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200 ★★★★★★★★★★ ✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩ 11 Brangelina Celebrity, Credibility, and the Composite Überstar LINDA RUTH WILLIAMS There is a stratum of stardom so elevated that it needs only the simplicity of the given name. There is no other Elvis or Arnold or Britney of any real significance. This is paradoxical: the more stratospherically remote a star gets, the more familiar their popular moniker—tabloids and celebrity media deal such names to us as if we were personal friends. Some stars are so confident in their status they dispense with family names altogether (Cher, Madonna, Prince). Brad and Angelina (Pitt and Jolie, of course) certainly fall into the former category, but so identified have they become as a couple since starring together in Mr. & Mrs. Smith in 2005 that it is now hard to read them separately, and a hybrid noun was invented by celebrity media for this definitive überstar couple of the twenty-first century: “Brangelina.” The term does double service as both brand name and relationship shorthand. It is a curiously twenty-first-century mode of nomenclature: Richard Burton and ElizBrad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. abeth Taylor never got past Liz and Dick; Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were never Laureviv. Other hybridizations have come into currency (Bennifer [Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez]; TomKat [Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes]), suggesting cozy coupledom that effaces personal difference. This is not true of Brangelina, which is somehow more than the sum of its parts, with Pitt and Jolie remaining simultaneously singular entities. Before the coupling, the two were established actors as well as figures of paparazzi fascination in their own right, both featuring in a mixed bag of popular and esteemed film works as well as starring in their own celebrity soap operas (Brad’s marriage to Jennifer Aniston; Jolie’s marriages to Johnny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton). The couple has juggled film roles of various kinds with highly publicized humanitarian work while both courting and dodging the popular media. Brangelina also has satellite players: the expanding family of children, Angelina’s father Jon Voight, even Brad’s ex, Aniston, Brad’s split from whom was one of the biggest gossip media stories of the decade (see Claude Brodesser, “Splitsville Is Hitsville for Mags,” Variety, 17–23 January 2005, 5). The couple inspires unprecedented hysteria (the Washington Post claimed that the birth of their daughter was the most anticipated “since Jesus Christ”) and hyperbole (photos of the couple have commanded some of the highest fees in the history of publishing [see Nicole LaPorte, “Precious Images,” Variety, 12–18 June 2006, 3, 6]). It is then nearly impossible to read Jolie and Pitt’s film work without the insistent noise of the fame machine screaming through, so I don’t propose even to try. With celebrity wattage this intense, it might be forgotten that these public figures make films (Neal Gabler suggested that “the reports about Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie have more voyeuristic entertainment value than most of the movies they’ll make” [Variety, 17 October 2005, 164]). Yet film choices as much as personal/private tittle-tattle and sanctioned press releases are integral to the celebrity-making process. As Peter Bart wrote about the power of agents and management, “A star like Brad Pitt zealously guards his image and sifts his projects cautiously. The same for George Clooney, who intercuts ‘serious films’ between his ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ frivolities. Both Clooney and Pitt insist on being masters of their own fate” (Variety, 16 October 2006, 82). Jolie has constructed her image on three pillars—role, personal publicity, and humanitarian activity—but the result is often contradictory. Into this mix comes the gossip media (tabloid and midrange magazine fodder), idealizing and judging without the sanction of the stars’ PR machine (see Wilson). Here Jolie has moved from self-harming, bisexual, incestuous wild child to maternal saint as the nuclear family has stabilized her image. This transformative narrative “of motherhood as BRANGELINA 201 recovery” (Negra, “Fertile Valley” 60) amounts to a domestic taming. For Pitt the opposite is true; the closer to house-husband he has gotten, the more savagely critical the media’s judgment (unkempt beard, unworked torso, ungroomed appearance). So where are the films in this contradictory and conservative narrative of fame, scandal, and speculation? Academic film studies, of course, usually start with movies or histories of the industry, and has only lately begun to theorize the phenomenon of celebrity. As a field, star studies have attempted...


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