Because she triumphs in many genres. Because she's popular here and abroad. Because she can out-stare any male star. And because she's Angelina Jolie!
Producer Joe Roth said of Maleficent, “There was no point in making the movie if it wasn’t her.” The “her” in question is Angelina Jolie, who played the role of the sorceress fairy badmother in Roth’s live-action origins story based on the Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty.
No one but Jolie could have incarnated Maleficent with such plausible majesty. And nobody else could have led this troubled production, with only so-so entertainment value, to a $70-million first weekend at the North American box office — plus another $100 million in foreign markets.
(READ: Corliss on Angelina Jolie in Maleficent)
The year’s biggest opening for a movie with a female lead, Maleficent certifies the standing of Jolie as the one actress who can open big movies to big numbers. In action and fantasy films — genres usually dominated by men — Jolie, who turns 39 on Wednesday, has consistently appealed to audiences of all demographics. Fanboys worship her; women admire her; kids flock to see her as Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis or to hear her growl as the sexy Tigress in the Kung Fu Panda movies.
From her first superheroine role in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — which earned $275 million globally in 2001, back when that was real money — Jolie has been the one actress who can stand up to any male star and stare him down. Unlike Tom Cruise or Adam Sandler, she’s not an aging kid in arrested development; unlike them, she hasn’t been in an expensive flop since Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow a decade ago. And her films almost always earn more money where it counts, in foreign markets. Jolie’s exotic mixture of brains and glamour makes her the one reliable international star, and one of the few of either gender to make people in every country pay to see her.
(FIND: Angelina Jolie on TIME’s Top 10 Performances)
The box-office numbers for Jolie’s last four mainstream live-action movies prove her worth. Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the 2005 spy romance that introduced her to her future partner Brad Pitt, opened to $50.3 million and grossed $186.3 million in North America and nearly $300 million more abroad. In her 2008 Wanted, the male lead James McAvoy added little marquee luster, yet the suppervillain movie earned $50.9 million its first three days in 2008, $134.5 for its domestic run and more than $200 million overseas. Two years later, Salt, another solo action film, took in nearly $300 million worldwide. The Tourist, a spy comedy with Johnny Depp, was no great shakes at home ($67.6 million), but it earned $211 million abroad, putting the film solidly in the black.
In sum, Jolie’s films have earned $4.88 million globally, and she’s sure to pass the $5-billion threshold shortly, as her new film opens in China and Japan. That’s why, despite her not having appeared on screen since The Tourist nearly four years ago, Jolie commanded a $33-million salary for Maleficent, making her the only woman in the 2013 top-10 list of highest-paid actors (tied for ninth with Denzel Washington). For the third time last year, she perched atop Forbes magazine’s list of the top-paid actresses.
Her box-office clout stems in part from the limitations of her statuesque regality. Jolie is not the girl next door — unless you live on Olympus. And though she is one of the most famous celebrity mothers — and played a brave, forlorn mom in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling — her iconography makes her unsuitable for maternal roles. In a way, Maleficent domesticates this least domestic of all actresses, by turning her into Sleeping Beauty’s surrogate mother. But audiences have come to see Jolie toss thunderbolts of righteous wrath, not to nurture. Her fans should know that she’ll be in full feral form soon in a third King Fu Panda and a second Salt.
Behind the screen, Jolie works tirelessly for UNICEF and has directed two indie films: In the Land of Bloody and Honey, a political drama in the Bosnian and Serbian languages ($300,000 when it played in all of 18 theaters in 2011), and the forthcoming Unbroken, the true story of an Olympic runner imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II; that film, for which Joel and Ethan Coen contributed to the script, opens Christmas Day.
(READ: Angelina Jolie on motherhood)
And last month Variety reported that she and Pitt will collaborate in some fashion on a Jolie script, the details as yet undivulged. It won’t be Maleficent, but it might, Jolie’s world of fans hope, be magnificent.