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Angelina Jolie jolts a man's world: action films

The world's most famous Hollywood humanitarian might not have single-handedly erased gender inequality in the movie industry, but she sure has struck a major blow for actresses.
/ Source: Reuters

The National Organization for Women should send Angelina Jolie a nice cheese basket (or vice versa).

The world's most famous Hollywood humanitarian might not have single-handedly erased gender inequality in the movie industry, but she sure has struck a major blow for actresses. How else to explain her $20 million payout for Sony's next big summer release, "Salt," an action project that originally was written to star a man -- no less than Tom Cruise?

"It's definitely unusual that a female has become an action star," "Salt" producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura says. "But it's a funny thing. She's not a female action star; she's an action star. She's really the first female to transcend gender. I don't think it's occurred before."

To di Bonaventura's point, a star must be in some rarefied atmosphere when a lead role in a big studio action movie is rewritten from male to female. It's akin to the groundbreaking result when 25 years ago Jerry Bruckheimer had the white lead in the "Beverly Hills Cop" screenplay refashioned so it could star a 22-year-old black actor named Eddie Murphy.

Then again, given Jolie's track record, it's not so much of a stretch. In the past 10 years, she has starred in five action-dominated films that have averaged $124 million in domestic grosses. Worldwide, those grosses total nearly $1.5 billion. Again, that's just her action roles -- "Wanted" (2008), "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (2005), "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" (2003), "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" (2001) and "Gone in 60 Seconds" (2000).

The Philip Noyce-directed "Salt," in which Jolie plays a CIA spook accused of foreign espionage who must go on the run, looks prepared to push that total upward when it opens next Friday. Industry tracking a week out has it opening north of $30 million, but its only competition that weekend is the kid-friendly "Ramona and Beezus" and the second week of "Inception," which means interest is likely to spike as it gets closer to opening.

"Wanted" opened at $50.9 million against "WALL-E" two summers ago, and "Smith" opened at $50.3 million in 2005.

Sony also has her next project, "The Tourist," a reworking of the 2005 French thriller "Anthony Zimmer," which will open in February. That film pairs her with one of the most bankable actors in the world, Johnny Depp. As Elise, a femme fatale, Jolie gets to show off her sensual side and her active one when killers start chasing the patsy she has put in harm's way.

Commanding a male salaryNo actress in Hollywood history has been able to chisel out the supremacy Jolie has in a male-dominated genre. Actually, her achievement is bigger than that. Her standard deal, which she received for "Salt" and "Tourist," is matched by only one or two other actors in the world, with $20 million up front, a hefty share of the profits plus other sizable ancillary benefits. She already was getting $15 million for "Smith" and "Wanted."

"The fact that she is in the entertainment industry and can approach a male salary is an anomaly," says Lori Watson, director of women's and gender studies at the University of San Diego. "Maybe she can command a salary, but she can't break through the expectations that women are supposed to be beautiful and sexualized and fit a certain mold and behave in a certain way."

Over the years, mostly thanks to the efforts and vision of director James Cameron, audiences have been treated to a rare female lead who can handle herself in a gun or fistfight. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in "Aliens" in 1986, Linda Hamilton in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" in 1991, and Zoe Saldana and Michelle Rodriguez in "Avatar" last year all represented strong, confident women ready to knock some heads.

Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich carved out B-movie franchises as action heroines in the fantasy-horror genre -- Beckinsale with "Underworld" and Jovovich with "Resident Evil." And Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore threw themselves into action camp with the successful "Charlie's Angels" movies -- but those were highly stylized three-handers, and all three thesps have since quickly retreated to more traditional roles. (Diaz did just jump on a motorcycle with Cruise in "Knight and Day," but that has underperformed in North America.)

Television has been a better training ground for the female action archetype. Jessica Alba launched her career in "Dark Angel" (Cameron again!), Jennifer Garner was fierce as the college student/spy of "Alias," courtesy of J.J. Abrams, and Joss Whedon birthed "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and "Dollhouse" (Eliza Dushku).

It's notable that Garner dabbled in action on the big screen in "Daredevil" and its spinoff "Elektra," but quickly returned to the world of romantic comedy when those failed. Alba suited up for the "Fantastic Four" movies but had very little to do. And while Scarlett Johansson's turn as Black Widow in "Iron Man 2" looked promising, that was a small part and no one expects her to spend much more time in the blow-'em-up genre.

Other top actresses still command huge audiences in less surprising contexts. Sandra Bullock has reminded everyone that she can draw major bank, in feel-good drama ("The Blind Side") and traditional romantic comedy ("The Proposal"). And Julia Roberts is likely to clean up in "Eat Pray Love."

Jolie has had misfiresLike those women, Jolie also has an Oscar on her mantle, and a genuine yen to tackle challenging parts in adult dramas such as "Changeling," "A Mighty Heart" and "Girl, Interrupted," which got her that gold statuette (and an asterisk for oddest acceptance speech). But Jolie has also contributed her voice to three cartoons -- "Kung Fu Panda," "Beowulf" and "Shark Tale" -- that have grossed another $1.2 billion worldwide.

Jolie's not bulletproof. She's had her misfires and middling movies ("Taking Lives" and "Beyond Borders" come to mind), but she's got the dramatic acting chops and the athletic prowess to sell herself in almost anything (though even her prestige movies don't always bring in the big bucks).

So what, precisely, can't she do? Well, just one thing, actually. Romantic comedy. She did try it once, in "Life, or Something Like It" in 2002, and the $14.4 million domestic gross sent a message she clearly noted.

"She's too strong, she's too forceful," says Hollywood historian David Thomson ("Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles"). "And that's not just her screen character. It's her public character, too. She's not got that sort of availability for romance. She isn't really sentimentally appealing. She needs to be doing strong things -- crazy things, sometimes -- to work on screen."

Put another way, Jolie is tough for female audiences to get behind. She's threatening. Whether accurate or not, many perceive even Jennifer Aniston to have been a victim of Jolie's sharkish charm after husband Brad Pitt became smitten with Jolie during the shoot for "Smith."

"My feeling on the ground is at the beginning of that relationship a lot of women viewed her as a homewrecker," says Watson. "But since then, her charitable work, her adoption, her work with the U.N., and the work that they're doing in New Orleans and her public face as a mother appeals to a lot of women as a kind of person who has A) a completely supportive partner that a lot of women would like and don't have, and b) someone who can manage a family and a career and is committed to those mainstream values even if she lives in a very different, romanticized, Hollywood rich kind of way."

But how long can her appeal last? Her fans are beginning to slide more heavily into the over-30 crowd, away from the male teens who want to see her bend bullets and look at the camera over a naked, tattooed back. Sooner rather than later, they're going to want to see a new face (and naked back).

Perhaps Jolie is aware of this. Because now, at the pinnacle of her success, she is making noises that she might not be much longer for the business. "I'm very, very grateful, it's a fun job. It's a luxury," she recently told Vanity Fair. "But I don't think I'll do it much longer."

Jolie is only 35 years old. By the Indiana Jones standard, then, she's got another 30 years of running, punching and flipping ahead. Although she's trimmed her work commitments down to one film a year, she's got sequels to "Salt," "Wanted" and even, possibly, "Tourist" to consider. Also, there's the "Sleeping Beauty" spinoff "Maleficent," a new take on "Cleopatra," the dark drama "Serena" for director Darren Aronofsky, and another potential franchise spun from the Patricia Cornwell character Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a sleuthing medical examiner.

If she did call it quits, is there anyone to carry the mantle if Jolie suddenly walked away?

"I don't see anybody right now," di Bonaventura says. "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."