I feel like I am just a piece of luggage on an airport carousel waiting to be picked up. Please pick me, please pick me.
—TIM HUTTON TO ANGELINA JOLIE
It was not so much a stairway to heaven as an elevator ride to ecstasy. He told her he was going to buy a pair of pants. She was heading for the hotel lobby. As they stood in the elevator, both felt a shock of attraction. Then Billy Bob Thornton, actor, director, and musician, climbed into a chauffeur-driven van and embarked on his shopping trip in downtown Toronto. The word “pants” conjuring up all kinds of thoughts in her head, Angie sat on a wall by their hotel and tried not to faint or swallow her cigarette. Irresistible object meeting improbable subject. “What was that?” she later recalled of that first encounter with her latest “screen husband” in early 1998. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Even for Billy Bob, four times married and with three children to his name, this was a new experience. “I felt like I had been hit by a bolt of lightning” is the way he later described first seeing Angie, who played Mary Bell, the sexy, boozy wife to Billy Bob’s air-traffic controller in Pushing Tin. Ever the artist, he later commemorated the moment his life changed by writing the song “Angelina.”
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to play out like that. In the Hollywood version of droit du seigneur, where the local nobleman enjoys the pick of fair maidens, Angie was the choice of the movie’s leading man, John Cusack. He had already taken her out for dinner in Beverly Hills, ostensibly to discuss her role as the cheating wife who falls for Cusack on-screen, but also to give her the Cusack squeeze. She came away from that dinner thinking about romance—but not in the way that Cusack imagined. He had also invited his good friend Al Pacino to dine with them. Throughout the evening, all Pacino did was talk about Angie’s mother. When she spoke with Marcheline the next day, Angie told her: “I could swear he was in love with you.” Only then did Marcheline give her wide-eyed daughter a glimpse into her own secret past.
When Angie and John Cusack later sat in the hotel bar in Toronto shooting the breeze, the star of High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank had the quiet confidence of a man who knew how his evening was going to end.
Cue the arrival of Billy Bob Thornton, old enough to be Angie’s father and a decade older than Cusack. She would later tell girlfriends that the crestfallen look on Cusack’s face when she left the bar with Billy was priceless. Angie’s evening was about to get a whole lot more amusing. She enjoyed telling the story of their first bedroom encounter, during which she discovered the truth of Hollywood rumors about Billy Bob’s prodigious talent. Before they consummated their passion, Billy, with faux embarrassment, apologized for what she was about to receive. “He told her that he was hung like a mosquito,” recalls her New York dealer, Frank Meyer, with scarcely disguised glee. “Then he pulled out this knee knocker. That certainly put a smile on her face.”
Understandably, she told a rather different version in public, assuring CNN’s Larry King, among others, that while she was “tempted” to bed Billy Bob when they first met, it was another two years before her love was consummated. “I was happy to be his friend and that was good enough,” she said. (It was a claim that would be repeated years later, about another man on another film.) Of course, at the time, she was quietly dating Timothy Hutton, while Billy Bob, according to the New York Daily News, became engaged to his live-in lover, Laura Dern—Angie’s onetime babysitter—who flew in from Vancouver, where she was filming The Baby Dance, to celebrate.
Angie didn’t just have competition for Billy Bob from Laura Dern, but also from another woman on the set who found a lasting place in Billy Bob’s heart. Canadian air-traffic controller Sheila McCombe, who was training Cusack and Thornton for their roles, was Angie’s worst nightmare—beautiful, smart, funny, athletic, and aggressively ambitious: the living, breathing embodiment of “the other girl.” Certainly John Cusack and Billy Bob thought so, flirting outrageously with the blue-eyed blonde as she taught them the language and tricks of real-life air-traffic controllers. Director Mike Newell recalled: “John made for her like a hunter at the first set of the season.” He had a serious rival in Billy Bob, who invited her to dinner with her friends at local Toronto restaurants and called her constantly. Sheila found their attentions amusing—and flattering—recalling how Cusack and Thornton tried to outdo each other. “They wanted to impress me by being the best,” she recalls with some amusement. “I was very strict.”
Billy Bob clearly enjoyed her company. “We’d hang out with Sheila and she was just like this girl we knew,” he recalled. “Then she’d be on the set, like no nonsense, ‘No, this is what you do.’ ” When the film was finished, Billy Bob kept in contact, romancing her under the radar. Her friends would later say that the friendship deepened in time and he asked her to marry him—even though he was still engaged to Laura Dern. Sheila shoots down the marriage talk, the fighter pilot’s daughter stating: “He talks like that with everyone. He is a very talented man. We came close for a little bit.”
So who was this rather unlikely object of desire for the talented and beautiful? Born on August 4, 1955, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to a psychic mother and a basketball coach and history teacher father, Billy Bob had an upbringing that was genuinely hardscrabble, living in a shack without electricity or running water and often eating the game he caught in the woods. The only real choice he ever got was which switch his father would beat him with at night in his impotent rage at their financial plight.
