In all honesty, it took watching Brad Pitt’s performance at the Cannes Film Festival last spring for me to consider him in a new light. I don’t entirely mean Pitt’s fine performance on screen as Mr. O’Brien, the tormented, hard-ass midcentury paterfamilias of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” although that helped too. I mostly mean his even better performance as the world’s sexiest movie star attending the world’s most glamorous film festival, which struck a perfect balance between irony and sincerity.
When I encountered Pitt at a press conference, he was dressed positively to the nines, in an outfit that seemed to radiate quotation marks: white silk T-shirt under white linen jacket, enormous gold-frame sunglasses, piles of gold chains, a delicious tan and four days’ worth of carefully groomed stubble. But instead of the monosyllabic, Bob Dylan-style too-cool-for-school attitude you might expect to go along with that, Pitt was unfailingly polite and forthcoming, at least as far as the nutso surroundings would permit. He answered questions about his religious beliefs (slim to none); his family life both growing up in small-town Missouri and today, as a globetrotting and immensely famous dad; his relationships with his own father and own children, and almost anything else people came up with.
Anyone who becomes famous enough that strangers want to take his or her picture has to manage a version of this performance, of course, but it struck me for the first time that Pitt’s performance was a thoughtful and generous one. He gave the photographers and the onlookers packed onto the sidewalks exactly what they came for, Eva Peron-style: a vision of improbable, unattainable beauty, glamour and luxury. And he gave those of us in the press room, and our readers all over the world, what we came for too: the illusion of intimacy, the impression that one of the most famous people in the world was opening up to us in unprecedented fashion, the suggestion that despite the evidence to the contrary all around us, this god among men was in fact an ordinary human being who could talk straightforwardly about others.
It was like that moment, every single night in Las Vegas, when Wayne Newton mops his brow and announces that just this one time, because the audience has been so amazing, he and the band are gonna cut loose and play a little longer. Even if we all know it’s a charade — and it’s debatable whether we all know that — Wayne is going to play a little longer, and does seem to be having a good time, and we’re all delighted about that. Brad Pitt was being the Wayne Newton of Cannes, simultaneously playing a larger-than-life Mr. Showbiz cartoon character endowed with an unholy combination of genetics, luck and talent, and also giving us little flashes of what may be the real person behind the mask.
Pitt is unlikely to win an Academy Award this year — technically, he’s up for two, as both the leading man and producer of “Moneyball,” a best-picture nominee — but 2011 looks like a turning point in his career. At various times and in various pictures over the years, he’s certainly reminded us that he’s capable of real acting. You may have your own favorites, but I’d put forward “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “Fight Club,” “Se7en,” “Interview With the Vampire” and “Johnny Suede,” his first starring role. (A mixed bag of movies, to be sure, but Pitt’s memorable in all of them.) But there’s also been a lot of genial, pretty-boy coasting in sub-mediocre movies during Pitt’s two decades as a star, from “Meet Joe Black” and “Seven Years in Tibet” to “Troy” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” the film during which he first met a certain long-legged brunette whom he may yet turn, one of these days, into an honest woman.
It’s precisely that dull-witted mid-career period that Pitt seemed to describe in a recent interview, alluding both to his admitted affinity for marijuana and his marriage to Jennifer Aniston: “I spent the ’90s trying to hide out, trying to duck the full celebrity cacophony. I started to get sick of myself sitting on a couch, holding a joint, hiding out. It started feeling pathetic. It became very clear to me that I was intent on trying to find a movie about an interesting life, but I wasn’t living an interesting life myself.”
At the risk of engaging in bogus long-distance celebrity therapy, it seems clear that Angelina Jolie has focused much less attention on her acting career since hooking up with Pitt, whereas the effect on him has been almost the opposite. Since appearing with Jolie in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” seven years ago, Pitt has entirely avoided the kind of slick, studio-packaged entertainments that once defined him, with the solitary exception of “Ocean’s Thirteen,” which he may have been contractually obligated to do, and in any case was harmless fun. Instead, he has worked with Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel”), the Coen brothers (“Burn After Reading”), David Fincher (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”) and Malick, along with playing Jesse James in a 160-minute epic and personally taking over production of “Moneyball” to rescue it from Hollywood limbo.
I’m not sure any of those movies represent their directors’ finest hours, honestly. But it’s an impressive range of filmmakers, works and performances, from the amped-up shtick of playing Chad Feldheimer in “Burn After Reading” and Lt. Aldo Raine in “Inglourious Basterds” to the big dramatic roles as Benjamin Button and Billy Beane that garnered Pitt’s first two best-actor nominations. (I had totally forgotten that he got a supporting nomination for “Twelve Monkeys” in 1995.) And Pitt shows no signs of ramping down this new and more ambitious trajectory. He recently finished shooting both “Cogan’s Trade,” a mob thriller with a crackerjack cast from “Jesse James” director Andrew Dominik, and “World War Z,” Marc Forster’s long-awaited zombiepocalypse epic. He’s been cast alongside Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Shame” director Steve McQueen’s forthcoming “Twelve Years a Slave,” and apparently serves as narrator for Malick’s next film, “Voyage of Time,” which has been described as a history of the universe. (I thought that’s what “Tree of Life” was, but there’s no point in asking such questions.)
As for Pitt’s performance in “Moneyball,” it’s terrific, but it also isn’t the real story. On-screen in almost every scene, he fills up the movie with gum-chewing ex-jock swagger and bluff animal shrewdness, playing a guy who wasn’t quite smart enough to grasp the statistical revolution in baseball all by himself, but was smart enough to understand that it offered his only path to survival. Pitt may have found his own moneyball formula, partly reflecting his devotion to an unorthodox family life and his realization that, at age 48, his time as sexiest man on the planet is almost up. The lucky bastard isn’t just gorgeous and rich, he’s also ambitious, talented and just smart enough to make it interesting. Will he turn himself into an Oscar winner, one of these years? I have no idea, and don’t really care. But his performance as Brad Pitt, from here on out, is going to be fun to watch.