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The Star Market: What Is the Ultrafamous Gossip-Mag Staple Angelina Jolie’s Valuation in Hollywood?

Angelina Jolie may be the most famous actress in the world, but the average person thinks of her more as “famous” than “actress.” After all, while many people go to see her action movies (Her last movie, Wanted, grossed $341 million worldwide in 2008, and her new spy flick, Salt, opens next Friday), even more people are familiar with, say, her children’s idiosyncrasies: Shiloh likes to wear boy clothes! And though she’s an Oscar winner, her “serious” films don’t ensure a big crowd. So, here’s the question: Does Jolie’s real-life reputation as a globe-trotting, husband-stealing, world-saving, children-collecting, magazine-newsstand-sales-boosting, all-purpose celebrity help or hurt her career? Or are the two things inseparable? The Star Market investigates.

STOCK HISTORY: Never before has an actress turned her public image around so dramatically through sheer force of will. When she kicked off her career in the mid-nineties, she immediately stood out among the hordes of other young attractive actresses thanks to her industry pedigree (dad Jon Voight) and her willingness to court controversy (remember all the super-explicit lesbian sex scenes in Gia?). She quickly racked up an Oscar for Girl, Interrupted and became a top-of-the-line international star, taking that opportunity to get really fucking weird: borderline-incestuous red-carpet canoodling, wearing a vial of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood, lots of talk of knives … do we even need an “etc.”? Then, counterintuitively, she made the ultimate bad-girl move — abducting Brad Pitt from Jennifer Aniston, launching Mr. & Mrs. Smith at the box office, and the deathless tradition of the Aniston versus Jolie magazine cover — and used it to flip her image, turning herself into a saintly U.N. missionary and mom to an adorable crew of cosmopolitan moppets. Though her world travels have kept her away from the big screen for two years, she has never vanished from the public eye.

PAST EARNINGS:

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001): $7 million

PEERS: As we’ve noted before, Jolie is one of only five actresses — along with Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, and Katherine Heigl — who can get a movie green-lit just by signing on. But Jolie stands alone when it comes to single-handedly opening a big-budget action blockbuster. Says one top producer, “If you're talking about a female action protagonist, she's the only one who matters." However, if Jolie says no to a project, a studio's Plan B's are Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale, though Zoe Saldana is showing signs of being a strong contender.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005): $10 million

Wanted (2008): $15 to 20 million (with cut of profits)

Salt (2010): $17 to 20 million, with 20 percent of the gross

PEERS: As we’ve noted before, Jolie is one of only five actresses — along with Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, and Katherine Heigl — who can get a movie green-lit just by signing on. But Jolie stands alone when it comes to single-handedly opening a big-budget action blockbuster. Says one top producer, “If you're talking about a female action protagonist, she's the only one who matters." However, if Jolie says no to a project, a studio's Plan B's are Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale, though Zoe Saldana is showing signs of being a strong contender.

MARKET VALUE: Jolie makes such a bankable action heroine because of her intensity. You can’t imagine her in a romantic comedy (the 2002 bomb Life or Something Like It seemed to have cured her of the desire to even try another one); in a rom-com, the female character, no matter how type A, ultimately has to have a gooey epiphany where she gives in to the male, and no one would buy Jolie as giving into anyone. She smolders, she smirks, she takes charge, and she makes men shudder. Her sly, dangerously sexy appeal comes through without words; that’s probably why she’s such a draw internationally. Wanted was a decent hit in the States, grossing $134.5 million, but it truly scored overseas, where it brought in another $207 million.