As a teenager, Billy Bob formed his own rock band; later he would always consider himself a musician first, an actor second. He was the star pitcher on his school baseball team—he was good enough to win a tryout for the Kansas City Royals—but, like Angelina, he always thought himself an outsider, his extreme poverty setting him apart. “I was the bucktooth hillbilly who lived in the middle of nowhere,” he recalled. In 1973, when Billy Bob was eighteen, his father died of lung cancer. Despite his father’s past cruelties, Billy Bob was constantly at his bedside in his waning months, nursing him and reading to him. This quasi-religious experience taught him the transformative power of forgiveness, a quality that marked him as a man and informed his artistic journey. It would in time distinguish him from Angelina.
After his father’s death Billy got into drink and drugs, dropping out of college, where he studied psychology, after a couple of semesters. Eventually he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actor and a musician, playing drums and singing with the South African band Jack Hammer. With few acting parts for someone with his background or thick Southern accent, he took on a variety of menial jobs to scrape together a living. Perhaps the lowest point was when he was admitted to the hospital with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart.
A chance conversation with the legendary Billy Wilder at a film industry Christmas party where he was working as a waiter transformed his life. When Wilder suggested that he focus on writing if he wanted to find a niche in Hollywood, Thornton teamed up with an old friend, novelist Tom Epperson, to write scripts. After an assortment of small roles in TV and films, he brought his most enduring creation, the mentally handicapped but astutely simple killer Karl Childers, to the screen in Sling Blade. He was a character who for years had haunted Billy Bob, who first wrote a stage play about the simple yet morally complex Childers.
With Sling Blade, the “hillbilly” outsider was suddenly very much an insider, winning an Academy Award for Adapted Screenplay for the 1996 tour de force. But the tics and twitches Billy grew up with remained, his genuine talent often overshadowed by ribald discussions of his many idiosyncrasies, including an obsessive-compulsive disorder that left him with a morbid fear of flying and a hatred of harpsichords, silverware, and antiques, particularly French furniture. Born into poverty, he was literally terrified of putting a silver spoon in his mouth.
His romantic life was as complex as his many quirks. Though married and divorced four times, he was living with a member of Hollywood royalty, Laura Dern, when director Mike Newell cast the actor with a flying phobia as the Zen-like air-traffic controller Russell Bell. The daughter of well-respected and Oscar-nominated actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, Laura Dern had first met Thornton during the filming of the celebrity-studded Ellen show in April 1997, when the star, Ellen DeGeneres, publicly outed herself as a lesbian.
At the time, Billy Bob was in the midst of an acrimonious divorce from his fourth wife, Pietra, who had angered him by claiming in court that he had physically abused her—an allegation he denied—and then, as a final insult, posed nude for Playboy, declaring that the spread was her version of an Oscar. For an old-fashioned Southern gentleman, polite but essentially chauvinistic, this was unacceptable behavior.
As was his wont, he quickly moved on, soon sharing the home Laura Dern was renting from comedian Dudley Moore. Even though it was a whirlwind romance, the omens seemed good, especially since Laura’s mother, who fancied herself a sage and a psychic, had earlier read the runes and forecast her daughter’s love match with this affable good old boy. Her prediction reinforced their feelings that they were indeed soul mates, destined to share the rest of their lives together.
Billy Bob was immediately welcomed into the bosom of the Dern family. Down-to-earth but with an offbeat sense of humor, he meshed well with Laura’s father, Bruce, who was known for his funny if far-fetched stories, his love of gambling, and his life as a bon vivant. “Billy and Laura were stone cold in love,” noted a close associate speaking on the condition of anonymity. “In the beginning it was Billy who made the running. Within a matter of weeks he convinced her that they should get married.” It was such a wild and passionate affair that they took compromising pictures of each other, which despite their fame they had developed locally and kept under lock and key for their future perusal. “Theirs was a possessive and intense love,” noted a friend from that time.
As was her pattern, Laura set about shaping herself to the new man in her life. When she was engaged to the lanky, urbane Jeff Goldblum, she neatly dovetailed into his lifestyle: driving a BMW, listening to jazz, collecting modern art, and eating and drinking only the finest foods and wines. After Billy breezed into her life, all that changed. When he planted a Confederate flag in the master bedroom, it was a cue for Laura to cast out her designer duds and her collection of French antiques and silverware, and buy herself a new wardrobe of checked shirts and cowboy boots. Out, too, went the BMW, and in came a Volvo station wagon to accommodate Billy Bob’s boys from his marriage to Pietra, William and Harry.
Laura threw out her Chet Baker and Charlie Parker in favor of what Billy called “shit-kicking music” by the likes of Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam (with whom he formed the film production company Cross River), and the bearded rock wizards ZZ Top. Indeed, when the band came to visit one day, their stretch limo was so long it couldn’t get in the drive of Laura and Billy Bob’s Coldwater Canyon home. There were other changes. Laura, whose eyesight had been affected after she was bitten by a poisonous insect as a child, was careful with her diet and ensured that Billy started to look after himself, seeing to it that he consumed organic vegetables, tofu, and lots of herbal drinks. For good measure she quietly removed all the hard liquor in the house. The results were plain to see in his public appearances. Under Laura’s care her boyfriend was looking healthier and fitter than he had in years.
