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Career Watch: Has ‘Maleficent’ Restored Angelina Jolie’s Box Office Mojo?

Career Watch: Has 'Maleficent' Restored Angelina Jolie's Box Office Mojo?

Reviews were split down the middle: “Maleficent” was both magnificent and Grimm failure.  The “Wicked”-style live-action reworking of the animated classic “Sleeping Beauty” that focuses on the vengeful fairy who places the curse on a young princess scored a so-so 51% positive ranking on Rotten Tomatoes.

However, even some of the harshest critics couldn’t resist star Angelina Jolie’s chillingly seductive brand of visual hocus pocus — jutting cheekbones, curvaceous horns, crimson-lacquered lips combined with the mesmerizing allure of a silent-movie  siren —  as the human incarnation of the Disney cartoon icon. Peter Rainer of the “Christian Science Monitor” praised her as “a genuinely heroic presence,” despite being otherwise underwhelmed.

Those who were kinder to the CGI-jammed fantasy were even more effusive.  As Moira MacDonald of the “Seattle Times” observed, “There’s really only one special effect in “Maleficent” worth mentioning, and that is Angelina Jolie.”

As for moviegoers, the $70 million opening  — a Jolie record — for a rare female summer action adventure suggests that they, too, were transfixed by the sight of the right actress in a perfect-fit role.

Signature line:  “I’m playing the villain, baby, just like you want. I try to give you everything you want.”  — As Lisa, the brutally honest sociopath, in “Girl, Interrupted” (1999).

Career peaks: Well, well … as Maleficent herself would say. The actress, who turns 39 on June 4, has summoned her bad-girl persona from the past and it worked. Think back to the period before motherhood, humanitarian causes and Brad Pitt. Jolie, the so-beautiful-it-hurts daughter of movie star Jon Voight, favored knives, cutting, and drugs, bedded both men and women, had a bizarre-o three-year marriage to Billy Bob Thornton and seemed  on a path to self-destruction. Remember when she would feed the press such quotes as, “When other little girls wanted to be ballet dancers I kind of wanted to be a vampire?”

After a series of mediocre films in the early ‘90s, she found her breakout roles in TV movies:  As Southern politician George Wallace’s second wife in 1997’s “Wallace” and as a tragic supermodel  in 1998’s “Gia.” She then managed to overshadow star Winona Ryder and win a supporting Oscar as a scary and sarcastic mental patient  in “Girl, Interrupted.” After that, Jolie found her calling as an action hero, one inspired by a video-game vixen in 2001’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in addition to a 2003 sequel.

Zoom to Angelina 2.0. Not only was 2005’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” her biggest box-office hit to date ($478 million worldwide), she ran off with her co-star and future fiancé Brad Pitt. Since then, that long-running soap opera relationship (along with her roles as a philanthropist and a mother of six) have eclipsed her work output. She has mixed “quality” films that have garnered critical plaudits, including  2007’s “A Mighty Heart” and 2008’s “Changeling,” with more mainstream fare. Her box-office hits have been either animated (2008’s “Kung Fu Panda” and its 2011 sequel) or action (2008’s “Wanted,” 2010’s “Salt”). Until now: “Maleficent” is the perfect mix of both.  

Biggest assets: Those eyes, those lips, that face – combined with her now-glowing public image. Jolie’s astonishing beauty, old-fashioned glamour and statuesque presence are well-suited to outsized roles such as Maleficent or Lara Croft.  And now that her PR smarts have turned the tide on her public image as a Hollywood wild child and home wrecker while capitalizing on her adoption of three in-need children, her efforts as an U.N ambassador and her brave revelations about her preventative double mastectomy to ward off cancer in 2013, moviegoers have warmed considerably towards her.

Gossip fodder:  Where to start? Where to end? For the first half of her career, the chatter about her offbeat goth-girl lifestyle and romantic companions often upstaged her acting feats. But after getting involved with the United Nations in 2001 and adopting her first child, son Maddox, from an orphanage in 2003, Jolie cleaned up her act–and controlled her publicity. All that good will, of course, was threatened by scandal-shouting headlines after being linked with then-married Pitt in 2005. Eventually the popularity of pitting Brangelina against Pitt’s ex-wife Jennifer Aniston ran out of tabloid steam. Both actors have become so savvy in doing damage control and handling how they are perceived by the public these days that their careers have hardly suffered.

Awards attention:  Won a supporting Emmy and Golden Globe for “Wallace.” Won the trifecta – lead Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG – for “Gia.” And pulled off another three-way – supporting Oscar, Globe, SAG  — with wins for “Girl, Interrupted.” Nominated for a Globe and SAG as lead in “A Mighty Heart” and earned lead Oscar, Globe and SAG nods for “Changeling.” Nominated for a Globe as a lead in 2010’s “The Tourist.” Honored with the Academy’s coveted Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award last year.

Latest misfire: Despite earning three laughable Globe nominations in categories for musicals or comedies – it was neither — the nearly universally panned “The Tourist” failed to capitalize on what should have been an exceedingly combustible first-time pairing of two superstars, Jolie and Johnny Depp. Considering what they probably earned for taking part in the $100 million romantic thriller, $68 million in domestic ticket sales seems pretty paltry indeed.   

Biggest problems: Jolie is so larger-than-life, it makes it difficult for audiences to accept her in roles as an everyday person. As her “Changeling” director Clint Eastwood, who has nothing but praise for her acting abilities, has noted: “She’s somewhat hampered sometimes by having this gorgeous face, the most gorgeous face on the planet. She’s on covers and all that stuff.” Besides, most screenplays pale when compared to her own well-documented existence as a global vagabond do-gooder with a large brood of adorable kids and equally stunning companion. That might be one reason that it has been four years since she was last seen on a movie screen (she was only heard in “Kung Fu Panda 2”). The other is her pursuit of a directing career. 

Career advice: Jolie made another wise move when she took refuge behind the camera as a writer, director and producer of the 2011 Bosnian War film “In the Land of Milk and Honey.” Despite mixed reviews, it proved she was seriously committed to her craft – not always easy to do as a celebrated sex symbol.  That she is continuing down that path is probably a good thing for the most part. Her second directing effort, “Unbroken,” the true story of  an Olympic athlete who survived being a  World War II POW,  opens this Christmas.

Still, fans might be disappointed if Jolie decides to call it a day as a performer. As she told USA TODAY recently, “I became an actress because my mom wanted me to become an actress. It took me until my mid-30s to realize I actually didn’t. I actually wanted to write and direct and be more involved in politics and humanitarian issues. I’ll do a few more films and enjoy it and if I’m blessed to have a good career, but I’ve never loved it like I love other things.”

It would be a shame if Jolie fails to use her current box-office muscle to portray more fabulous female characters.  But given that she has a sizable list of upcoming acting projects, a retirement from the screen is not exactly imminent.

Next step: So far she has resisted many possible sequels, but we’ll see if she goes along with plans for “Salt 2,” “Wanted 2” and “Kung Fu Panda 3.” And Disney will surely pursue another go-round for hit “Maleficent.” Also tempting is the news that Jolie has written a script – one that she describes as “a little independent experiment” — that might finally reunite her and Pitt as co-stars. But the only production news that will be more exciting than when her long-awaited take on “Cleopatra” gets off the ground is when the pair finally announce a wedding date.

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