Jolie Laide

In the ad for Mr. and Mrs. Smith-the Cleopatra of its generation, due out next month-there’s Angelina Jolie, sans Brad Pitt, leg up like a flamingo.

“In that picture, you know what she’s saying,” a friend said recently. “She’s saying, ‘I’m fucking beautiful. Fuck you.’”

This is not something Julia Roberts said in ads for Pretty Woman, although her pose was similar; not something Nicole Kidman could muster up on a good day. Charlize Theron? Too pretty. Halle Berry? Too unhinged. Hilary Swank? No. Gwyneth Paltrow? No, no, no.

In fact, the only actresses who share Ms. Jolie’s confidence are foreign actresses of the old school: Sophia Loren, Jeanne Moreau, B.B. at her best. Maybe the Maggie Cheungs and Ziyi Zhangs of today. That’s because Americans prefer the girls next-door: smiley-sweet girl-eunuchs clamoring for the next bad romantic comedy or period drama when they should be home practicing that flamingo pose.

Can Ms. Jolie carry a movie like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as the publicity photo suggests, with some legs, lips and hot hauteur? And who’s the star here, anyhow? Ms. Jolie has notoriety, respect and fame, but with a very few memorable movies to her credit. Worse, with some truly awful movies to her credit: Taking Lives, Beyond Borders, The Bone Collector, Life or Something Like It, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Original Sin and, most recently, Alexander. But what was unforgettable about her Oscar turn in Girl, Interrupted was how adolescent favorite Winona Ryder, the passive, doe-eyed 90′s slacker queen, was completely annihilated on screen by this Lioness. It was as if Angelina kicked one ideal to the curb and announced the arrival of another.

As did another puffy-lipped star back in the 1950s. And she could definitely play the young Brando’s roles. Think of Angelina Jolie as the biker in The Wild One or in a snakeskin jacket in The Fugitive Kind-it’s not that much of a stretch. Angelina in Streetcar? Give that girl a T-shirt; she wouldn’t be playing Blanche or Stella.

And now, thanks to Us magazine, Star and reports of jungle noises in the night, she’s been ratcheted up to another level of stardom.

Ms. Jolie is probably the only actress in Hollywood who could legitimately have an action-hero franchise (i.e., Lara Croft). The logical choice for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a film about married assassins, she has the chops to believably shoot guns and swing from rafters. She sucker-punched a shark in the second Lara Croft movie. The trailers for Mr. and Mrs. Smith show her in black vinyl dominatrix-wear, effortlessly scaling a very, very tall building, expertly managing a rather large machine gun, tenderly smiling at her husband over pot roast. She never looks silly. Mr. Pitt is cuter, but Ms. Jolie could clearly eat him alive, and women probably hope she’ll do so in real life. At least that would bring good girls everywhere some comfort. Ms. Jolie always seems to break the last heart.

And yet, she looks like kind of a nice girl. Nobly walking the streets of Peshawar, draped in dazzlingly appropriate dress. Playing on the beach in a black dress and pearl earrings, digging in the sand with plastic yellow shovels. Lying in bed in mouse-grey jodhpurs in Vanity Fair, rumbling with her son, Maddox, you kind of can’t help thinking: The stars! They’re just like us!

That’s what Us magazine keeps telling us-selling us-each week in this glossy tabloid age, as we see David Duchovny lugging his laundry and Drew Barrymore leaving the podiatrist. That’s the great tabloid comedown, as in The Star’s annual cellulite-on-the-beach issue. Miss Collins, you have a little egg salad on the side of your mouth … there! Yuchhh.

The great Hollywood Mytho-Queens-and Ms. Jolie may be starting to count as one-have always had their own strange, exalted storyline, one that soared and jet-streamed above and beyond our humdrum lives: Elizabeth Taylor with Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher, Burton, pneumonia and her Oscars; Marilyn with Joe, Arthur, Jack; Ingrid Bergman with Robert Capa and Roberto Rossellini; Ava Gardner with Sinatra and the bullfighters.

But what did our culture get? The age of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson, good girls whose prom gowns hung on their bony shoulders and who hit their points with beautiful middle-class manners. That wouldn’t do for an age that had invested so much in paparazzi and Bonnie Fuller’s salary.

O Angelina! You have saved us.

Suddenly, every week is a holiday. This star, she is not like us.

Better yet, Angelina Jolie fits the star’s bill: We want to be like her-for a night.

She has brought back the big, beautiful, silty riverbed of American romance: queen of the photo op, good-will ambassador for the U.N., free-loving promiscuite, rippling action hero, adoptive mom, daughter of a Hollywood duke of the 70′s, Oscar winner.

Oh, and home wrecker, in case you thought that story was gone from American life, left back in the age of Liz eyeing Eddie and Debbie while they lounged on a Hollywood chaise, as though she were ready to swallow him whole.

The old conventional wisdom was that the American woman was supposed to hate that home wrecker. The only storyline more resonant than the dream of true love and everlasting happiness is the one that involves the imminence of envy, infidelity and divorce, and so there’s really nothing for everyday women to like about a born man stealer like Angelina Jolie. Ask Laura Dern. And wasn’t it Melanie Griffith who refused to leave Antonio Banderas’ side when he ripped Angelina’s bodice on the set of some movie we can’t remember?

Now she’s been charged with breaking up a marriage that most Hollywood consumers happily and delusionally believed was perfect.

That would be the Pitt-Anistons.