He bought a $3.2 million home in Mandeville Canyon, near to luminaries such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg; and the couple’s remodeling plans, which included a nursery, were well under way by the time Billy arrived in Toronto. His life seemed settled—until that encounter in the elevator.
Fresh from filming the thriller A Simple Plan in Minnesota, he knew little about Angie before taking the gig as her screen husband. It was only when a friend pointed out that she was phenomenal in Gia that he watched the movie—and was suitably impressed. Even though their mutual agent, Geyer Kosinski, had once told Billy Bob that he and Angie would get along (as he also had told Angie and Leonardo DiCaprio), they had never met before. Angie later recalled that for some unknown reason she had deliberately avoided him at industry events in Hollywood.
Certainly if Laura had been concerned about a rival, it would not have been Angie but Billy Bob’s assistant, Odessa Whitmire, a pretty blonde from North Carolina who worshipped her boss. She would sit in her pajamas chatting with him late into the night when he stayed at the Sunset Marquis hotel, his rock-and-roll home away from home, where he worked on lyrics and songs for his debut album, Private Radio. But Laura, it seems, trusted her man. “If Laura was worried about Odessa, she never showed it,” notes an associate.
If anything, it was Angie’s agitated state of mind rather than her sexual allure that perturbed Laura. Like many others, she was aware of rumors circulating around Hollywood about Angie’s behavior on the set of Hell’s Kitchen in New York. During the filming of Pushing Tin, she and Billy Bob shared what director Mike Newell described as “a low-key friendship.” The English auteur was impressed by Angie’s focus and offbeat talent: “She is someone who would have fit in during Paris in the 1920s,” he recalled. “Very, very unordinary.” The only time Billy Bob’s and Angie’s behavior raised eyebrows was at the end of filming, in late April 1998, when they visited Daemon Rowanchilde’s tattoo boutique, Urban Primitive, in downtown Toronto. Billy Bob had a couple of names covered up on his hip and arm with a new energy wave design, while Angie also received energy waves just below her navel. It was an intimate moment, physically and emotionally. Angie has not only linked tattoos with positive events in her life but has also confessed that she finds the physical act of tattooing sexually arousing, saying in particular that the heavy rattle of the needle turns her on. “It gives her a sexual buzz,” notes a fellow aficionado. The effect is similar to that of cutting. When her skin was pierced she would enjoy an endorphin rush and feel spaced out, calm after the storm of emotions swirling inside her.
From the tattoo shop, they headed over to the Skydome and watched the Rolling Stones in concert, unaware of yet another scheme by the besotted Mick Jagger. Previously Jagger had invited Angie along to watch the show and party with him afterward. The way he had manipulated Jonny Lee Miller still fresh in her mind, she had graciously declined, saying that she had a busy filming schedule. He was not to be denied. Knowing Billy Bob of old, Jagger called him up and invited the entire cast and crew to the concert. Now Angie was obliged to go. At the time, Mick didn’t know about Billy Bob and Angie, and vice versa. Before the concert, Jagger made sure he knew exactly where Angie was sitting. During a break, when he ceded the stage to Keith Richards and the others, a security man came up to Angie. “Mick Jagger would like you to go backstage and meet him,” the guard intoned before leading her through the throng to where Jagger was waiting. Curiously, Jagger gave her a cashmere sweater, and they made out until he had to go back onstage, their public canoodling watched with openmouthed astonishment by actress Rebecca Broussard, then the partner of Hollywood legend Jack Nicholson. The following day Broussard called Marche and told her excitedly: “You’ll never guess who is in love with Angie—Mick Jagger.” Marche smiled at the news, knowing already how far and how fast the man she had idolized for three decades had fallen for her daughter.
After the concert, Billy Bob, Angie, John Cusack, and other cast members partied with the band, Billy Bob and Mick Jagger still completely in the dark about each other—until his go-between, Marcheline, told Jagger about Billy Bob soon after.
In this heavyweight contest, Jonny Lee Miller was back in the ring as well. The week before the Stones concert, Angie had flown to London to attend the BAFTA Awards with her husband, and they had watched their friend Robert Carlyle win Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for his performance as a male stripper in the classic British comedy The Full Monty. The estranged couple reunited again to attend a friend’s wedding in May, but the distance between them was obvious. Jonny was in tears, wailing to fellow guests that he hoped he and Angie could still be friends. “Initially he charmed her with his English accent, but she became really strong and ate him alive,” observed a friend who watched the breakup. Actually, the knockout blow was delivered the moment he heard that Angie had gone for a tattoo with another man.
