On July 23, 2007, Erik shared some news: Tom Cruise was circling a project called Edwin A. Salt, about a CIA officer on a mission to prove his innocence after accusations that he's a Russian sleeper spy. But soon the tides turned. Cruise left and Angelina Jolie took his place. Yes, Edwin A. Salt became Evelyn Salt, and Ms. Jolie joined an action film that would not only be marketed on the sheer power of her name -- a rare thing for the women of Hollywood -- but would also pay her $20 million plus a slew of ancillary benefits.
Her big-screen butt-kicking finally hits theaters this week, and The Hollywood Reporter says she's jolting the "man's world" of action films. In fact, they equate this cinematic sex change with the "groundbreaking" decision to adapt one of the white leads in Beverly Hills Cop so that it could star a fresh-faced Eddie Murphy. So what makes Salt different than her many other films and the women who came before her, and what does it mean for action women on the whole?
As I mentioned in the intro -- here's a project written for a man that was simply changed into a woman's role. It's about star power over sex. For the first time for Jolie, her action isn't sexualized. She's not pouty and tank-topped, extra-busty, or shooting at people whilst wearing a clingy dress and draped over the hood of a sports car.The poster for Salt isn't celebrating her body, nor is it focusing on the action and danger or outlining the supporting male cast. It's simply her face and her name. There is no context other than three words: "Who is Salt?" The cast change itself is surprising too, but we're talking about replacing the still-rediscovering-his-fame Tom Cruise, with a current phenomenon -- Angelina Jolie. From a "name" perspective, she's a more rational choice.
THR believes that her ability to earn a sex-changed action role is due to her persona: "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." Yet that very same article wonders how long it can last. The 35-year-old Jolie has expressed an interest in retirement, and they muse that maybe she knows that the younger audience will soon want to see a "new face (and naked back)," as if she sees her Hollywood worth as linked to her ability to appeal to teen boys.
We're in a current media landscape where Jolie is the entire marketing push for Salt, and Helen Mirren is making waves as a gun toter in Red, yet her breakthrough is tempered with questions of how long her sexuality and appeal as an action star can last through the "Indiana Jones standard." This speaks perfectly to the constant intermingling of action and sex for female action heroes. Even though she's breaking into this boy's club, her worth is still linked to her beauty, and she's still seen as a sort of anomaly.
Salt producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura calls Jolie a ground breaker, and when asked if anyone else could "carry the mantle" if she walked away from the camera: "I don't see anybody right now. 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."
I'm not convinced that she has broken the ground -- yet. Right now, she's still following in the footsteps of Ripley, Sarah Connor, and The Bride. She's tough and audiences like her, but she's also still a sex symbol. Furthermore, if you consider her entire career, it doesn't bode well for any current actresses looking to enter the action fold.
Angelina Jolie kicked things off with Cyborg 2, but it wasn't until 1995's Hackers that her Hollywood persona began -- one that immediately coded her as unique and off the beaten path. She quickly fell in love with her co-star, and within a year, she was married to Jonny Lee Miller in a private ceremony where he wore black leather and she was swathed in black rubber pants, a white t-shirt, and his name written in her blood across the back. She told The New York Times in 1996: "You're about to marry him. You can sacrifice a little to make it really special."
At that point, no one would've dreamed that she'd become one of the biggest, successful, and most powerful names in Hollywood. Hackers was followed by Foxfire, the film that allowed her to play an enigma of strength for women, and a sexual oddity for men. Though the film started with a gender flip -- the female camera feverishly clicking away at a naked male body (Twilight's Peter Facinelli), there's another moment where Jolie's Legs takes off her top and begins to tattoo her breast, before tattooing her new friends. It's a perfect mix of that Jolie "anomaly" of sexuality and strength.
Gia showed that Jolie could handle more than just teen '90s fare, which she subsequently proved beyond a shadow of a doubt a year later with her Oscar-winning performance in Girl, Interrupted. Now Jolie was caught between her world as the sexy outcast and a future of fame and fortune. Though there was still more eerie tabloid fodder in her future as she fell for Billy Bob Thornton and intermingled marriage with vials of blood, things were beginning to change.
Part of me wonders if Jolie chose action as her means of ingratiating herself with the public and sculpting a new professional image for herself. Her Oscar follow-ups were Gone in Sixty Seconds and Tomb Raider, not the usual path of an Oscar winner. She tried a full-on attempt at romcom territory with Life of Something Like It, but quickly zipped back to a roster of action and drama. Not every gig worked, but through a collection of leading film roles, tabloid romance with Brad Pitt, humanitarian work, and motherhood, Jolie flipped from the rebel voice of young women to a mature and seemingly unstoppable celebrity.
What some don't realize is that the Jolie you see now is -- for the most part -- the woman she wants you to see. She has no PR support and no agent to deal with the floods of press. It's all her, and the deals she makes to construct her own image. Jolie may have broken through a glass ceiling to a new level of action stardom for herself, but it's the result of an unusual amount of effort and selection.
As the actress prepares to hit Comic Con, I wonder if she's really jolting anything. Is she, as diBonaventura states: "the first female to transcend gender"? Not quite. Her sex-appeal is still a factor, and you can be sure that if Salt is a box office failure, blame will be thrown on her sex. I'll believe she's jolted the action world when Salt becomes a hit and more sexuality-free action roles are handed over to her and other capable actresses. I'll believe it when it doesn't take years of careful choices and name-building for a woman to lead an action franchise, when age isn't a factor, and when discussions of her jolting a man's world don't include talk of her increasing age and supposedly decreasing sexual draw.
It's been 31 years since Sigourney Weaver first played Ripley, and we're still talking about the anomaly of the female action hero. It's going to take a lot more than one killer role to jolt this industry.