Oscar 2007: Angelina Jolie in Mighty Heart

It's a pleasure-almost a noveltyto talk about Angelina Jolie as an actress rather than a celeb. Occupying the covers of gossipy tabloids (and not so gossipy magazines), Jolie has been in the news due to her companionship with star Brad Pitt, who legally adopted her three children and fathered one biological daughter.

We also have been reading about Jolie as a mother, as a political activist, as a fashion icon, as a spokesperson for various glamorous productsanything but an actress.

Jolie was recently nominated for the Best Actress SAG award as well as for a Golden Globe in the drama category, for her heartbreaking performance in “A Mighty Heart.”

Here is what I wrote seven months ago, after the world premiere of the picture at the Cannes Film Festival: “A Mighty Heart,” Michael Winterbottom's fact-based drama, is a politically honorable, emotionally engaging film that chronicles the events leading to the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl. This topical film, which falls short of being truly poignant, world premiered at the 2007 Cannes Festival and will be released by Paramount Vantage June 22.”

As for Jolie's performance: “A Mighty Heart” is a triumph for Jolie the actress rather than the celeb, whose personal, familial, and political activities continue to overshadow her on screen work. Deglamorized, sporting a convincing French accent, and behaving like an ordinary wife, Jolie nails the part. This is no minor feat, considering the poor parts Jolie has been playing of late, including the embarrassing political saga, “Beyond Borders.” Rendering her best work since her Supporting Oscar-winning turn in “Girl, Interrupted,” Jolie impresses with her understated, non-actorish approach. Though it's too early to predict, with strong critical support and some luck, Jolie should be rewarded later this year with an Oscar nomination, this time in the lead category.

Since then, “A Might Heart” had opened to mixed reviews, but failed to find an audience, grossing about $10 million domestically, an amount that didn't even recoup the film's budget, not to speak about costs of marketing, advertising, and publicity.

On a second viewing in December, my opinion of the film and of Jolie's work has not changed. Politically urgent and intelligent yet not entirely effective, “Mighty Heart” is too ambitious for its own good, trying to document a complex political situation that led to the brutal killing of Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman, “Capote” screenwriter), while not neglecting the personal tragedy of his wife-journalist Mariane.

Helmer Winterbottom and writer John Orloff, adapting Mariane Pearl's memoir, have faced enormous challenges of how to dramatize an extremely complicated political setting defined by numerous facts, events, and diverse players of several countries. For the large part, all of the above are well-handled, but ultimately, “Mighty Heart” can't decide whose story it is telling, and what the focus of the tale is.

Even so, the film is based on mutually beneficial collaboration: Jolie has elevated the profile of Winterbottom's work through her status, and the Brit director was able to coax a more powerful performance from Jolie than she has given in a long, long time.

Placed in the broader context of Winterbottom, a director who has made several political films utilizing a documentary style, “Mighty Heart” is more effective and engaging than “Road to Guantanamo.” Though a flop by U.S. standards, “Mighty Heart” is the most commercially successful film by Winterbottom, a director with regular presence in the festival circuit but no audience in the American marketplace, where his films have been failures.

Oscar-Caliber Role

Produced by Plan B (Brad Pitt is credited as a producer) and Revolution Films, “Mighty Heart” is anchored by a strong, emotionally evocative performance from Angelina Jolie, who, despite star status, blends into a cast of mostly unknown or no-name actors of various nationalities.

However, based on my extensive studies of Oscar-winning films and roles, in the book All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, I'd like to suggest that Jolie's role in “Mighty Heart” is an Oscar-caliber role par excellence.
As Mariane, Jolie benefits from several ingredients that have proved helpful vis–vis grabbing Oscar attention: deglamorized looks of beautiful stars, physical transformation, here in the form of advance pregnancy, foreign accent–Jolie is barely recognizable. The role also contains several painfully emotional scenes, two of which calls for shrieks that threaten to tear up the screen: The first when she's told and finally realizes that her husband was shot; the second when she goes into labor.

Highest-Paid Actress

A recent survey disclosed that Jolie is one of the highest-paid actresses in the U.S., a group that includes Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Cameron Diaz, and Halle Berry, all of whom have made disappointing pictures this year. (An interesting topic for another editorial).

Jolie's lucrative fees are for her studio-made pictures, such as “Mr. and Mrs, Smith, in 2005, this season's stop-animation “Beowulf,” and next year's suspense thriller. She didn't get such moneys for “A Mighty Heart,” a modestly budget picture, but it was a rewarding experience that paid off.

At the risk of sounding overly critical, Ids like to point out that Jolie has made mostly bad and disappointing pictures (and some awful ones) since her splashy Oscar-winning role in “Girl, Interrupted,” in which she stole every scene she was in, including those with that movie's nominal star, Winona Ryder.

Too bad that the efforts to turn Jolie into a viable action star as Lara Flynn, in the way that Sigourney Weaver was in th “Alien/Aliens” series, didn't work out. The two “Tomb Raider” pictures were artistically and commercially bad, and Paramount quickly scrapped its goal to have Jolie as topliner of a new franchise.

Blessed with naturally seductive looks, gorgeous body, and edgy personality, in the mid-1990s, Jolie represented a new kind of actress, a smart leading lady with an intensely engaging personality. Talent was never the issue: Taste in choosing screen roles and misconceived projects were bigger problems.

While I could understand her attraction to high-profile thrillers like “The Bone Collector,” opposite Denzel Washington, and an ensemble drama like “Pushing Tin,” it's not easy to fathom her appearances in the schlock “Gone in 60 Seconds,” the risible “Original Sin,” with Antonio Banderas, and the preposterous “Beyond Borders,” co-starring Clive Owen.

But there's no reason to despair. Jolie is only 32 (she was born June 4, 1975), and she has at least another good decade ahead of her in terms of meaty dramatic roles offered to women in Hollywood while in their 30s (best decade for femmes) and 40s. Major female stars in their 50s are often relegated to secondary and supporting roles, manifesting the still-annoying operation of a double standard when it comes to gender in the film industry. Meryl Streep, 57, may be the notable exception, a brilliant actress able to navigate smoothly between lead (“The Devil Wears Prada”) and supporting roles (“Rendition,” Lambs for Lions”).