As for Billy Bob Thornton, he was very low-key in his assessment of Angie when he returned from filming in Toronto. He had more plaudits for John Cusack than for his screen wife, referring to her often as “just a kid.” In public he considered himself “her mentor,” not daring to think that this exotic creature had fallen for his offbeat charm. It was entirely typical of the man. “He was unsure of himself,” notes a former girlfriend. “At that time he wasn’t the big stud he likes to think he is now.” His insecurity was evident when Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein visited him at his Coldwater Canyon home. As Billy waited for the arrival of the Miramax boss, he paced up and down the driveway muttering to himself: “I’m a ditch digger. I’m not a director, I’m not an actor, I’m a ditch digger. I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy.” When Weinstein carelessly flicked ash from his expensive cigar over Thornton’s $25,000 rug, he never complained.
Angie returned to Hollywood uncharacteristically kittenish in her admiration for her latest costar. She had always wanted to be with an artist, a man who could do more than act; now she had fallen for a real live one. Still, neither felt entirely free to pursue their initial animal attraction: Billy Bob was engaged, and Angie was technically still married and was also stepping out with Tim Hutton, who accompanied her and a kilted Robert Carlyle to a wedding in New York in June.
Her art now imitating her life, Angie’s latest movie, Playing by Heart, appropriately dealt with the convoluted and interconnected love lives of various couples in Los Angeles. “Talking about love is like dancing about architecture. But it ain’t stopped me from trying,” says Angie’s character, Joan, a sassy but irredeemably romantic gold-trousered nightclubber. The optimist in Joan did not speak to Angie; the actor managed to connect to her only by conjuring childhood memories of “making people laugh and wearing glitter underwear.” Angie observed, “I’ve always had a tough time focusing on love or asking for love or asking someone to hold me.”
Filmed in her hometown during the summer of 1998, it was an ensemble movie with a high-octane cast including Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands, Gillian Anderson, and Angie’s screen love interest, Ryan Phillippe. In a strange twist of fate, Playing by Heart was her fallback movie after Pushing Tin. She had taken time off during filming in Toronto to screen-test for the part of Marla Singer in David Fincher’s Fight Club, a story of violence and strange romance that starred Ed Norton and Brad Pitt. At the time, Brad was furiously fending off rumors about a liaison with Jennifer Aniston after he and the Friends star had gone on a blind date organized by their respective agents. The role eventually went to English actress Helena Bonham Carter.
The shooting schedule on Playing by Heart was so tight—just forty-one days—that when her father offered to take her out for dinner to celebrate her twenty-third birthday, she said no because she had big scenes the next day. Instead he came to the set and read lines with her. As her usual practice was to actively discourage her father from visiting her on set, this change in attitude did not go unnoticed. “There was a moment when she said, ‘Dad, you can come to the set; they know who I am now,’ ” recalled Jon Voight, who publicly voiced his ambition to make a movie with his talented daughter “before the end of the millennium.”
Even though she felt the character of Joan bore little relation to the real Angie, she was thrilled when the “man who made her feel like a little girl,” Sean Connery, phoned her and Ryan Phillippe to congratulate them on the intriguing romantic dynamic they had conveyed on-screen.
While Angie was involved in her latest movie love affair, Billy Bob and his fiancée were strolling hand in hand down the red carpet at the premiere of Armageddon, a big-budget science fiction thriller, held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Thornton’s gaunt appearance, which he ascribed to healthy living, and his public affection for his fiancée—she was “as tightly attached as his sinister tattoos,” noted one commentator—were the talk of the evening. Afterward, they took off for Billy’s home state of Arkansas, where they played a madly-in-love married couple who couldn’t forgive or forget their respective romantic pasts. (Ironically, one iron rule in the Thornton household was never, ever to mention the name of Laura Dern’s ex-fiancé, Jeff Goldblum.) The movie, Daddy and Them, which Billy Bob also directed, was a real Hollywood family affair: Laura’s mother, Diane Ladd, and her friend Kelly Preston appeared in it, while Billy Bob’s agent, Geyer Kosinski, produced. “It’s about a family of white trash alcoholics,” Thornton observed. “I got all my misfit friends together and we made a movie.”
Angie was dealing with a rather more sinister misfit, desperate to snag a role in the grisly thriller The Bone Collector, about a serial killer. It meant working with one of her acting heroes, Denzel Washington, who plays a quadriplegic detective who teams up with a young but talented forensic detective, Amelia Donaghy, to track down the murderer. “I begged for the part of Amelia, I just wanted it so badly,” she later told writer Anne Bergman. “I loved who she was. She was very street.”
The real reasons behind her desire for the part may have been more complex. After two roles in which her character was led by her heart, she felt a need to return to a woman who was strong, cerebral, intuitive, and self-contained. She believed that this change of emotional pace completed her as a human being in some way, that portraying a kaleidoscope of screen characters would round out her own personality. This emotionally mechanistic approach, a kind of “painting by numbers” attempt to fill in the gaps in her character, implied that at the heart of Angie there was no “there” there. As a young actress she felt she was a blank canvas on which other characters played, and she got tattoos to literally mark the things about her life that were important to her, to show what she stood for. She saw herself as a cipher who only could evolve through her characters, who stained her soul long after filming finished. “I suspect she’s happiest when she’s not being Angelina Jolie” was the astute observation of director Phillip Noyce.