L’affaire Pitt-Jolie began, or was perhaps imagined, on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and naturally was followed by a lovefest across the continent of Africa, cruelly interrupted in Morocco so Ms. Jolie could jet off to save the children of South Asia. A is for Audrey Hepburn! It may have seemed that Ms. Jolie-tomb raider-was poised to go the way of Ingrid and Liz: the perennial other woman, the selfish lady who spirits away the most leading of men, the she-devil who earns the scorn of thin-lipped mortals everywhere. Except that she doesn’t. Few women would begrudge their lover a night with Angelina Jolie. It’s different. She inspires curiosity above all else.

At once beautiful and terrifying, Ms. Jolie, in every movie scene and every photograph, seems to be casting a spell, like a sorceress with eyebrow gracefully, spookily arched-it seems as though she could lift weights with that brow-or something out of The Lord of the Rings.

It’s that weirdness, along with the lore of knife-playing, blood-vialing and lover-taking, at odds with (but not completely at odds with) the images of maternal bliss, that keeps her captivating, if a little alien. Of course Brad Pitt is having an affair with Angelina Jolie! Of course cries of glorious satisfaction can be heard from Sierra Leone to Swaziland!

Talk about a new role model! What woman wouldn’t want to be gamboling with her son and “lover,” platonically building sand castles on the beach at a luxury resort on the coast of Kenya?

Her freedom of action has won her something like respect, while scorn and derision are reserved for the likes of Jennifer Lopez, America’s latest desperate housewife. Ms. Jolie is a tougher breed, resilient and indifferent, a film noir hero on the run, somehow inspiring the collective admiration and pumping the blood of thousands of women looking for a role model. As in: Damn! That girl knows how to live!

Despite her turn as gun-wielding British genius wonder woman Lara Croft-a film that had trend-writers unfairly lumping her with the giggly-wiggly street fighters of Charlie’s Angels-Ms. Jolie doesn’t exactly get the feminist stamp of approval. She isn’t uplifting in a Gloria Steinem sort of way.

But in an Ayn Rand kind of way, although better-willed, she constitutes complete freedom, both kindly and voracious. She’s a little libertarian and an altruist sex bomb, a man-eater and a boy-raiser. No one thinks Ms. Jolie would have their back. She’s a lone vessel.

Still, rather than feeling threatened that someone like her walks the earth, plenty of women feel liberated by her for a complicated reason: Despite her packaging, she manages to move and feel like a man. And she somehow communicates the fact that she might act on those feelings.

So, just as Mae West could look at a man and have him understand what she was feeling, Angelina makes women feel ….

This strange androgyny is why straight women often say they’d choose Andro-Angie for that one lesbian love affair they keep meaning to have. One consensus is that she’s the hottest: Ms. Jolie’s been compared to the incomparable Ava Gardner; critic David Thomson once proclaimed her one of the only women onscreen, along with Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow, to actually “seem to want to do it on screen”; and she wasn’t cast as the stunning Gia Carangi for kicks.

Even when men claim they don’t find her attractive, there’s a distinct sense that they’re either feeling threatened or being contrarian. Or maybe that they sort of find the thought of all that Angelina Jolie-ness exhausting- What will she want from me? they seem to say.

But it’s also because those narrow hips and skinny legs, those free-swinging arms, that cocky, defiant walk and prominently featured face, calls up the sexiness of a guy-of a young (or old) Mick Jagger, for instance. A sexually electric, unbearably charismatic rake. It was this deadly tomboy fury that made her so devastating in Girl, Interrupted. Without curvy hips to coyly sway-instead, insanely stalking the halls of that insane asylum-she struts and sits into her pelvis, as if the true power is, well, right front and center.

And while her breasts are comically accentuated in Lara Croft, so big and shapely that the women in Pushing Tin suspect they’re fake, they’re almost unnecessary to the coiled-up erotic energy in the rest of her frame. They’re adornments, like very well-chosen and expensive earrings.

All of this is to say that, for women, Ms. Angelina is yet another case of confusing affection with well-intentioned envy. Just as women often fall in love with men they actually want to be-because they’re so free, or because they’re more powerful-women fall in love with Ms. Jolie. Perhaps for her solitude above all else.

So while the Brad-Jennifer-Angelina story will continue, for now, it still plays second fiddle to another love triangle of recent memory-that of Ms. Jolie, her son and the starving children of the world. Ever since her divorce from the spit-swapping Billy Bob Thornton, a whole new being has taken over. The girl who played with razors and wore blood to her wedding became an immaculately dressed traveler of the Third World. The woman twice married and prone to kissing her brother became someone who rides carriages in Central Park only with her son. The girl who sported tattoos of her Billy Bob had them rubbed off.

She dedicated her life to getting her life back together. She stopped seeming so weird. It really does seem like she’s always with Maddox. And yet the wily seductress remains, even peering out from under a head wrap in countries where they mutilate girls as a matter of course.

All in all, it’s a stunning self-transformation. Or calculation. She’s got the man who used to be married to America’s best Friend-the girl next-door, that nice, nice girl-but it’s hard to hate her for it. Angelina Jolie, the brave actress who does her own stunts and raises her own kid and has plenty of tattoos and plenty of boyfriends (because it’s better that way), the woman who looks so good in Vanity Fair and so proud in D.C., is the deregulated movie star of our era. What is that woman doing? She’s seducing us, and she’ll do it again.