Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton Were an Absolutely Chaotic Couple and I Loved Them for It
In hindsight it’s clear that their split, in Jolie’s mid-twenties, was the definitive death of a certain arc in her public persona.
It’s the year 2000 and I am 13 years old, navigating the low-slung suburbs of the California Bay Area. I don’t have many friends and am obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bring It On, and in my downtime consume large quantities of gay porn I’m naive enough to think my father can’t find in wiped browser windows. But in my bedroom the walls are covered in hyper-sexualized women in leather pants; in my bedroom the walls are covered in Angelina Jolie.
Jolie was openly bisexual and unrepentantly hot, haunted by demons, but beholden to no one — and I, a tween who’d been recently busted for stealing Beanie Babies from the collectible doll shop at which I worked, could relate. She seemed to have sprung forth from my own frenzied imagination, not as a sexual object but something akin to an avatar. She was high-femme yet highly androgynous; gorgeous, tatted, goth. While she admitted to falling for Foxfire co-star Jenny Shimizu in 1996 (the revisionist history fanfic writes itself), it was the idiosyncrasies of her wedded bliss with Billy Bob Thornton that were the practical invention of tabloid fodder — blood vial necklaces, a pet rat, a sex dungeon.
Theirs was a queer relationship by at least strict dictionary definition (strange; odd). The only analogous blip in hetero history might be Drew Barrymore and Tom Green. Jolie notoriously sucked on Thornton’s chin at the red carpet premiere of Gone In 60 Seconds; he glibly told a reporter they’d just “fucked in the car.” Rolling Stone called it "America's Most Dangerous Marriage," and to a 13-year-old it sure felt that way.
The couple met on the set of Pushing Tin in 1999 and eloped in Las Vegas the next year. In March of 2002 Jolie adopted her first child, Maddox, and by May she and Billy Bob had separated. For his part, Thornton has said “Angie is still a friend of mine and she’s a great person.” He also told GQ that he “never felt good enough for her,” and when he says that he did not have the range we believe him. (For the curious, Billy Bob’s 2001 song “Angelina” is indeed streaming on Spotify.)
It’s not so much the dissolution of their marriage that broke me as the apparent suppression of Jolie’s wayward appetite; she had a hunger for Billy Bob that was startling, both for the object of its affection (Thornton is nothing if not a specific taste) and its tenacity. I was as confused as anyone as to why she wanted him, but the simple fact of the matter was that she did. When she told the New York Times in 2001, ''I'm just a very normal woman who is crazy about her man … and I'm also a lot of other things,” it was evident she contained the multitudes to back it up.
In hindsight it’s clear that their breakup, in Jolie’s mid-twenties, was the definitive death of a certain arc in her public persona. It could be interpreted as a burning out, if we are to continue the flame metaphor, but I think we can find something regenerative and resolutely — maybe divinely — feminine about Jolie’s evolution. This was no taming of the shrew; she simply grew up and fell in love with a new version of herself, or the person she saw she could be. (That person, and her subsequent relationship with Brad Pitt, is for another writer to tackle.) Rather than extinguished, she found herself risen from the flames. Their breakup might have broken some of us, but it also taught us we can put ourselves back together.
Breakups That Broke Us is a weekly column about the failed celebrity relationships that convinced us love is dead.