Even the daredevil in Angie had private doubts about this latest character; she was haunted by a script that at first reading, she admitted, had “scared her to death.” Not only did she have to confront a corpse covered in rats, but she also had to jump fully clothed into New York’s East River. “I wasn’t sure I could play her, but that was perfect because she’s not sure she can do her job either,” she observed.
Angie admitted that during her research, she threw up when reviewing pictures of brutal crime scenes. That did not prevent her from decorating a wall of her New York apartment with black-and-white and color photographs of mutilated bodies, car-crash victims, and murder scenes to get in character, the montage ghoulishly reminiscent of Warhol’s early photographic work, particularly his Death and Disaster series.
If she was uncertain about her involvement in the project, so, too, were the suits at Universal Studios. In a now-familiar refrain, they made it clear that they wanted a star name to carry the big-budget movie. Even though she had won a Golden Globe for George Wallace and enjoyed the backing of director Phillip Noyce and veteran producer Martin Bregman, they won the duel with Universal only after taking a budget hit.
“They took a big risk,” admitted Angie, whose most nerve-wracking moment in the casting process came when she had to get the once-over from Denzel Washington. Prudently, she covered her hair, which was spiked and dyed pink for Playing by Heart, with a head scarf, only to inadvertently pull it off halfway through dinner. She still got the gig, transferring the shyness and awe she felt toward Washington to her character when filming began in September 1998.
There were other anxieties. During filming she became so thin that she had to be padded beneath her clothing. There was concern among her family and friends that once again she was anorexic and that she was still taking drugs. Her mother spent time with her on set to monitor her. When the grueling four-month shoot was completed, Angie’s performance was more than competent—it was compelling. “The focus groups couldn’t stop raving about Angelina,” recalled Noyce. “Finally Washington couldn’t resist shouting out: ‘And what about Denzel? Don’t you think he was great?’ ”
Angie certainly thought so. Like Sean Connery, he was an alpha male, solid, dependable, and true. She could not say the same for the other big man in her life, her father. Fall 1998 marked a distinct plunge in the temperature of their stormy relationship. Indeed, the frost never really left.
In an interview on The Howie Mandel Show, Jon Voight spoke enthusiastically about his son and daughter and their differing acting ambitions, but his brief TV appearance set off a deadly round of family misunderstandings. James’s girlfriend, Leanne, a waitress in a pool hall, thought Jon had said on TV that James should not attempt acting as there were enough actors in the family. This upset James, who complained to his mother. Although a friend urged her to wait until they had seen a transcript of the show, Marcheline called Angie, who was incensed with her father for publicly humiliating her brother. Ever the savior, she pledged to employ James herself, Marche willingly agreeing to take a cut in her manager’s percentage so that brother and sister could work together. Not that Angie’s agent, Geyer Kosinski, showed much enthusiasm about a two-for-one deal. “He realized where the talent lay,” noted a friend.
By the time Marcheline read the transcript from the Mandel show, which proved that Jon had spoken only well of his children, the die was cast. Marcheline simply shrugged and said: “Well, he’s done plenty of other nasty things to me.” By loosening their ties with their father, she drew her children closer into her orbit, just as her mother, Lois, had always encouraged her children to love her the most and treat their father with disdain. Unaware of what was actually said on the show, from now on both Angelina and her brother subscribed to the story that their father had failed to help James in his career. As angry as James and Angie were, and as often as they repeated the tale of woe to their circle of friends, neither of them raised the issue with their father. For all her bluster, Angie avoids direct confrontation. As a result, their father had no way of knowing why he was being treated so coolly.
Very soon he was threatened with being frozen out of the family forever. Once again it was the vexatious issue of Marcheline and her house. With Angie now living in New York, Marche’s thoughts turned to settling back East. She planned to live in the same exclusive neighborhood in Connecticut as Rolling Stone Keith Richards, buy two dogs (which she was going to name Bowie and Jagger), and one day befriend Richards while she was out walking them. One property she liked, which was riddled with damp and woodworm, was on the market for $900,000. The drip feed of complaints against her ex-husband—it was now twenty years since they formally separated—was relentless. Finally Angie, once again in full savior mode, took matters into her own hands and called her father. She told him bluntly that unless he bought her mother a house she would never speak to him again. That Angie had become embroiled in an ancient feud between her parents shocked their friends, the feeling being that it was Marcheline’s fight, not her daughter’s. Nonetheless, her intervention broke the logjam. While he demurred at paying for a house in the $900,000 price range, he did write Marche a check for $500,000. Marche put it in the bank—and never bought a house on either coast.
