Today Angelina Jolie got married; good for her, I guess. She was also the subject of a piece on Gawker' Defamer by Tom Scocca asking why she's considered a movie star, considering that she's mostly in crappy movies that aren't really very beloved. Scocca takes aim at some outright flops (Pushing Tin, Alexander) and some mid-sized hits (The Bone Collector, Salt), and notes that one of her biggest movies (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) probably did better because of all the publicity surrounding her relationship with Brad Pitt, and her subsequent films (The Good Shepherd, A Mighty Heart and Beowulf) did badly.
"Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock and Robert Downey Jr. and Leonardo DiCaprio—big names who appear, as Jolie does, on Forbes' lists of the highest paid actresses or actors—have histories of making hugely beloved hit movies," Scocca writes, while "Angelina Jolie's megastardom is completely independent of the substance of her movie career."
I write this not to get in some online pissing war (that's what Twitter is for, after all), I am just genuinely surprised by Scocca's contention. Which is (I think) that Jolie's films are often not very good and don't always make money, so she's not a movie star. It's true that for a while Jolie was not someone who could open a movie. That's true of pretty much every actor or actress who became a movie star, though. But in this day and age, Jolie is someone who can open a movie based more on her star power than anything else—which is pretty much the definition of a movie star.
Jolie's early career was one built on hype rather than results—she got Golden Globe wins and Emmy nominations for her performances in the TV movies Gia and George Wallace, and she was the most interesting thing about a bunch of flops (Hackers, Pushing Tin, Playing By Heart) before she had a great 1999, appearing in a reasonably successful crime thriller (The Bone Collector) and winning an Oscar for her supporting work in Girl, Interrupted.
Jolie was talented, beautiful and a tabloid magnet because of her interesting personal life, which is a pretty good combo of things to possess if you want to become a movie star. Guess what happened? Angelina Jolie became a movie star. It just took a little while. She got a lead role in a franchise (Tomb Raider) which had a solid first installment ($131 million domestic/$274 million worldwide) and a crappy second. She put out pretty crappy product for the first half of the aughts (Original Sin, Beyond Borders, Taking Lives) before blowing up for good in 2005. The combo of her on-set affair with Brad Pitt and the huge success of Mr. and Mrs. Smith ($186 million domestic/$478 million worldwide) sealed the deal.
I think maybe the reason Scocca thinks Jolie isn't a star is that she then didn't appear in another tentpole blockbuster until 2008. The Good Shepherd was a supporting role in an Oscar prestige movie that did so-so; A Mighty Heart was an indie/vanity project that made zilch; Beowulf was a mo-cap performance in which she got "and" billing. But since Jolie got back into the Hollywood game big-time, she's been a very reliable box office bet.
Wanted was the shock hit of 2008, an R-rated action/sci-fi movie not based on an established property which made $134 million domestic and $341 million worldwide even though it's a nightmarish headache to watch. It was sold heavily on Jolie's presence (even though she's the third lead); she dominated the posters and advertising, which made sense, since James McAvoy (relatively unknown at the time) is the actual lead. The same year, she was in Clint Eastwood's Changeling, which wasn't a big hit ($35 million domestic/$113 million worldwide), but got her another Oscar nomination, which is more than fellow Oscar winners like Gwyneth Paltrow or Halle Berry ever pulled off.
In 2010 came Salt, which (again) was advertised heavily on Jolie's image and (again) did better than it should have, collecting $118 million domestic, $293 worldwide. The film got shrugs on review and is barely remembered today, and all of its success can be laid right at Jolie's feet (Liev Schrieber doesn't pull in $100 million+ on his own, dammit). 2010 also had the domestic bomb that was The Tourist ($67 million), although at the time that was seen more as the end of Johnny Depp's hot streak. The Tourist was too abysmal for either star to save it, although it still cleaned up internationally ($278 worldwide), coasting on its European location shooting and its uh, cast of movie stars.
Aside from providing a voice in the Kung Fu Panda movies, Angelina has done nothing since then, exercising the kind of project-picking patience that only movie stars really get to do. Her return to the screen in Maleficent was again poorly reviewed; it made $237 million domestically, $747 million worldwide, and again, was sold heavily on the back of Jolie's image. Her career at this point is very reminiscent of Will Smith—she's got a high-profile family, she doesn't make a lot of movies, but she's become a pretty solid box-office bet.
It certainly helps that Jolie has a famous husband and a bunch of photogenic kids and just got married and so on. Of course it does! She's a celebrity! A really, really famous celebrity! Who dates another celebrity! That often has plenty to do with being a movie star, and being in good movies can also play a big role. But it's weird and arbitrary to argue that Jolie is not a movie star because she's been in a lot of bad movies. The most important thing, as Bobby Finger argues in this comprehensive rebuttal, is whether an actor's presence is the most important factor in an audience's decision to see a movie (overriding negative reviews, genre, MPAA rating, etc.). Jolie is absolutely on that list. Because she's a movie star.