The remarkable reinvention of Brad Pitt

"Moneyball" and "The Tree of Life" weren't his first terrific roles -- but 2011 showed us a star in transition

Topics: Oscars, Movies, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, Editor's Picks,

The remarkable reinvention of Brad PittBrad Pitt (Credit: AP/Carlo Allegri)

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.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>