaps Jolie is aware of this. Because now, at the pinnacle of her success, she is making noises that she might not be much longer for the business. "I'm very, very grateful, it's a fun job. It's a luxury," she recently told Vanity Fair. "But I don't think I'll do it much longer."

Jolie is only 35 years old.

By the Indiana Jones standard, then, she's got another 30 years of running, punching and flipping ahead. Although she's trimmed her work commitments down to one film a year, she's got sequels to "Salt," "Wanted" and even, possibly, "Tourist" to consider. Also, there's the "Sleeping Beauty" spinoff "Maleficent," a new take on "Cleopatra," the dark drama "Serena" for director Darren Aronofsky and another potential franchise spun from the Patricia Cornwell character Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a sleuthing medical examiner.

With half a dozen kids to nurture and a desire to improve the world, however, Jolie's clearly got other priorities. But she genuinely looks like she's having too much fun at the top to actually call it quits.

Hypothetically, let's say she did. Just how much of a Halley's Comet is she? Is there anyone to carry the mantle if Jolie suddenly walked away (in slow-motion, without looking back at the blooming fireball behind her)?

"I don't see anybody right now," di Bonaventura says. "Will there be more female action heroes? There will be another one, yeah, I believe that. You look at these things as a progression. First they tried to mimic what a male action star was. And now with Angie, you're just letting her be what she is. We've gotten away from that male classification of what is an action star. And that means that will open possibilities for somebody else. You just needed somebody to break the ground."

The field is open, and ripe for new blood. But still.

Better keep that next cheese basket in the fridge.