Angelina Jolie’s Flawlessly Canny Control of Her Own Image

In today’s New York Times, Angelina Jolie has published an op-ed titled “A New Level of Refugee Suffering.” In it, the actress, director, and humanitarian reports on her experience listening to Syrian and Iraqi war refugees’ stories of suffering. “How can you speak when a woman your own age looks you in the eye and tells you that her whole family was killed in front of her, and that she now lives alone in a tent and has minimal food rations?” Jolie asks.

She writes clearly and passionately, making the point that the amount of humanitarian aid being given to these refugees is minimal, as is the general worldwide support of them, during a war that won’t end. It is a call to action, asking readers around the world to do something. It is a very good op-ed, Jolie’s second, after her honest report of her double mastectomy from May 2013.

It is also a beautiful example of Jolie’s control over her own image. She is the rare female movie star whose “second act” has managed to be a complete overhaul — and she’s kept it going for over a decade.

When Jolie first came onto the scene in the late ’90s, she was a goth, brother-kissing, wild-child bisexual who mentioned knife play casually and carried a bottle of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck. The hottest actress in the world, she got her first acting award for the complete abandon with which she portrayed model Gia Carangi in the HBO movie. Soon after, she’d get an Oscar for snatching Girl, Interrupted out of Winona Ryder’s fingers. As writer Emma Forrest observed, “Angelina’s madness is a very masculine, blow-the-whole-joint-up lunacy. She’s not like any other actress; she’s really most like Marlon Brando.”

But as her reputation began to precede her, Jolie’s tabloid antics gave way to her growing interest in humanitarian work. She adopted children from around the world. And then: she gave the world the greatest tabloid scandal of our still-young century. In 2005, when Brad Pitt (the handsomest movie star in the world) left his lovely wife Jennifer Aniston (the lovable, blonde, girl-next-door star of the biggest television show in America) for his co-star in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jolie, it gave the tabloids a black-widow-temptress-vs.-forever-alone-sad-blonde-lady narrative. (For Aniston, unfortunately, this narrative persists in the celebrity press.)

Yet even as this narrative took hold, Jolie doubled down on good works. She attached herself to Oscar bait (remember The Good Shepherd?) and socially conscious-ish films (playing Mariane Pearl… in a role that came uncomfortably close to blackface). She adopted more children from impoverished and conflict-stricken countries around the world. And her witchy combination of beauty and charisma remained both intact and unique, so even as her movies grew worse, she remained a star, with the influence of an A-list marriage and a brood of adorable children. (For a gloriously in-depth look at Jolie’s “perfect game,” see Anne Helen Petersen’s BuzzFeed article, which compares her to Ingrid Bergman.)

Last year, Jolie did a ton of publicity for her second film as director, Unbroken, a highly anticipated adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s brilliant nonfiction book. While the film was released in Oscar season, it stiffed on that account — although it did make tons of money — and some of that stiffness was due to Jolie’s approach to the amazing life of Louis Zamperini. His suffering became torturous, Christ-like.

Jolie was the only woman in The Hollywood Reporter‘s directors’ roundtable series at the end of the year, sparring with the bulk of the eventual Best Director Oscar nominees. But she remains in between two words as an actress and director. She’s evidently uninterested in acting at this point, and her directing career — despite all the advantages her preexisting stardom gives her — feels a bit stiff outside the gate. Nobody’s proclaiming her as a genius yet. When the chips are down (however slightly) in Jolie’s film career, she pivots and takes another course: sending us a message about what really matters, about whose suffering we should pay attention to in the world today.

I believe that Jolie is a hard-working humanitarian, but the way that she pivots our attention away from the celebrity stuff is downright masterful. Perhaps some of her renewed focus on humanitarian efforts is a result of Unbroken stiffing at the Oscars, and yet it’s still a reminder of what we need to pay attention to, coming from a savvy woman who can use her celebrity to change the world. It is both brilliant celebrity feint and a very important op-ed, and if Jolie’s name means that more kindness and aid is afforded to refugees from Syria and Iraq, then that is the only part of this conversation that really matters.