Films / Women and Gender

Man, I Feel Like a Woman: Angelina Jolie Goes on the Run in Her Gender-Bending Role in ‘Salt’

Never one to pass up a film where a woman kicks ass, my bestie John (blogger at Latest Issue) and I headed out to the midnight showing of Salt on Thursday night.  I’ve been writing a lot about tough women in films lately.  After reading, watching and adoring hardened heroine Lisbeth Salander, Salt had a lot to live up to.  Angelina Jolie can certainly kick ass.  But does the film deliver?

Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, an accomplished CIA operative.  When Salt interrogates a captured Russian spy, he accuses her of also being a Russian spy.  Soon Salt goes on the run, attempting to prove her innocence.  But the longer she runs, the more the authorities question her motives and delve into the truth about her identity.

The first half of the espionage film is fantastic.  It keeps you guessing, twisting and turning.  It’s an adrenaline fueled, heart-pounding non-stop action ride.  Unfortunately, the second half of the movie devolves into an outlandish, convoluted mess.  Often the camera work on the action sequences is clunky and up too close so it’s hard to see all of the action unfolding.  And my biggest gripe is the poor exposition; show me in a film, don’t tell me.  Everything is revealed about Salt’s identity, something I don’t really want to know.  I want a little mystery remaining.  And some of the worst dialogue is uttered, like “Go get ‘em” and “You should know better!”  Despite all my complaints, I still enjoyed the fun, over-the-top, action ride.  And it’s all because of Jolie.

A phenomenal action star, Jolie is fabulous.  She’s absolutely the best thing about the film.  Jolie, who does most if not all her own stunts, straddles the fence between deadly ingenuity and tenderness as she fears for her husband’s safety after she’s accused of being a double agent.  With the right fusion of strength and sensitivity, you never quite know where her allegiances lie.  Supporting actors vacillate between fine, Liev Schreiber as Jolie’s friend and former colleague, and atrocious, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the FBI agent on her trail.  Luckily, Jolie’s performance keeps it all together.

I’ve always been a fan of Angelina Jolie.  Even during her scandalous affair with Brad Pitt when everyone was on Team Jennifer (I happen to really like Aniston too), my adoration of her didn’t waver.  Of course she’s known for her sexy beauty, her humanitarian work as a UN ambassador for refugees, her relationship with Brad, her motherhood and children and her unusual habits like collecting knives and wearing vials of blood.  But people rarely discuss her acting.  While she’s an Oscar winner, she remains an underrated actor, often imbuing her characters with toughness and an easy sensuality.  Yet she can rein in her sexuality, as she did in Changeling as a mother desperate to find her missing son.  She selects an interesting array of roles from damaged teen (Girl, Interrupted), assassin (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) and grieving widow/mother (Mighty Heart).  And I will forever be impressed that in her role as an assassin in Wanted, she cut her dialogue (almost unheard of for an actor) as she thought it would better fit her character’s private personality.  I’ve always admired Jolie’s apparent attitude of living life on her own terms, a philosophy that translates into the roles she plays, including Evelyn Salt.

But as Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood points out, Jolie’s role in Salt almost didn’t happen.  It was originally written with Tom Cruise in mind as the lead.  But he turned it down as it was too close to Mission Impossible.  So the part was re-written for a female with Angelina Jolie taking the helm.  As Jolie tells Vanity Fair,

“It started with a call from Amy [Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures].  She asked if I wanted to play a Bond girl.  I said, ‘No, I’m not comfortable with that, but I would like to play Bond.’ We laughed, and then, about a year later, she called back and said, ‘I think I found it.’”

Jolie also discussed the gender challenges of altering the role from Edwin to Evelyn Salt:

“You think it would be easy [to change the part].  You just flip the [main] character from Edwin to Edwina. But it was a lot trickier than we thought.  For example, the male character had a child, and he knows he’ll be in danger much of the time. And we realized that, as a woman, if you knew your life was at risk, you’d never have a child…The physicality had to change too.  I’m smaller than everybody, so how do I go up against a bunch of men without looking silly?  How do I fight?  We made her meaner than a guy, and dirty. She uses the walls, the fact that she’s lighter and can throw herself around. It’s the Chihuahua up against the big dogs.”

The great thing about Jolie is that she’s so believable as a tough action star.  She’s broken into the “boys club” of action films.  In an article on Jolie, Jezebel quotes film writer Jay A. Fernandez,

“No actress in Hollywood history has been able to chisel out the supremacy Jolie has in a male-dominated genre.”

But as some of my readers have pointed out, does giving a woman a gun and having her blow shit up make her truly empowering?  Yes and no.  I personally like seeing assertive women on-screen, who utilize their brains as well as their brawn.  And I think seeing women in “male” roles showcases the breadth of diversity of women’s personalities.  Women don’t have to be pigeon-holed as demure or dainty; they can be tough and loud too.  While other commanding women exist in action movies (Sigourney Weaver in Alien and Aliens, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2), as I’ve written in the past, women in action films often fall prey to gender trappings and stereotypes.  But ultimately, I think it empowers women if we see them more often in powerful roles.  Jolie also hopes to leave a legacy as she tells the Metro:

“A woman hadn’t done an action movie based in reality.  They were always…all in fantasy.  We did think if [Salt] worked it would be really nice for women.  Having daughters, I’m happy it’s there.”

In the film, Jolie shows that she’s more than capable of taking charge.  The great thing about Evelyn Salt is that she turns to no one, relying on her own survival instincts and wits.  I hope Salt paves the way for more strong women protagonists and female-fronted films.

While there are other women in action movies (Sigourney Weaver in Alien and Aliens, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2), there are very few truly empowered roles.
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3 thoughts on “Man, I Feel Like a Woman: Angelina Jolie Goes on the Run in Her Gender-Bending Role in ‘Salt’

  1. I really wish I could say I enjoyed this movie as much as you did, but I agree with you that Jolie – as one of the hardest workers in Hollywood – is so great that she makes the movie at least bearable. Unfortunately, Salt’s biggest problem may not be the atrocious dialogue, storytelling or streaks of boredom inbetween brief moments of shock and interest, but the fact that it was released so soon after Inception, a far superior overall film. Early estimates have Salt at no 2 for this weekend, and failure to knock Inception out of the number 1 spot, even briefly, may make the movie’s parent studio think worse of the idea of a female-fronted espionage film. If anyone could pull it off it would be Jolie, who was fantastic in Wanted, and I really wanted to like Salt, but I just don’t think there’s enough there.

  2. Interesting that you mention the action sequences being too up close. I find this to be an annoying trend in action movies. It makes me want to shout at the screen “zoom out i cant see what’s going on”. It always seems like to me that as soon as the filmmaker says “gritty” they think it means close and choppy. Glad to see I’m not the only one who is bothered by this. Also, I was unaware of the complications of changing the part from male to female. That’s really interesting.

  3. I’ve only enjoyed Angelina Jolie in two films: Gia & Girl interrupted.
    I couldn’t get through “Tomb Raider”, and this from a guy that logged in about a billion hours, mastering every level of each game (III was the hardest, by the way), back in the 90’s.

    Jolie strikes me as a very cold & disconnected, onscreen.
    I dislike the action/adventure genre in general, but her presence in them, makes them even more unbearable.
    I remember sitting through the trailer for, “Wanted,” in a theater, as i waited for the feature presentation, and feeling thoroughly annoyed that i had to wade through two minutes of her giant lips & an endless series of explosions.

    Just something about her, i can’t put my finger on it.

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