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Action figure: Angelina Jolie is out to prove she's an actress worth her 'Salt'

Serious actresses certainly have dabbled in action before, but Angelina Jolie, who at 35 has won an Oscar for her role in the 1999 drama 'Girl, Interrupted' and now commands $20 million per picture, has made action a consistent and crucial part of her meteoric rise.

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010

Settled serenely on an overstuffed couch at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, Angelina Jolie doesn't look like a woman who's set out to rock the world.

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Dressed in a short-skirted black suit, adorned only by a knockout of an emerald ring, matching ear bobs and a few inconspicuous tattoos, Jolie looks both unattainably gorgeous and improbably of-this-world. The sculptural cheekbones and pillowy lips bear only the most scant dusting of makeup (although it's difficult to fathom the reality of eyelashes that reach all the way to Arlington). The fingernails, however, are cut short, devoid of polish. The face may say Movie Star, but the hands say Mother of Six.

That duality fits right in with "Salt," the action spy thriller opening Friday, in which Jolie plays a would-be Russian sleeper spy of uncertain loyalties. In the course of what amounts to a pulse-pounding 90-minute chase from Washington to New York and back again, Jolie gets to do a lot of things: jump, shoot, kick the spit out of a cordon of broad-shouldered Secret Service agents, dye her hair, dress in full-on dude drag.

But even in the midst of "Salt's" most fantastical action, hints of practicality peek through. Jolie might be wearing towering nude heels in real life, but in the movie the first thing Salt does is take off her pumps to run. "There's no way, running in heels," Jolie says, laughing at how often women in movies sprint down streets in 4 1/2 -inch Louboutins. "There was no way I was going to do that!"

If "Salt" makes anything clear, it's that the most superhuman stunt Jolie performs in the movie can't be found in the over-the-top set pieces, or in her deceptively layered performance as the film's slippery title character -- or even in the marmoreal perfection she has reached as a physically flawless screen object. Rather, by starring in the kind of movie that made Sean Connery, Harrison Ford and Matt Damon household names, Jolie has undertaken no less an audacious feat than redefining female stardom itself.

* * *

Women have starred in action movies before: a ripped Linda Hamilton in the "Terminator" movies; angular, square-jawed Jamie Lee Curtis in "True Lies"; and most recently, a fembotic Milla Jovovich in the "Resident Evil" series. And certainly serious actresses have dabbled in action, including Sigourney Weaver, who reprised her groundbreaking tough-girl performance in "Alien" in last year's "Avatar," and Halle Berry's regrettable macha turn in "Catwoman."

But Jolie, who at 35 has won an Oscar for her role in the 1999 drama "Girl, Interrupted" and now commands $20 million per picture, has made action a consistent and crucial part of her meteoric rise. Unlike Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, Jolie has largely avoided the romantic-comedy ghetto of the highly paid sisterhood (hey, even Kate Winslet did the date-night confection "The Holiday").

Instead, she's toggled between serious dramas ("A Mighty Heart," "Changeling") and rock 'em-sock 'em action pictures ("Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," "Wanted"), managing to carve out a career all her own -- and hitherto unseen in Hollywood. Jolie's success as an action heroine has helped her create a persona that, both on-screen and off-, has transfixed audiences through hits and bombs alike.

"You know, I took kickboxing lessons and all that when I was really young," Jolie explains in a soft voice. "I was a bit of a tomboy. . . . I just feel like I've been so lucky that I've been allowed by audiences to do very heavy drama and big action movies, and that balance has been so lovely in my life. I've been able to go to those very heavy places and spend months very internally as a woman and explore my emotions, and then a year later, when I'm feeling very soft and want to get out and feel strong, I'm encouraged to do that, too."

There's no question that action has been Jolie's most popular genre since she first made "Lara Croft" in 2001. That movie and its sequel grossed more than $430 million between them worldwide; "Gone in 60 Seconds" grossed more than $230 million; "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," a romantic action comedy Jolie made with now real-life romantic partner Brad Pitt, grossed $478 million; and the pulp-noir fantasy "Wanted" made more than $340 million. By comparison, "A Mighty Heart," based on the agonizing real-life story of reporter Daniel Pearl's widow, Mariane, made a little less than $19 million and the period melodrama "Changeling" (this time about an agonizing mother) made $113 million.

Jolie's embrace of raw, kinetic action has proved canny at a time when action has become an essential part of the film grammar, a guarantor of attracting the all-important teenage male audience. And surely her grit and guts have become an accepted trope in Hollywood, where Cameron Diaz ("Charlie's Angels," "Knight and Day") can engage in more playful versions of Jolie's harder-edged exploits. The reality that Jolie has acknowledged and helped create is that women are no less feminine for being as brave and agile as men; if anything, mixing it up makes her more limber and believable as a player at a time when no one questions a woman's ability to lead in any field.


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