The New York Times, 1/22/07



Before she set a toe on the red carpet at the Golden Globes last week, Angelina Jolie’s carefully molded image as humanitarian and mom was already showing some cracks. The Internet had been flooded with reports, picked up from European interviews, that she had called her biological daughter “a blob” with less personality than her two adopted kids, and had criticized Madonna’s adoption of a baby boy from Malawi. Women’s Wear Daily reported she was being difficult about designs from St. John, the staid company whose ads she appears in and whose conservatively elegant gown she wore to the Globes.

By the time she reached the end of a haughty, humorless walk down that red carpet on Brad Pitt’s arm, the Good Angelina image had crumbled to dust. In the next days columnists from The Washington Post to LA Weekly attacked her for a television interview with Ryan Seacrest on E! that made it clear she was above such drivel. His red carpet questions were drivel, but that was no reason to sneer the words “Cereal, we made cereal” when asked how the family had spent the morning.

Video of the interview was spread and ridiculed on Web sites like TMZ and YouTube; Mr. Seacrest complained about her on his radio show; the current issue of Us Weekly reported on more behavior fit for a queen in an article headlined “An Angelina Backlash?” There was really no need for the question mark.

Once famous as a tattooed wild woman, Ms. Jolie has soared to the saintly realm and plummeted again in record time. Madonna, her only rival in shape-shifting, has maintained the devoted wife and mother image for more than six years now, despite her recent adventures in adoption. Good Angelina didn’t even last two. That shattered image, a lesson in the limits of spin, is the product of a lethal combination: a public that never bought into the reformed persona and a star who may have bought into it too much.

The backlash had been building all along, and not simply because, while married to Billy Bob Thornton, she wore a vial of his blood around her neck. (No fair blaming the press for her vampirish image.) She adopted her son, Maddox, from Cambodia just before that marriage broke up, and has always seemed sincere about motherhood. But from the minute her name was linked to Mr. Pitt’s, there was plenty of snickering at her claim that they were just friends while filming “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” when he was married to Jennifer Aniston. Only the Jolie-Pitts know the truth; let’s just say the public remains skeptical. Once they became an acknowledged couple, Ms. Jolie assumed a saintly manner, deglamorizing to the point of wearing a bandanna on her head for a “Today” interview while visiting orphans in Africa; did she think viewers wouldn’t spot her cat’s-eye makeup and heavily glossed lips?

Such doubts about the noble Angelina accelerated especially fast over the last month. In the January issue of Vogue, talking about how her relationship with Mr. Pitt developed, she restated that they were “very, very good friends” for a long time, sounding as disingenuous as ever. And she added, “It was clear he was with his best friend,” which on the surface is matter-of-fact, yet manages to desexualize Ms. Aniston. Venom in the guise of kindness?

The new Us Weekly article reports that Ms. Jolie was “a nightmare” during the Vogue photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz; that she pushed through a crowd at the premiere of “God Grew Tired of Us,” a do-gooder documentary about the lost boys of Sudan that Mr. Pitt helped produce; and that she coolly pulled him away from a conversation with Courtney Cox Arquette, Ms. Aniston’s close friend, at the Golden Globes. Even if some of those incidents are exaggerated, the backlash is real. A kitschy painting of Ms. Jolie as the Virgin Mary holding her children and hovering saintlike above a Wal-Mart, a work too banal to be half-good as satire, made a media splash when it was shown at Art Miami 2007.

The backlash isn’t entirely her fault. The press helped it along by playing fast and loose with her quotations, gleefully picking up the Shiloh-is-a-blob comment without context. In the full interview in British Elle, when Ms. Jolie hesitated in describing her newborn daughter, the reporter suggested the word blob. Ms. Jolie foolishly responded: “Yes, a blob! But now she’s starting to have a personality.”

In response to a question about Madonna, she did tell the French magazine Gala that adoptions are illegal in Malawi and, “I prefer to stay on the right side of the law.” You can almost hear her coo her superiority as she says it, and you can almost hear anyone who reads it thinking, “Witch.” But her first response was to say that the happiness of Madonna’s child is all that matters; most second-hand reports made that seem like an afterthought.

Still, at best her own bumbling led her to this state. At worst, blame her self-importance. When she was interviewed on the Globes red carpet for “Access Hollywood,” she was shown an old clip of herself jumping into a swimming pool fully clothed after the 1999 awards, not exactly a tough reminder of her wild past. Yet New Angelina seemed royally unamused. And while she looked ultra-glamorous at the premiere of her latest film, “The Good Shepherd,” the perfectly upswept hair and self-contained demeanor of her recent appearances have also made her seem plastic.

In part she is suffering from a common problem: movie stars who make too few movies and are forced to coast on their fame. In “The Good Shepherd,” as the wife of a buttoned-down C.I.A. agent (Matt Damon), she goes from vibrant young femme fatale to brittle, middle-aged alcoholic. It’s a fine performance but a minor part. Her next film, “A Mighty Heart,” isn’t scheduled to arrive until June. That leading role might help restore her saintly image; she plays Marianne Pearl, whose husband, Daniel, was kidnapped and murdered while reporting in Pakistan.

But as Ms. Jolie’s horrific month has shown, reshaping an image is harder than you might think. Despite the charity work and the bun on her head, the burning question all along has been: Who is that woman in the St. John suit, and what has she done with Angelina Jolie?