She’s the alluring actress best known as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, with films like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and Maleificent grossing hundreds of millions of dollars internationally.
But it’s what she achieves off-screen that truly defines Angelina Jolie. Through her humble humanitarian efforts, Jolie has come to embody humility, compassion, and a powerful sense of femininity that has inspired millions of people around the world, many of whom don’t even recognise her as an actress.
It may seem like, as she balances multi-million dollar film deals while bringing hope to refugees around the world, Jolie has life figured out. Not long ago, however, that was far from the truth. Life has never been easy for Jolie, but she hasn’t let that stop her.
Jolie was born to actors Marcheline Bertrand and Jon Voight in 1975. Her parents divorced soon thereafter, and Jolie went to live with her mother.
One of their great family traditions became to watch films together, and it was this that inspired in Jolie a passion for acting. However, her dreams, and her confidence, were kept underfoot by schoolyard bullies, who targeted Jolie for being different.
“When other little girls wanted to be ballet dancers, I kind of wanted to be a vampire.”
At the age of 14, Jolie was forced into modelling by her mother. It was a traumatic experience, that left her feeling humiliated.
As the bullying intensified, Jolie moved to Moreno High School, where her troubled past manifested in disturbing ways. She embraced her alternative nature, but felt confused over it, leading to years of self-harm, heavy drug use, and an eating disorder. At the same time, her boyfriend moved in to her mother’s house, and the couple spent their nights in dirty clubs or cutting each other with knives as part of their sexual play. She dropped out of her acting classes and decided to become a funeral director.
“I went through heavy, darker times, and I survived them. I didn’t die young…I did the most dangerous and I did the worst and admit, for many reasons, I shouldn’t be here.” – Jolie in a 60 Minutes interview in 2011.
Fortunately, at the age of 16, the relationship with her boyfriend ended and she successfully graduated from high school. Jolie left home, rented an apartment, and began to turn her attention back to acting.
Initially, she didn’t have much luck, and when she finally got a role in the movie Cyborg 2, she was so disappointed with the film that she didn’t audition for a year after.
In 1995, she booked her first leading role in sci-fi cult hit Hackers. It was the start of a streak of films that, while mostly average, resulted in Jolie receiving positive attention from both the industry and critics alike.
She was still the same punk princess she had been in high school, and this helped inspire her popularity. Rumours that she was bisexual, and had shown up for her marriage ceremony with the groom’s name painted with blood on her chest, helped carry her career at a time when critics had few positive words for her work.
In 1998, the year after Jolie received a Golden Globe for her performance in George Wallace, she got her first major breakthrough, portraying supermodel Gia Carangi in the telemovie Gia. Jolie was perfect for the role: Gia’s short, troubled life mirrored her own. She won a second consecutive Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award. She was also nominated for an Emmy Award. One reviewer called her performance “the most beautiful train wreck ever filmed”.
BREAKTHROUGH AFTER BREAKTHROUGH
Following the film, Jolie considered retiring from acting, citing that she had “nothing left to give”. She moved to New York, and began to study other elements of filmmaking.
Her hiatus didn’t last long, however. In 1999, after a few bit parts, which saw vastly different reviews, she signed on to Girl, Interrupted in a supporting role. Though the film was designed as a comeback for Winona Ryder, it was Jolie’s performance that garnered the most acclaim. Her portrayal of the devious sociopath Lisa Rowe saw Jolie win her her third Golden Globe, her second SAG Award, and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
After her roles in Gia and Girl, Interrupted, popular opinion about Jolie began to change. Roger Ebert announced: “Jolie is emerging as one of the great wild spirits of current movies, a loose cannon who somehow has deadly aim”.
Two years later, Jolie found her first mainstream success with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. A heavily physical role, it defined her as an international star, and lead to her appearing in major action films including Salt and Mr. and Mrs. Smith over the next decade. She quickly became Hollywood’s highest paid actresses, making $10-20 million per film by 2008, a point where most lead actresses were taking pay-cuts.
PASSION & PERSPECTIVE
In 2007, Jolie’s mother died from cancer. Losing the woman who had first inspired her interest in acting made Jolie turn away from the craft, and she began to appear in fewer films.
Instead, she turned to passion projects, including In the Land of Blood and Honey, a love story set during the Bosnian War, and Unbroken, the tale of an American WWII pilot who only survived the war thanks to superhuman willpower.
At the same time, she intensified her humanitarian duties, of which she had many.
A FACE FOR CHANGE
During filming of Tomb Raider in Cambodia, Jolie was shocked to discover the conditions in which many of the locals lived. It gave her a newfound sense of the world, and determination to help change it.
Following the shoot, she self-funded an international tour of countries that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) considered the most heavily impacted. From Tanzania to Pakistan, she met with those whose plight the media had long forgotten, in an effort to share their stories with the world.
She also undertook flying lessons in order to help bring much needed resources to those impacted by war and disease.
Just over a decade later, the UNHCR promoted Jolie to the rank of Special Envoy, becoming the first to ever take on such a position. In this role, she was given authority to act as a representative of the UNHCR, with a focus on alleviating the refugee crisis. Since then, Jolie has travelled to over a dozen locations to meet with refugees and take their concerns to the people in a position to do something about them.
Outside of her work with refugees, Jolie is a strong advocate for education. She co-chairs the Education Partnership for Children of Conflict, and financially supports a school in Kenya.
Jolie has also championed human rights, holding a symposium in 2007 which funded a report entitled Intervention to Stop Genocide and Mass Atrocities, and establishing the Jolie Legal Followship – a network of lawyers calling for an improvement in human rights in their countries – in 2011.
Most recently, Jolie underwent a double mastectomy (removing of the breasts) after learning that a defective gene meant she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer. Her mother and grandmother having both died young from cancer, Jolie wasn’t willing to take the risk.
Two years later, when tests indicated the possibility of ovarian cancer, she underwent an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries).
She wrote publicly about her decisions in The New York Times, with the aim of educating women for whom similar surgeries might be beneficial. Addressing women around the world, she stressed“On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
Reports showed that, six months after Jolie’s experience was made public, there was a 90% increase in genetic testing.
Angelina Jolie represents the kind of entrancing, dedicated actress in the vein of Audrey Hepburn or Geena Davis who pull audiences in through their on-screen performances, and then inspire in them messages of hope and change through off-screen endeavours.
For all the scandal, for all the darkness that Jolie has faced, she has persevered, and made the world a better place.