But Jolie isn’t like Will Smith, dependably churning out the blockbusters: Since 2001, there’s just been the two Tomb Raiders, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Wanted, and Salt. Her schedule is pared down to spend time with her family, and she has also divvied up her limited shooting time to include more serious films like Changeling and A Mighty Heart (for which she drops her salary quote). With these, critics and film-festival audiences applaud her acting skills, but audiences have rarely followed: 2007’s A Mighty Heart, for all of its “she’s an Oscar lock!” preopening buzz, only grossed $9.2 million domestically. However, when she opens in a movie, no matter how small, Jolie is such a commodity that the studio is basically guaranteed major airtime and magazine covers. There’s a good case to make that Heart wouldn’t have even made $9.2 million without that publicity (even if the stories are about Shiloh’s wardrobe choices), but its still-low gross does prove that audiences have a very specific idea of what they want to see her doing, and it doesn’t involve worrying. She seems to realize that and is steering her career accordingly (and she is nearly solely in charge of steering her career — she has no manager or publicist): Next up, the thriller The Tourist, with Johnny Depp.

WHAT HOLLYWOOD THINKS:
"She's a real woman, almost from the golden age of Hollywood," says one top producer. "It's like the difference between Tobey Maguire and Daniel Craig; one's a boy, the other's a man. She's a woman; most of the other actresses who do action movies these days are girls." But, he adds, her domination only extends to action movies: “She’s only been really successful when you put a gun in her hand. It’s how the audience wants to see her.” One agent suspects that she’s come to the same realization: “She seems to be maximizing her earnings, and not necessarily doing the greatest movies in the world. But she’s found what people like to see her in.” After all, he adds, one can only be so precious with the bills her family racks up. "While I’m sure their income is above their expenses, they have a huge lifestyle. A place in L.A.; a big house in Santa Barbara. [Pitt] has a big apartment in Berlin. All these places have [staff] in them. Plus, private jets to take six kids plus nannies for each? When the family travels, it’s not just one jet anymore." A top publicist wouldn't want to work with her because she micromanages her own image so carefully. "She decides everything," says the flack. "What photographers she’ll work with. The events she’ll do. You name it, she knows best." Then again, that seems to be working so far. "She sells so many weekly magazines by just walking across the street with a child in her arms."

THE ANALYSIS: Jolie has similar parallels to George Clooney: Both are wildly famous and considered Hollywood royalty, and yet their outsized media attention is not always proportional to their box office draw. Both have their reasons; Clooney sticks to more serious, arty, and eclectic fare, while Jolie just works a lot less frequently. In fact, it might actually damage her mystique to work more often. She seems more valuable as a distant glamorous Halley's Comet of a figure whom we catch glimpses of as she zips by overhead, on to a new exotic country with her gorgeous family, only to occasionally alight at our local theater and on red carpets with her husband. She is always just out of our reach — which is what's at the center of her most successful onscreen persona.

At this point, she has the luxury of sticking with what works, but demanding intriguing directors: The Tourist is directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who made the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others; Salt is directed by Phillip Noyce, a journeyman action director who did Patriot Games, The Saint, and Jolie's The Bone Collector, but as of late he has been turning to more intriguing, smaller fare, like The Quiet American and Catch a Fire. Jolie has been circling a potential franchise based on Patricia Cornwell's best-selling Kay Scarpetta airport paperback mysteries — again, tough and smart — and is developing a period thriller called Serena with Darren Aronofsky. Though her domestic grosses may not reach the heights of Will Smith and, on the comedy side, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler, her international appeal continues to make her a safe bet in her wheelhouse. Seeing as she’s already got an Oscar — dampening the temptation to go chasing the Academy with a potentially embarrassingly weepy Nazi project — there’s no reason why she can’t continue what she's doing. She recently spoke up to shoot down misinterpretations of a Vanity Fair quote that implied she was looking forward to retiring, and yet she shows little sign of upping her output. Her commitment to her family and international causes may keep her away from work for long stretches, but it will always keep her in the papers, which serves her well when she does occasionally finish a movie.

BOTTOM LINE: If she sticks to her strengths (which is strength), she'll be fine: It never hurt Sigourney Weaver. And though audiences don't embrace Jolie's attempts at versatility as they did Weaver's, that may change. Considering the image turnaround she's already pulled off, there's no reason that, as she gets older and her looks soften, she can't reinvent herself as a dramatic mom. Hell, with her otherworldly powers of PR, she might even be able to reinvent herself as a wisecracking gay robot.

BUY/SELL/HOLD: Buy!

Photo: Barry King/FilmMagic