Reading Angelina Jolie, Mother of Dragons

By
This is a woman who has it all, but who always seems to want more. Photo: Splash News/Corbis

Angelina Jolie does exactly what she likes, full stop. That's why she has always been such a maddening, transfixing mixture of inspiration and affront to the rest of us. In her first few seconds in the spotlight, she rejected the demure lady-superstar path, openly scoffing at so-called Hollywood glamour with tattoos and black leather, then marrying an oddball 20 years her senior and wearing a vial of his blood around her neck.

After her divorce from Billy Bob Thornton, she wrote off the heteronormative fantasy of lifelong marriage and triumphantly prepared to raise her first child as a single mother, only to reverse course and dive right into her own custom-designed heteronormative fantasy with a very married Brad Pitt (refusing to either play the predatory vixen or apologize for the awkward timing, she flaunted her budding relationship by posing as Pitt's wife in a photo shoot for W instead). Soon after, Jolie set about adopting and giving birth to a multiethnic army of babies with Pitt by her side, ushering them on what seemed like a never-ending world tour flanked by an army of Ray-Ban–clad handlers. She had a preemptive double mastectomy in 2013, then had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed this year, but used both operations as opportunities to inform the public about inherited cancer risks. Somehow, she emerged with even more swagger. Year after year, she's greeted unexpected challenges with such calm and poise that it's almost impossible to trust her. Could Jolie be an alien from another planet, sent to control our minds while harvesting a gorgeous rainbow of children from every nation, each one destined to rule a planet of his or her own in some distant galaxy?

As absurd as that sounds, science fiction may come closest to capturing Jolie's status as a constantly reinvented symbol of unapologetic female egotism and power — power that's wildly out of sync with the ploddingly flat PR-savvy words Jolie uses to describe her experiences. In her latest power move, Jolie directs herself and her husband in By the Sea, a dark drama about a couple in the midst of a boozy marriage crisis that can't help but conjure that W photo shoot from a decade ago. But this should come as no surprise. Jolie did what she liked ten years ago, and what she likes right now is directing.

By the Sea, which opens on Friday, may not set the world on fire; early word suggests it is likely to exit theaters quickly. But as a clue to her otherwise-mysterious inner life and her unfathomable marriage, the film is like a Rosetta Stone. This is a woman who has it all, but who always seems to want more. She doesn't want to just be a world-famous actress, which she hints has always felt beneath her. She wants to be a movie director and also a guardian of human rights worldwide, one with a famous husband who is, in spite of his rigorous filming schedule, an equal co-parenting partner and supportive best friend.

Thus do we find Jolie in a gorgeous seaside village in the Mediterranean, the ideal setting for a certain supernaturally attractive couple to glower and sulk in the sparkling sunlight. The trailer for By the Sea delivers on this front: In scene after scene, Jolie and Pitt are glowering and sulking in the most photogenic and glamorous ways imaginable. A follow-up to Jolie's second directorial effort, Unbroken, the film presents an American writer named Roland and his wife, Vanessa, who are experiencing marital upheaval — albeit that rare flavor of upheaval that looks just like a high-end perfume ad. The screenplay, which was written by Jolie, allows for shots of the actress sitting on a rumpled bed with big, salty tears dripping out of her saucer eyes, or poutily smoking in tinted Sophia Loren glasses. In other shots we find Pitt, pouring himself a drink, trying to write in the bathtub, hitting his head in frustration over a blank page, and tossing back another drink instead. The couple is armed with terse lines that mimic the suspenseful vagaries of Mad Men teasers. Pitt: "We ever gonna talk about it?" Jolie: "You're nothing!" Pitt: "You wanna hurt me?" In a slight departure from the stylings of Chanel No. 5, though, name-calling escalates to violence, then Harry Nilsson sings in his 1979 warble, "It's the perfect way to end a perfect day.”

