The Role That Made: Angelina Jolie

By Ashley Morton


Before she was Lara Croft, Mrs. Smith or Maleficent, relatively unknown actor Angelina Jolie took on a role of a gorgeous young model who catapulted into stardom before her untimely death. The part shot Jolie into the big leagues when she received both a Golden Globe and a SAG award for her performance.

The 1998 biographical film follows Gia Carangi (Jolie) as she arrives in New York City with dreams of becoming a fashion model. Her looks propel her forward in the industry, and what comes along with her rise to fame is passion, love, and — drug addiction. It’s hard to believe the Hollywood icon wasn’t always on the scene, but Jolie’s intense and raw portrayal of Carangi is what grabbed audiences for the first time. Watching Carangi’s downward spiral is troubling, but, like the model herself, impossible not to watch. The movie begins with people describing Gia before we’ve even seen her: how she moved, how she looked, her other-worldliness.

To play that on the screen and fully embody the essence of a real-life person with such natural vivacity can be a challenge — Gia’s don’t-give-a-shit attitude and eccentricity could come off as false or trying too hard (the very opposite of what Carangi had to do) in the hands of the wrong actor. But Jolie is magnetic all on her own, managing Gia’s anger, attitude and even depression in ways few actors could. What we see in Jolie’s Gia feels like an early cousin of her later Oscar-winning and show-stealing role in Girl, Interrupted.

Jolie enters the picture with pink hair, spiked and dirty, working in a diner. But with a simple lean against the countertop and a look up, the audience gets it: There’s no stopping this woman. She is a force of nature. The assessment applies to both the character and the star, whose own magnetism does not outshine the story, but pushes it that much further.

Gia pulls word-for-word inspiration from the model’s own journal entries and interviews, accompanied by a slow jazz score. The exploration of Carangi’s relationships with makeup artist Linda (Elizabeth Mitchell), mentor Wilhelmina Cooper (Faye Dunaway in her own award-winning role), and mother (Mercedes Ruehl) help to expand Jolie’s memorable performance. Alongside black and white shots which add to the sultry, slow burn of her collapse, the film’s depiction of Gia’s losing battle with both substance abuse and HIV elevates it beyond paint-by-numbers biopic, and makes it an emotional and artistic must-see in its own right.

Gia is available on HBO.