It’s time to end the debate over whether Angelina Jolie is a ‘movie star’

Over dinner last Sunday, I played a game with some friends: Is this actor a movie star? Channing Tatum. (Mixed around the table.) Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Unanimous yes.) Mark Wahlberg. (Yes, somewhere between Tatum and Hoffman.) With each name reasons for and against were offered, but even when people agreed that so-and-so was a star, those reasons often differed.

It demonstrates the amorphous nature of what qualifies as movie stardom, even when our gut feelings are in agreement. The reason for the game was a Defamer article from last Thursday, in which the site’s Matt Scocca asked why Angelina Jolie is still considered a “movie star.” To measure a star’s wattage, Scocca came up two criteria: either headline “hugely beloved hit movies” or “good, important movies.” Skimming Jolie’s filmography, her films don’t fit into those categories: Aside for animated work, she usually ends up in lousy popular movies or interesting yet not necessarily “important” films.

However, Jolie is a movie star by a different definition: those people who make us more interested to see a film by being in it, colloquially known as the “It Factor.” Sometimes this stems from a celebrity’s perceived likability; other times, it’s from massive talent or an intense curiosity we have about the subject. Usually, it’s a mix of all three.

Jolie is talented, otherworldly beautiful, and one-half of arguably Hollywood’s biggest power couple—with a compelling personal narrative that ran from wild child to U.N. ambassador. (The continued popularity of Jennifer Aniston could also be seen as a refraction of Jolie’s light, Aniston the moon to Jolie’s sun.)

A recent BuzzFeed piece from Anne Helen Petersen on Jolie’s publicity game noted that “the biggest Hollywood star images are complicated, and even contradictory.” Petersen argued, “Marilyn Monroe was pure sex, but she radiated innocence; Marlon Brando was overpoweringly masculine yet incredibly sensitive.” For Jolie, her “image mixed dangerous sexuality…and benevolent humanitarianism.” It’s a mixture that we’ve seen works well even for an artist in a different medium: it’s how Beyoncé became “Queen Bey.”

What’s also missing from the Defamer conversation is Angelina Jolie’s role as a trailblazer. She remains the only consistently bankable woman in action films, a genre perfect for her dangerous sexuality and benevolent humanitarianism. James Bond is beloved for both being insatiable to women and saving the world, so is it any wonder that Jolie’s biggest hit before Maleficent was as a spy in Mr. and Mrs. Smith?

And previous to that, the first Tomb Raider installment caused a wave of momentum that the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises rode, and her Lara Croft paved the way for Katniss. Her films are not important for their content, but as a corrective to male-dominated film culture: Salt, Wanted, and Smith combined took in $440 million dollars domestically.

You can’t discuss Jolie’s movie star status without talking gender. Traditionally, women became movie stars through romantic comedies. It was so for Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, and Sandra Bullock. Not for Jolie, whose first four leading roles included her Emmy-nominated portrayal of model Gia in an HBO film, co-starring with Denzel Washington in the serial killer thriller The Bone Collector, taking a joyride in Gone in Sixty Seconds, and then becoming Lara Croft. That Jolie takes on what are traditionally men’s roles and makes it look so easy is why she is a movie star, yet also likely why she is so underrated.

By rewriting the playbook, Jolie was well-positioned as box-office trends shifted. With each year, international box office has become increasingly important. The enthusiasm of audiences abroad has kept the Transformers franchise alive, as the latest film is the top earner of 2014 with over $1 billion and counting; however, over 77 percent of that came from foreign grosses. It’s a nearly identical story for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and even last year’s box-office darling Frozen, the biggest animated movie of all time, grossed 70 percent of its $1.3 billion abroad.

Action films tend to do well internationally. As I mentioned before, Jolie’s trio of Salt, Wanted, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith did $440 million domestically, but their combined gross becomes even much more impressive including foreign grosses: $1.1 billion worldwide. Two high-profile domestic failures for Jolie, 2004’s Alexander and 2010’s The Tourist, look different with international box office factored in, quintupling and quadrupling, respectively. Of course, the attention around Jolie’s relationship with Pitt helped, but even before that, she had been extremely savvy to star in films that appealed to a global audience.

Maleficent, then, is just the latest—and strongest—example of Jolie’s starpower. Although based on an existing beloved Disney property, Maleficent was an Angelina Jolie film, a star-driven vehicle in a way that similar films Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, or Oz The Great and Powerful weren’t. The anticipation of seeing Jolie as the iconic character helped the film launch to a $70 million weekend domestically; and, the film continued to perform above expectations, taking in $240 million, the third biggest film of this busy summer season.

The film did even better overseas. Altogether, Maleficent has grossed $750 million around the world, unexpectedly topping the most X-Men, Spider-Man, and Captain America installments. For 2014, it should end up fourth, behind Transformers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Mockingjay.

Without a doubt, Angelina Jolie is a movie star, and she deserves to be called one. There’s nothing wrong with questioning her movie star status, but a more interesting discussion is: Why aren’t there more like her?

In part, Hollywood considers women less bankable than men. Maleficent is a fantastic rebuttal to the adage that there isn’t an audience for female-led films. Oddly, even after the successes of The Help, Brave, Bridesmaids, The Heat, Gravity, and Frozen in recent years, it’s a shock to the system every time a movie starring women does well. Even Philomena, a quiet film starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, made $100 million worldwide—yet sexism in the movie industry continues to favor men.

The double standards are manifold. First, no expiration dates are placed upon men, who continue to work as they age. (I’m looking at Liam Neeson, who turned 62 this year.) Men also are given a more diverse range of roles—unlike for women, romantic comedies are often just a way for male actors to keep afloat while working toward films that break out creatively or commercially. As an example, Matthew McConaughey has as spotty a record as Jolie (and a quieter box-office track record), but he’s undeniably a movie star.

Women also don’t get entry to the boys’ clubs, dominated by directors like Christopher Nolan and Judd Apatow, who provide foundational support for rising actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Paul Rudd, and Jonah Hill. And all the lucrative comic-book franchises are dominated by white men.

Male actors receive a larger tolerance for failure. Just compare the careers of, say, Ryan Reynolds, Gerard Butler, or Hugh Jackman to that of Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Garner, or Anna Faris. As a result, many female actors now appear to be taking a slow, but steady rise, hoping not to burn out—the Emmas (Stone, Watson, and Roberts), Amy Adams, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis, and Rachel McAdams, to name a few.

The sole exception is, of course, Jennifer Lawrence, who has two huge franchises—one based on comic books—and will be in her third David O. Russell film, Joy, next year. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that Lawrence is just 24. Only time will tell how her career looks when she reaches Jolie’s 39 years of age—or Sandra Bullock’s 50. But thanks to Angelina Jolie, her path already looks a little easier.

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)