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Tom Shone

At the Cinema

As leading ladies get younger, actresses like Angelina Jolie are finding it’s good to be wicked

Tom Shone | May/June 2014

“Don’t be afraid,” says little Elle Fanning, peering into the forest, where a shadowy figure lurks.

“I’m not afraid,” comes the reply, in a dulcet English accent that spreads like a single drop of blood in water.

“Then come out,” insists Fanning.

“Then you will be afraid,” replies the voice, manifesting a faint ripple of amusement as its owner advances into the light: face as white as parchment, already angular cheekbones remoulded into Max Headroomish fenders, huge horns leaping from its head, like a cross between a stag and a supermodel.

Angelina Jolie has always been a scary beauty, a fame-enamelled goddess for whom such matters as motivation or psychology seem mere mortal concerns, specks bouncing off the force-field of her beauteousness, like those nukes going splat against the alien ships in “Independence Day”. Where does she go in between films? The tabloids have her in airports with a brood and a Brad in tow, but I prefer to think of her incubating somewhere, hanging upside down like a bat, or Richard Gere in “American Gigolo”. She’s the only actress working today who puts honest fear into the hearts of men. Nietzsche would have loved her.

The new Disney film “Maleficent” is a live-action version of its own 1959 animated hit, “Sleeping Beauty”, which re-tells the story from the thorny perspective of the wicked fairy godmother who puts the princess to sleep. As if to say: might she not have had her reasons?

’Tis the season of the revisionist witch. What started on Broadway with “Wicked”, the 2003 hit musical about the formative years of the wicked witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz”, has grown into a Hollywood trend. First Julia Roberts took on the role of the wicked queen in “Mirror Mirror”, Tarsem Singh’s Snow White remix, then Charlize Theron stole “Snow White and the Huntsman” with her embittered queen, clinging to youth by her extendable talons in a patriarchal world in which women must rely on their beauty for power, or else be replaced by a fresh batch of young lovelies. Any resemblance to the nurturing, non-patriarchal, supportive environment of Hollywood, which maintains a healthy interest in the full length and breadth of an actress’s career, is entirely coincidental.

There’s a reason so many Oscar-winning actresses of 35-50 have found refuge playing wicked stepmothers, all of a sudden: that sudden tilt of the Hollywood deck, post-“Twilight”, which shifted power into the hands of tween heroines like Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence. But if it’s the ingenues’ demographic heft that summons these films into existence, it’s the older actresses who get to pluck them like ripe pears. Roberts and Theron each grabbed the gearstick and left Snow White for a gnat-smudge on the windshield. And the pairing of Jolie and Fanning is like Hannibal Lecter and Tinkerbell. “There is evil in this world,” sighs Jolie, “hatred and revenge”, before giving a bashful little giggle, as if the very idea of decency were fit for no more than a smile.

In an age when acting newbies are desperate for roles rich in the wear-and-tear of existence, applying darkness like eyeshadow, Jolie’s maleficence is the real thing: Stepmother Interrupted. You have to go back to Bette Davis, assaulting Joan Crawford with a telephone in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962) and thus setting in motion the whole psycho-biddy genre which kept her and Crawford in work through middle age, to find anything like the velveteen perfidy of Jolie in full flow. As the tag line for “Beyond the Forest” famously had it, “Nobody’s as good as Bette Davis when she’s bad”.

The trick to playing bad is not to think yourself bad at all. Who does, after all, in real life? Gary Oldman once told me that he believed Shelley Runyon, his republican grand inquisitor in “The Contender” who rips into his steak as if tearing up the flesh of young democrats, was the hero of the film. He wasn’t just saying this for effect: he believed it. He had to, because Runyon believed it, thanks to that invis­ible, internal gyroscope we all carry within us, micro-adjusting throughout our day, squaring away our actions, however shoddy, with the horizon line of our self-image. The best performances capture that constant gimballing—the internal pitch and roll of villainy. “I am not what I am,” said Iago, whose story, from any other viewpoint bar the one recorded by Shakespeare, is the real tragedy: that of the faithful, self-effacing lieutenant, “the personification of honour” in William Empson’s phrase, passed over for a promotion, falling prey to the temptation, and who wouldn’t, of gossiping about the boss’s impetuous marriage. And that causes people to die?

Think of Robert Mitchum’s Rev. Powell in “Night of the Hunter”, Welles’s Hank Quinlan in “A Touch of Evil”, John Huston’s Noah Cross in “Chinatown”, Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in “Amadeus”, Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest in “Fatal Attraction”, Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup in “A Few Good Men”—how much they are the heroes, not of the picture on the screen, but the promo reel playing inside their head. We are all of us the director, writer and star of those little B-movies. Film stars just have better projection equipment.

Maleficent opens in Britain May 28th, America May 30th

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