During this time it was not so much her family’s fortune but her own career that was consuming Angie. She was bouncing back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, deluged by requests for interviews, photo shoots, and film promotions. In December 1998, for example, she won the Breakthrough Performance by an Actress award from the National Board of Review for her role in Playing by Heart, made her first appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman (where she haltingly discussed the end of her marriage to Jonny Lee Miller), appeared on the cover of the now-defunct glossy Mirabella with the tag VENUS RISING—ANGELINA JOLIE IS THE NEXT SCREEN GODDESS, and enjoyed the deliciously thrilling sensation of seeing her name up in lights, almost crashing her pickup truck when she drove by a giant poster of her and Denzel Washington in Hollywood. While the movie received mixed reviews, it made a big splash worldwide, taking in $151 million at the box office.
Angie was making an even bigger splash, nominated for a second Golden Globe for her electrifying performance in Gia. The irony was not lost on her or Billy Bob that one of her rivals for the accolade was Laura Dern, the star of The Baby Dance, in which she played a white trash mother trying to sell one of her brood. Angie reserved her biggest splash for the awards ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hilton on January 24, 1999. As Laura Dern and her dapper black-suited fiancé applauded, Angie claimed her second Golden Globe and shortly afterward made good on her promise to jump fully clothed into the hotel pool.
She explained that it was a childhood dream, on hot summer days, yearning to dive into the pool. When she and her friends tried, they were thrown out by hotel security. This time no one was going to stop her—although she wasn’t quite as reckless as she first seemed, quickly changing out of her glittering Randolph Duke gown into a bodysuit before taking the plunge.
Joining her in the pool were the black-tied trio of her estranged husband, Jonny Lee Miller; her agent, Geyer Kosinski; and her brother, James Haven. It was an interesting tableau, captured by TV producer Jeremy Louwerse and his camera crew. Clutching a bottle of Perrier-Jouët, Angie encouraged others to join the party. Prudently, no one did so, in spite of her pleading. During her midnight swim, the hierarchy of her relationships was clearly apparent—as was her need to snag the limelight. Her agent kept a discreet distance from the star of the show, Angie far more relaxed with her brother, climbing on his back for a piggyback ride around the pool while leaving a space between herself and her husband, with whom she was friendly but rather tentative.
At some point she swam over to Louwerse and encouraged him to dive in. When he demurred, she grabbed his arm and pulled him, his bottle of Morgan’s rum, Cohiba cigars, walkie-talkie, cell phone, and pager straight into the pool. “It was a very sexy thing to do,” he now recalls, though at the time he was more concerned about his equipment than with snagging a date with the Golden Globe winner. After conducting a rather bizarre interview in the pool with a sound man holding a boom mike over their heads, he let her swim away. It was a moment that stuck with him not just because of his encounter with a clearly flirtatious and friendly Ms. Jolie but also for what it said about her career trajectory.
“That incident symbolized her transformation from unknown wild child to superstar publicity machine. She knew what she was doing when she jumped into the pool. At the same time, she showed her innocence and playfulness, which we didn’t really see again in public. Even though she wasn’t an innocent, it was the end of the age of innocence for her. You can see the transition right there, the wide-eyed excitement matched by a kind of knowingness, a girl who instinctively knew she was headed for greatness.”
Louwerse made his own media splash, receiving a standing ovation when he arrived at the office of Access Hollywood the following morning. His unusual and exclusive interview was broadcast on heavy rotation nationwide. There was a price to be paid, however, for a midnight swim with a future screen goddess. When he arrived home at three in the morning, smelling of booze and soaking wet, his irate girlfriend asked what the hell he had been doing. His reply, “Swimming with Angelina Jolie,” was perhaps not the most judicious in the circumstances. With that she headed for bed, while he slept on the couch. The next day she moved out.
On the way out, too, was Jonny Lee Miller. The separation was made formal on February 3, ten days after the Golden Globes, the couple citing “irreconcilable differences” in papers filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. “Jonny and I are still crazy about each other, but we have the sense of needing to move on in different directions” was her somewhat disingenuous epitaph for the marriage.
For Angie it was a new beginning, which began with a dark journey into her tremulous soul. A few days earlier she had articulated a manifesto for the rest of her life: “I can never stand still. While I’m alive I’m going to move as quickly as possible and live as much as I can, and I won’t consider if that is good or bad for my career.”
Angie was as good as her word. She covered the walls of her trailer with porn, went to work in a mental hospital, and made a name for herself.
The character that propelled her firmly into the public consciousness as an actor of note was Angelina herself. Or at least a variation of her. Like a lioness hunting a gazelle, she pounced on the part of Lisa Rowe, the wild, rebellious sociopath in Girl, Interrupted, and devoured it with unconcealed relish. “I’m Lisa; I identify with her,” she explained, arguing that after The Bone Collector she needed to play a less cerebral character. Angie had already bonded with the character of the sexy and coldly amoral young woman several years earlier, when she read Susanna Kaysen’s searing 1993 memoir about her stay in McLean Hospital, a private psychiatric institute in Massachusetts, during the socially turbulent sixties.
