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Girl uncorrupted

Razor-sharp turns in TV’s “Gia and Wallace” got her noticed. Now, with two big movies, Angelina Jolie may move beyond the cutting edge. Who says knife girls finish last?

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Angelina Jolie is pounding down a rib eye and a pint of Guinness in her favorite Upper West Side dive when a lovesick bartender — impressed, perhaps, by her carnivorous glee and the mildly obscene cartoon on her T-shirt — offers his hand in marriage. An uncomfortable reporter tries to intervene, but it’s unnecessary. ”He’s cute,” Jolie purrs, unfurling a long leg onto a leather banquette. ”And I’m looking.” The bartender wipes the drool off his chin and scurries away.

If you had the misfortune to have a name that means ”pretty little angel” (a name Jolie ”hates,” by the way), you might have a tendency to overcompensate too. Jolie, 24, may be irrefutably pretty, but she’s hardly little. Her arms are sticks from wrist to stem, but the rest of her is deluxe, from her Lara Croft figure to those surgically untouched lips (which are called ”bee-stung” so often you’d think she grew up farming honey).

And Jolie will have to wait a long time for her halo. Though she’s frequently described as actor Jon Voight’s daughter (Jolie is her middle name; her mother is former French actress Marcheline Bertrand), she has achieved notoriety as a tattooed, knife-collecting devil with an interest in mortuary science and a strained relationship with her dad (her folks separated when she was 1). Many U.S. moviegoers have never even seen Jolie act — though TV viewers were knocked out by her Emmy-nominated, Golden Globe-winning work in the TNT miniseries George Wallace and as a drug-addled supermodel in the HBO biopic Gia — but nearly everyone seems to know she brings knives to bed and has a tattoo near her bikini line. Much of this information has appeared in stories that prematurely christened her the Next Big Thing with a fervor that would make George W. Bush jealous. And much of the Jolie persona, she admits, is her own loose-lipped doing.

”I read things I’ve said and don’t realize I’m being a ‘bad’ girl,” she says between meaty bites. ”I do like being sexual, I do collect knives, I do like tattoos. I like dark things. But there’s a side of me that’s soft. I love my family; I want to be a mother.” The knife collection, she’d like to clarify, dates back to a childhood thing for Renaissance fairs; she also has an antique battle-ax from Europe and an African spear. ”Don’t pin me down to one thing,” she says, jabbing a steak knife into gristle.

Jolie may have some new weapons in her arsenal. In the coming weeks she’ll appear in two high-profile projects that could finally deliver on her oft-promised date with stardom. She splits a marquee with Denzel Washington in Nov. 5’s The Bone Collector, a serial-killer thriller directed by Phillip Noyce (The Saint). She returns Dec. 21 with a straitjacket-ripping turn opposite Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted, which takes place inside a women’s mental hospital. Given the success of Double Jeopardy, there’s hope that Jolie’s tough-talking Bone policewoman will bring in the female ticket-buying hordes. And there are whispers that her Jack Nicholson-in-drag Girl role could nail her a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

In January, Jolie will start shooting the turn-of-the-century thriller Dancing in the Dark, for Gia director Michael Cristofer. And next summer, she’ll appear with Nicolas Cage in the just-wrapped Gone in 60 Seconds, a testosterone-infused car-chase flick she calls a relief. “I wanted to be around a lot of men,” she says with a loopy smile. “I’ve been around women in a mental institution for way too long.” Cage received $20 million. Jolie, whose asking price is in the low seven figures, got a different kind of compensation; says producer Jerry Bruckheimer, “[We] wrote the female role with Angelina in mind.” Bone director Noyce claims he hasn’t seen such potential in an actress since he directed a 20-year-old Aussie named Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm.

Hard to believe that less than two years ago, just as Gia shoved her onto the fast track to fame, Jolie had “quit” acting, separated from Brit husband Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting), whom she’d married at 20, and headed to NYU film school, to start over. “I was pretty broken,” she says; she needed to withdraw from all the hype and (metaphorically, at least) keep her cutlery obsession in a cabinet. The experience was cathartic: “Nobody was getting me a cappuccino in the morning. I was suddenly on the subway with a backpack. Nobody knew me.”

Then the Bone Collector script came along. Though she wanted the role of the rube cop who teams with a quadriplegic detective (a partnership that came with Denzel Washington attached), Universal suits weren’t exactly overjoyed. “They wanted an ‘established’ actress,” says Noyce, who claims many heavy hitters were interested (though he won’t name names). Instead, the director fought the pro-Jolie battle alongside Bone producer Martin Bregman, whose career dates back to 1973’s Serpico. “I had a similar problem with Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface,” Bregman recalls. “Nobody knew who she was. But Angie’s enormously gifted, and I usually get what I want.” Universal blinked, but not before lowering the film’s budget to $45 million. If costs went over, it would come out of the filmmakers’ pockets.

The process didn’t do much for Jolie’s confidence. “It took months,” she says. “I had to basically wait and wait and wait and beg and not take another job. But I don’t blame them — I’d certainly never had a moneymaking film. They took a big risk.” What the studio didn’t know was that Jolie had her own doubts. Bone required her character, among other things, to confront a corpse covered with rats and jump fully clothed into the East River. “I wasn’t sure I could play her,” she says. “But that was kind of perfect, ’cause she’s not sure she can do her job either.”

Given her colorful reputation, it was slightly easier for Jolie to play Lisa, the explosive sociopathic foil to Winona Ryder’s titular interruptee. Girl director James Mangold (Cop Land) had already spent two years working on the project with Ryder but had no idea who could play Lisa: “All I knew was that the person had to be dangerous, highly verbal, and sexy — a kind of female De Niro.” When Jolie came in and read, Mangold was “astonished,” he recalls. “I felt like God had given me a gift.” Though Mangold still had a few more readings scheduled that day, the director was already sold. “I just wanted to go to Starbucks and make a deal.” He sent Jolie’s audition tape on to the powers at Columbia. This time, there was no argument.

As Jolie’s work slowly threatens to outshine her “dark” rep, at least one expert is convinced people will forget the tattoos and focus on the technique. “Now,” Voight says, “people are going to see she’s the real thing.” Jolie takes the compliment graciously but prefers not to discuss her famous father; she’s made it clear he wasn’t around much during her childhood. “We’ve found a great relationship…now” is all she’ll say. “He drove me to the airport.” Can the actress ever foresee a day when Jon Voight will be known as Angelina Jolie’s dad? “I don’t think I’d like that,” she says. “That might hurt him.” Voight is more pragmatic. “I hope so,” he says. “I better start getting used to it.”

For a knife-collecting starlet open to sudden proposals from bartenders, Jolie is not without her conventional interests. “I’m buying a house,” she says, devouring the last of her steak and turning to her guest’s french fries. She’s looking at a bucolic country place an hour from Manhattan. “I’m gonna get some roots,” she says. “Then I have to figure out the social-life thing.”

The bartender overhears. Jolie catches him listening. “You ready?” she demands.

“Wait a minute. Now?”

“Trust me,” Jolie says. “It’s now or never.”