Oscar Countdown: No Love for Angie

All eyes will be glued to the TV set on Sunday for the Oscars. Yet Hollywood's most glamorous power couple, Brad and Angelina, might just as well be watching from home with the rest of us schlubs. No one gives either a chance for winning in their respective star vehicles, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Changeling. Why is that? Button has actually done good business, and got a Best Picture nom. Yet Changeling was stomped and ignored in theaters; Clint Eastwood's other picture of 2008, Gran Torino, has turned out to be one of his biggest career hits. So I took another look at Changeling, which is out on DVD this week. And here's the problem...

For starters, Changeling is a depressing tale of the Great Depression, based on an actual crime case in Los Angeles. There, a single mother (Jolie) has her child disappear while she's away at work. She calls the cops who, months later, announce to the press that her preteen son has been located somewhere in the Midwest. The LAPD stage a reunion at Union Station, with reporters invited. The kid gets off the train and.... it's not him. And Jolie, a plucky flapper and telephone switchboard supervisor (not just an operator, but management grade) does nothing to protest.

Granted, 1928 is a long time ago. And maybe a single mother would not, in fact, feel confident enough to resist the corrupt white male patriarchy of the LAPD. But this is (or was) October of 2008 when the movie came out. And Angelina Jolie is the biggest female movie star in the world. Last nominated for Best Actress (and deservedly) in A Mighty Heart, she is not a woman you push around.

If you want to win the Oscar as an actress, go large. Do not be a doormat, meek victim, or passive martyr. Be like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich; fight from the very first frame for that golden statuette. It is yours. It is like your child, your missing child, your missing child whose disappearance will bring down the whole power structure when you call out the authorities for their lies and misogyny. Fight for your child. Fight for your Oscar.

Instead, whether historically accurate or not, Jolie's quest for justice becomes bogged down in L.A. politics, with a crusading priest (John Malkovich), an honest cop (Michael Kelly), a dirty cop (Jeffrey Donovan), and an even dirtier police chief (Colm Feore). And, oh, just to muddle things further, there's a serial killer (Jason Butler Harner) on the loose, who may or may not have nabbed Jolie's kid. All of which result in false arrests, Jolie in the nut house (just like Girl, Interrupted, which earned Jolie an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress), exonerations, new arrests, trials, appeals and more court hearings ...and where was I? Where is the clarity? Eastwood is usually one of the most economical, direct, and object-oriented of directors. Yet here there seem to be about a dozen possible dramatic end points. And at each one, Changeling detours around them. For seven years (the movie ends in 1935).

This is why Jolie's most focussed and effective performance of 2008 was in the enjoyably trashy summer popcorn movie Wanted, where she plays a sneering, bad-ass killer in a secret coven of assassins. Not someone whose child you could steal and replace with an impostor. Not a woman you would mess with. More like Dirty Harry in a thong. Her character, simply called Fox (love it), should've been the heroine of Changeling--an angry parent who hunts down and kills anyone who threatens her child. Call her an unfit mother (the charge against Jolie here), and she'd beat you down with her bare fists.

That's how you win an Oscar.

Changeling. Universal, $29.98. On DVD Feb. 17.

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