Kaysen’s seventeen-month sojourn in the upscale but secure institution, where previous patients included poet Sylvia Plath, singer Ray Charles, and balladeer James Taylor, who based his song “Fire and Rain” on his experiences, prompted a provocative meditation on the nature of sanity, teenage female sexuality, adolescent angst, and the glib medical link between nonconformity and the label of mental illness. During her stay, Kaysen, who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, shared camaraderie, occasionally friendship, with the troubled young women on her ward.
It was this latter theme that director James Mangold emphasized in the movie version of the book, whose title derives from a Vermeer painting, Girl Interrupted at Her Music. He and Winona Ryder, who played Susanna Kaysen, spent three years working on the project, Ryder viewing the movie as a “child of the heart.” By the time the movie was released it was Ryder’s heart that was broken, as Angie effortlessly walked away with all the honor and glory. From the moment she read for Mangold, she nailed the character of Lisa. Astonished by her portrayal, he stated, with characteristic Hollywood understatement, “God has given me a gift.” As Mangold later recalled: “It was clear to me that day that I was watching someone who was not acting. There was someone speaking through her; it was a part of herself.”
Her performance was more hell than heaven, with Angie proving that the devil had not only the best tunes but also the best lines. Innately competitive, she stole every scene in which she appeared, experienced actors like Vanessa Redgrave and Whoopi Goldberg expertly mugged by this feral force of nature. Even the animals were upstaged. In one scene, when she was faced with a hissing cat, instead of flinching or swiping it away, Jolie calmly gave it the once-over, stared it down, and then hissed right back. As for Winona Ryder, she unwittingly provided the palette for Angie, her shaded, introspective performance the perfect canvas for Angie’s wild-eyed, ballsy inmate whose escapades, and frequent escapes from the hospital, gave the movie vibrant color and texture. Angie was the Hockney to Winona’s Vermeer. Film critic Pauline Kael described Angie’s picking off her feminine costars one by one like bits of sweater lint. “Those poor actresses,” she told Allen Barra. “She’s absolutely fearless in front of a camera. This girl would scare the crap out of Jack Nicholson in [One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Looking back, Winona is keen to emphasize that she fought hard for Angie to get the part of Lisa, feeling sorry that the two-time Golden Globe winner was not yet taken seriously as an actress. “I never really felt like I got the chance to know her,” she blithely told BlackBook magazine of the three-month shoot, during which she was effectively incarcerated morning till night with Angie and her fellow actors in an unused building at a mental institution in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that was turned into a replica of 1960s McLean Hospital.
It was hardly surprising. In the movie the two eventually become enemies, and with both of them deep into Method acting, personal interaction was edgy and often hostile. Playing an openly aggressive, emotionally inert sociopath, Angie kept in character even when the cameras had stopped rolling. If Winona complained of a headache or tiredness, Angie would shrug indifferently, explaining that Lisa never felt anything. Winona wasn’t the only one to feel Angie’s social freeze. One evening actress Brittany Murphy, who played Daisy, a socialite who lived on a diet of chicken and laxatives and was bullied by Lisa, was talking to Angie off set. After a brief chat Angie told her baldly, “Wait a minute—what am I talking to you for?” Murphy replied, “Can’t we take a break for a while?” Angie just laughed and moved away.
Angie cocooned herself in her trailer, plastering the walls with porn pictures because they made her “feel provocative, open, and sensual,” and quietly smoking heroin, according to a close friend interviewed on the condition of anonymity. Her drug of choice helped her focus during the long hours of filming, but it also made her feel safe as she embarked on a high-risk, high-wire performance.
She also read the script notes and comments her mother had sent her. It was part of a familiar mother/daughter routine, Marche always on hand to talk through her roles. Her mother even gave her the glove puppet that she ended up using in the film. And the family connection didn’t end there: “Angel of the Morning,” a song written by her uncle Chip Taylor, became part of the sound track.
While Angie’s coolness to Winona and her costars could be wrapped up in the Method acting explanation, the simple fact was that she didn’t really bond with anyone on the set. “She couldn’t stand Winona,” observed a girlfriend. “Angie seemed to do much to undermine Winona in the name of acting.” That Winona had been engaged to Johnny Depp, the object of Angie’s teenage crush, may have added a further frisson. The leading lady was not the only one in her crosshairs. Angie argued with the director about the way he shot and eventually cut the movie, and publicly snubbed a production assistant, Andrea Mitchell, whom she had earlier befriended, at a party. Whether it was Angie staying in character as Lisa, or the first sign of diva behavior from a normally down-to-earth actor, her attitude irritated the hostess of the party, then a close friend of the actress’s. “It was rude and so unnecessary,” she observed. “She cut Andrea loose for some reason. When she tires of someone, she literally writes them out of her life.”