Dabbling in dark melodrama starring you and your perfect husband may be the perfect way to advance your perfect career and bask in the glory of your perfect life. Or, it may just be another day in the life of a "camp event," as Scott Rudin uncharitably summed up Jolie in his hacked Sony emails. But that's not how Jolie sees it. "I didn't ever think I could direct," Jolie told DuJour last year, speaking in her new, preferred tongue of self-effacing humility that borders on the surreal, "but I hope I'm able to have a career at it because I'm much happier." Jolie prefers directing to acting these days, because, as she put it, "I've never loved being in front of the camera."

She certainly had us fooled. But maybe what Jolie is really saying is that she prefers to be in charge. No wonder that, for all her talk of the importance of equal partnerships, Jolie always feels like the white-hot center of her universe, with Pitt playing the dutiful sidekick, the man behind the woman. Even when Pitt is off working on his own projects — movies that always seem to require bizarre choices in facial hair — it's difficult not to imagine him as anything but a cork tossed on Jolie's stormy sea. In every paparazzi shot, Pitt looks like just another handler among many, protecting the queen and her enormous brood. Angie is royalty, Brad is her loyal footservant. Angie states her needs, Pitt acquiesces. Is this interpretation just an outcropping of our anxiety about shifting gender roles? Or is it simply that, having witnessed Jolie's intelligence and self-possession and Pitt’s strange clumsiness over the years, it's hard not to feel that she should lead and he should follow? Are we unnecessarily demeaning a nice guy who has embraced an egalitarian marriage to a strong woman, or are we just trying to elevate Jolie to the status of a modern-day Mother of Dragons?

But for a Mother of Dragons, what is most striking about Jolie’s apparent desires is how earnest they are, at their core: professional success yielding creative autonomy; a marriage that is both hopelessly photogenic and a fulfilling partnership; an obvious ability to relish the joys of motherhood with or without cameras present; simple philanthropic goodness, on a scale that matters globally. Could anyone argue with these ambitions? And yet they're embroidered with just enough stubborn hints that she's somehow reinventing the wheel that we tend to encounter them as considerably more radical, if not as expressions of outright hostility. This goes especially for her marriage. Pitt has said that, in support of gay marriage, he and Jolie wouldn't marry until "everyone else in the country who wants to be married is legally able." And Jolie hinted to German magazine Das Neue Blatt that the two have an open marriage. "I doubt that fidelity is absolutely essential for a relationship," she said. "Neither Brad nor I have ever claimed that living together means to be chained together. We make sure that we never restrict each other.”

This is a pair who chose to spend their honeymoon by shooting a movie (or "an art film" as Jolie calls it) about a deeply unhappy married couple. Filming involved accessing their aggression toward each other, but as Jolie told Vogue, "As artists we wanted something that took us out of our comfort zones." She added, "It's not the safest idea. But life is short." All of that photogenic suffering was worth it, though, for the much-needed boost in self-esteem it yielded: "We're proud of ourselves for being brave enough to try it," Jolie explained.

If equating a pricey film shoot with a struggle to be brave sounds a little rich, that may just be the dissonance inherent to having all of the time and money in the world and still working very hard to pursue the exact life you want. That very audacity has placed Jolie pretty far ahead of her time over the years. She was the Zoro of Other Women in the hopelessly heteronormative '00s, then she acquired her Benetton-ready babies right at the dawn of our transition to a truly global culture. Her New York Times op-ed about her elective surgery last spring pointed the way to a brand-new era of transparency and self-empowered selfie activism. And if Jolie's real has never been discernible from her fake, that only meant she was a beacon to the unholy mob of Taylor Swifts to follow. For better or for worse, Jolie is a woman who stands up for what she believes, conjures a tempest, and then remarks serenely at how lovely the weather has been lately. And if most of her choices happen to entail jaw-dropping costs, outsize proportions, and self-mythologizing acts of filmmaking, well … Life is short, isn't it?

*This article appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.