I remember the first time I saw a Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie poster. I was amazed. Lara Croft is the ultimate wet dream. And yet there exists a person who looks exactly like that.
I’m fuzzy on the timeline. I know this happened after the infamous liplock Angelina Jolie shared with her brother at the Academy Awards, and probably before her sudden marriage to Billy Bob Thornton and those vials of blood. But all the same, it was becoming firmly established in my mind that Miss Jolie is God’s joke on mankind, or rather, on anyone who’s into women. She has it all, eyes, lips, boobs, ass, legs, and a wild, uninhibited sexuality on hyperdrive. Her beautiful mug is on every print and TV tabloid. A giddy Billy Bob gushes to Leno about the-thing-she-does-with-her-feet. And you chance of shagging her is roughly, exactly zero.
In other words, she was that quintessential stereotype, the kinky, kooky sex goddess. She might be alive, but she was not real in any sense, not in the staid suburban existence I led, light years away from L.A.
And then one day—shortly before I quit watching TV altogether—I tuned in to an evening entertainment show and there she was again, doing press for some movie. This was near the end of her marriage to Billy Bob. Speculations were rife but I couldn’t care less. It was Hollywood after all, the American Babylon, everyone got divorced sooner or later. Besides, between the two of them, they already had enough divorces to give Liz Taylor a run for her money.
Angelina looked a little wan that day. She looked like she’d rather be somewhere else, away from the incessant camera flashes. But this was part of her job, so she smiled and took questions.
Eventually, somebody shouted, “How’s Billy Bob?”
An indescribable expression came over her face–resignation, sadness, and a lot of bewilderment. “He’s okay, I guess,” she said something to that effect. “I haven’t seen him in a while.”
Suddenly my heart ached for her. She might be the sexiest woman alive, and the kinkiest. But at that moment, she was just a woman in pain, wondering how everything so right went so wrong. And she had to live that pain with hordes of paparazzi dogging her heels and the intimate details—real and fabricated—of her second failed marriage splashed across supermarket tabloids from sea to shining sea.
Since then, Angelina Jolie has become one of the public figures I admire most, for her dedication to her children and to the forgotten children in forgotten corners of the world who have few other advocates for their plight. But whenever I think of her, it’s back to that moment, that moment when I caught a glimpse of not just her vulnerability, but her valiancy in the face of it, that moment when she ceased being a stereotype and became a real person to me.
In fiction, the best writers manage to catch exactly all those moment, when all a character’s fears and hopes are flayed open, when she must stand amidst the broken pieces of a dream, or simply, when she wants to tell that special person across the table all her aspirations for the future, when she rehearses the speech in her head again and again as the courses come and go, and ends up saying at the end of meal only “The cake was really good.”
I measure my scenes and characters against my Angelina Jolie memory. Do they ever come alive? Is there ever that defining moment when their joy becomes my joy and their pain my pain? A moment after which schadenfreude becomes impossible and I wish for their happiness as ardently as I wish for my own?
I’ll let you know if I succeed. And Angie, you carry on. Don’t let postpartum blues get you down. Things will get better, I promise.
Next Tuesday, He Was A Burning Pyre of Concupiscence in a Sarcophagus of Despair, or, What a Good Agent Does for You