Despite the prestigious TV Baftas and 66th Cannes film festival both taking place last week, more media coverage was given to the announcement of Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a double mastectomy. The actress and UN ambassador underwent a reported nine hours of surgery in order to reduce her chances of developing either breast or ovarian cancer.
Many commentators have praised Jolie’s decision in terms of health-conscious responsibility and bravery, but The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade made the more original observation that Jolie’s appearance on the cover of every national newspaper demonstrates the power of celebrity in the modern world. Greenslade predicted that the media storm will be followed by an increase in the numbers of women seeking medical advice about breast cancer, an effect also noted by the NHS after Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis made the news in 2005.
In each case the extreme rate of coverage and reactions within society are testament to a sad truth about celebrity culture. Although a rise in awareness of breast cancer prevention is obviously a positive side effect of Jolie’s stardom, the media splurge is part of an ongoing trend in which the ins and outs of celebrities’ personal lives are deemed more newsworthy than the reasons they got famous in the first place.
Jolie may be well known for lending human form to the protagonist of video game Tomb Raider in the 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and for starring in comparable action fare such as Mr and Mrs Smith (2005) and Wanted (2008). but in my opinion her finest work is to be found in films of the drama genre, in which she has played several moving and memorable characters
Like many actresses, Jolie started out by appearing in a string of TV movies, a form which is generally not very well respected.
However, there are some gems to be found, and one such movie is Michael Cristofer’s Gia (1998), a tragic biopic about the 1970s supermodel Gia Carangi. Jolie’s performance in the lead role is highly emotive, and fraught with desperation as Gia climbs from rags to riches before succumbing to substance abuse in a now-familiar narrative often replayed by today’s young Hollywood (though likely sensationalised by media coverage).
In Gia, the young Jolie is as brave as she is wide-ranging; as Gia spirals out of control Jolie presents an apt portrait of dead-eyed drug-dependency, but her real shining moments are in the scenes with her sometime-girlfriend Linda (Elizabeth Mitchell). Even now, with audiences well-versed in Jolie’s marriage to Brad Pitt, her performance is incredibly convincing in its portrayal of Gia’s sexual identity.
Jolie’s work in the better-known Girl, Interrupted (1999), based on the life and writings of Susanna Kaysen and her experiences with apparent mental ill health in the ‘60s, is just as enthralling. Although Winona Ryder appeared in first billing as Susanna, Jolie’s performance as the ‘sociopath’ Lisa is scene-stealing throughout, completely dominating Ryder’s able but understated performance, and deservedly earning her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Jolie hasn’t won an Oscar since, but her artistic achievement has still reached a high level. Clint Eastwood’s 2008 picture Changeling, based on yet another true story, is an impeccably styled vision of the American 1920s (certainly rivalling Luhrmann’s latest offering in this department), but it’s biggest success is thanks to Jolie. Her performance as Christine Collins, a bereft mother whose missing child is replaced with an ‘imposter’ by a corrupt LAPD, is almost as haunting as Burt Layton’s documentary The Imposter, which handles similar subject matter.
Jolie will next appear in Maleficent, a re-imagined version of Sleeping Beauty told from the antagonist’s perspective, and her reprisal of the titular role has been announced for the sequel to 2010’s decent-but-not-incredible Salt. Here’s hoping she’ll continue to be both a great actress and female role model.