As a tattooed wild child wearing her husband’s blood in a locket and luring Brad Pitt away from Hollywood rival Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie was dream fodder for the tabloid press.
But her transformation into a humanitarian campaigner and now poster girl for the fight against breast cancer with her revelation that, faced with a high cancer risk, she had undergone a double mastectomy has elevated her to heroine status in the media.
Her deeply personal account of the decision to undergo the operation, published in the New York Times, won her wide praise for her courage and Pitt’s support of her move has put the couple in a new light in and beyond Hollywood. Jolie said she made the difficult choice in order to “tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.”
“This week they have shown that they are real people and a real couple with a solid relationship,” said Wendy Mitchell, editor at trade magazine Screen International, speaking at the world’s largest film festival in Cannes.
“They have both grown up and even though the tabloid press will still chase them, there is a new respect there for them.”
Jolie, 37, has managed to put her wild reputation behind her, staying out of the public spotlight with Pitt and their six children and only taking to the stage to promote films and causes in which she is involved.
In April, she stood alongside British Foreign Secretary William Hague at a G8 meeting in London, her hair in a bun and in a business suit more typical of Wall Street than Hollywood, to pledge an end to sexual violence and rape in war zones.
A month earlier, in her role as a special envoy for the UN Human Rights Council, Jolie accompanied Hague to refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo, never giving an indication of the personal health traumas she was going through at that time.
The actress, whose past roles have included the “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” films, still makes big studio entertainment such as next year’s “Maleficent,” a twist on “Sleeping Beauty” in which she stars as the wicked sorceress who puts a curse on the princess.
She also has combined her humanitarian campaigning with filmmaking, marking her directorial debut with 2011’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” a love story between a Muslim woman and a Serbian man with the Bosnian war as a backdrop.
Industry insiders at the Cannes film festival this week, the year’s biggest movie industry gathering, were stunned by Jolie’s mastectomy announcement but said the way she released the news, in her words in the Times, was a sign of her maturity.
Jolie and Pitt, 49, also are talking about marriage.
“She’s somebody who has transformed herself in so many ways from the very beginning when she was dismissed as more or less some kind of kooky bimbo,” said Jay Weissberg, a movie critic at industry publication Variety.
“She has pushed that idea of the public figure having responsibility to the public … coming forward to be a spokesperson for cancer, it’s not only going to help her in Hollywood but help her outside of Hollywood as well.”
RESPECT FROM MEDIA
The headlines following Jolie’s announcement signalled enhanced respect for the actress.
“Angelina Jolie praised for revelation over double mastectomy,” said British newspaper The Guardian, while CNN’s headline read “Angelina Jolie’s brave message.”
Bob Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, said that while Jolie’s decision to write about her surgery may bring an added “gravitas” to media stories about the actress, it is unlikely to end tabloid attention.
“I don’t know if suddenly this couple is going to be elevated to a new status and talked about and treated in a different way,” Thompson said.
“(Jolie’s surgery) is a different subject from the usual stories but there will still be speculation on whether she and Brad Pitt are getting married or breaking up, and that’s not going to change very much.”
As for Jolie’s status as a sex symbol, Thompson said that while he hoped it would not diminish her appeal within audiences regarding her as such, he added that the surgery may bring her a “street cred” from a wider public.
“This personal story gives her a sense of street cred that comes from having gone through something particularly trying … Angelina might get some gravitas from this simply because it’s a serious and frightening experience,” he said.
Amongst their peers, the Hollywood power couple have won respect for using their status to make a difference.
Thierry Fremaux, the director of the Cannes film festival where Jolie has been a frequent guest with films such as “Changeling” and “A Mighty Heart,” said the actress has been an avid campaigner for her causes.
“There is no difference between the star Angelina Jolie and the woman Angelina Jolie … She has pledged to end sexual violence and rape in conflict in an historic announcement,” Fremaux said.