Mick Jagger knew the feeling. During filming he invited her to the Stones concert in Philadelphia in March. While she had turned down his invitation to join him in Brazil, she did attend the gig but, much to Jagger’s chagrin, did not hang out with him backstage. After the concert she drove back to the film set. More revealing than her teasing indifference toward Jagger was the dance of deception between Angie and her mother. She called Marcheline after the concert and told her that Jagger had asked her to marry him. Whether it was said in jest or to please her mother, Marcheline was understandably thrilled and excited—until she called Jagger to congratulate him. He was utterly bemused, complaining that Angie hadn’t even bothered to see him after the show, let along accept a proposal of marriage.
While Jagger felt he was on the outside looking into Angie’s life, Timothy Hutton was very much on the inside. She might have stayed in character in her dealings with Winona Ryder and other actors on the set of Girl, Interrupted, but when she wanted, Angie quickly became Angie. During breaks in shooting, she frequently visited Hutton at his Pennsylvania home, which was near the film set. Angie immediately struck up an affectionate friendship with his ex-wife, Debra Winger, who lived nearby, and she “adored” their son, Noah, now a documentary filmmaker, who was then aged twelve. Angie and Hutton, who met on the set of Playing God, first appeared publicly as a couple at the Oscars in March.
Angie could only look on as Billy Bob Thornton, nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for A Simple Plan, was passed over for the award in favor of James Coburn. Whatever the couple felt for each other, at that time their lives were going along different paths; while Angie was romancing Tim Hutton, Billy Bob and his fiancée, Laura Dern, were actively discussing starting a family. Laura Dern could barely contain her excitement, telling one visitor: “I’ve waited all my life to find the right man to have a baby with. It’s like a dream come true. We are both getting older and we are just so ready.” Her mother, Diane Ladd, was equally thrilled that her daughter had finally found “Mr. Right,” telling friends that she couldn’t wait to be a grandmother.
Laura, then thirty-two, wanted everything to be perfect, flying English feng shui expert Karen Kingston from her home in Bali to “space clear” the couple’s new home in Mandeville Canyon. Kingston spent a day going through every room in the house, dispersing negative energy by putting special salt in the corners, strewing the floor with flower petals, ringing bells, and chanting in order to cast the demons out. She paid special attention to the windowless walk-in closet by the master bedroom that Laura and Billy Bob had chosen as the nursery. Laura’s only concerns focused on the swimming pool—her sister, Diane, had drowned in a tragic accident at the age of eighteen months—and the hill rats that were occasional unwelcome visitors.
She was blissfully happy, indulging Billy Bob’s frequent stays at the Sunset Marquis hotel in West Hollywood. The discreet hotel, a favorite hangout of the rock aristocracy, features numerous pictures of Thornton, including a larger-than-life head shot in the entrance foyer. Once inside, Billy Bob was king of all he surveyed, using the basement recording studios to make music till the early hours. A popular figure among the staff for his Southern courtesy, he liked to have what was known as his “harem,” his assistants, including Odessa Whitmire, at his beck and call. She was with him when he directed All the Pretty Horses, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, in New Mexico. During the shoot, in March and April 1999, she met and eventually became engaged to actor Matt Damon.
It was perhaps just a coincidence that around this time Angie and Tim Hutton were seen making out at the hotel’s open-air bar. Patrons, including a session musician and his partner, were mesmerized by their public display of affection, the consensus being that the couple should get themselves a room. Whether or not her behavior was aimed at making Billy Bob jealous, it certainly fit in with Angie’s exhibitionist tendencies. In April, when Pushing Tin was released, the New York Post reported Angie and Tim in a “late-night liplock” at McAleer’s Pub on Amsterdam Avenue in New York, while a married couple who went out for dinner with them found their company “boring” because they only had eyes—and lips, mouths, and teeth—for each other. The same month, when Tim introduced her to his friend musician Neil Young at his postconcert party at Madison Square Garden, reports again focused on the couple’s public smooching.
Apart from the sexual attraction, Angie’s decision to take up drumming to please Tim, and their discussions about renovation projects, which ultimately came to naught, showed an unusual degree of commitment. The couple was so enraptured by each other that rather than buy engagement rings, they discussed tattooing their ring fingers. When Angie had a runic “H” tattooed on the inside of her wrist, it was assumed it was a sign of devotion to her current squeeze. She later said it was “H” for Haven, her brother’s surname.
As with much in Angie’s life, nothing was quite as it seemed. Didactic in her film choices, she was equally compartmentalized in her personal life, particularly when it came to romance. Whether he liked it or not, Tim Hutton was just one suitor in the revolving door of her life. He sensed as much, coming to realize that, even though he was older, more experienced, and an accredited heartbreaker, he was simply a pawn being toyed with by a ruthless queen in a chess game he had no understanding of. “I feel like I am just a piece of luggage on an airport carousel waiting to be picked up,” he whined. “Please pick me, please pick me.”
Her wild ride during her twenties was simply Angie catching up after the adventures of her teenage years, when she focused on getting a handhold on Hollywood’s greasy pole. As her stage mother, Lauren Taines, explains: “As a teenager Angie didn’t date; she was entirely focused on her career. So all the wildness came out when she had made it as an actor. She was having the time of her life.”