Brad Pitt is one of those actors who's so famous his name is pretty much a synonym for "handsome" or "famous." As in, "Sure, he was good for a first date, but he's no Brad Pitt." Or, "There were so many camera flashes going off I felt like Brad Pitt." Pitt is among the rare elite of actors whose name on a movie poster actually means something-- the only proof of that you need is the current poster for Moneyball, which boasts the movie's title, Pitt's name and face looking thoughtful, and pretty much nothing else.
But the gulf between "handsome and famous" and "well-respected as an actor" can be immense-- just ask Taylor Lautner, Channing Tatum, etc.-- and Pitt has always seemed to be somewhat trapped there, always considered the pretty blond guy no matter how many daring, skillful roles he took on. With Moneyball coming to theaters this weekend Pitt's being forced to prove himself again, a marquee star in a movie that's getting great buzz but who still seems like a long shot for a Best Actor Oscar.
And with Pitt on the brain, we're setting out to change that perception of him as a handsome guy who can't act his way out of a paper bag. As it turns out, he's got an entire career's worth of excellent performances to prove his talent, starting even in his earliest days as more of a pin-up boy than the Hollywood powerhouse he is today. Here are five examples of Pitt performances that don't just prove he's got talent, but bring out a specific skill that proves he's one of the most versatile and appealing actors working today-- the enormous talent who's been right in front of you this whole time.
In 1995 Brad Pitt was experiencing personal and professional conflicts to which precious few of us ever will be able to relate. People named him the “Sexiest Man Alive” as he and his glorious goldenrod hair were coming off of Edward Zwick’s epic romance Legends of the Fall; at the same time Pitt was in the process of demolishing his sexy image for the benefit of two of the grittiest roles of his career. While his laid-bare performance in David Fincher's Se7en was just one of many components that made that thriller hum, Pitt's fearless, unpredictable and dangerous performance as lunatic activist Jeffrey Goines in Terry Gilliam’s twisty 12 Monkeys forced audiences – and the industry – to think of him differently. Adopting an anarchistic tic and willing to act “large” enough to fill the room, Pitt viewed Monkeys as an invitation to stomp on his public image as just another pretty face … and earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work. Seemingly manic yet always controlled, Pitt provided the lynchpin to the main Monkeys mystery, allowing Gilliam to yo-yo Bruce Willis from a dystopian future to a confusing past at whim. And even though we never really knew which direction Pitt’s character leaned in 12 Monkeys, the actor’s captivating choices in the part proved that his bag of tricks was much larger than most assumed.
Of course, Brad Pitt didn't suddenly lose his good looks after getting that Oscar nomination-- it's his looks that made him a perfect Tyler Durden by the time 1999's Fight Club rolled around. An image of the perfect male figure that Edward Norton’s narrator conjures up as an escape from his own dull life, Durden is the Übermensch – he looks like you want to look, he fucks like you want to fuck, he’s smart, capable and, most importantly, free in all the ways that you are not. The word to describe him is "intimidation"--Durden lives not only to gain a following, but to crush and dominate his followers. Almost every minute of Pitt’s on screen time is spent either psychologically or physically destroying everyone around him, and he can do this believably because Brad Pitt emits confidence like a freshman spews vomit at a frat party. He speaks like his followers will hear him as the word of God and he doesn’t so much walk as he does strut. Pitt’s performance in Fight Club is terrifying because as scared of the character you may be, part of you wants to jump in line behind him. He's probably spent his entire life being told how good he looks, but instead of coasting on that, Brad Pitt channeled all of that self-esteem into his performance in Fight Club.
As much as Pitt worked with his handsomeness in Fight Club, he hides in it Snatch, playing Mickey O'Neill with a hat, a scruffy beard and a nearly unintelligible accent. Playing a “pikey,” Pitt’s role as the gypsy bare-knuckle boxing champ had little use for the smile, the eyes or the dimples we’ve come to know and appreciate from him-- the only facial expression truly worth noting is the fire in Mickey’s eyes as he watches his mother’s trailer burn. Mickey proves to be one of the bigger twists in Snatch. Early on, he’s introduced to us as a sort of laid back guy with some evident boxing skills, only to be revealed as a bit more calculating than he let on by the end. Pitt excels at holding back earlier in the film, never showing all of Mickey’s cards until the end, when he’s standing behind the building, not making a stupid face as a gun is pointed at him. Not only was Mickey one of the best things about Snatch, but Pitt’s performance, which offers humor with a side of controlled anger, allows us to forget that we’re watching Brad Pitt in yet another shirtless fighting scenario, and focus on the character, who’s a simple man with little to lose, but who is more than willing to exact successful vengeance when he loses it.
Burn After Reading
Like Justice Potter Stewart’s analysis of what is and isn’t pornography, the term "leading man" is indefinable without examples. Part acting ability, part charisma, part box office draw, only a small number of people have the right skills in the right proportions. Brad Pitt is most assuredly of that class of actor, which is utterly bizarre considering he sometimes he prefers to work as a support. He famously turned down a larger role in True Romance in favor of his beloved stoner Floyd, but it’s his supporting turn in Burn After Reading that best illustrates his inherent zaniness. With an almost aggressive ineptitude and a lust for life not often found outside of the dumbest twenty percent of the population, Pitt’s Chad Feldheimer pounds his glutes and plays accomplice to his co-worker’s stupid scheme with the zest of a committed second fiddle willing to go full dumbass in the name of comedy. The dignity of many A-list actors prevent their willful appearance five or six places down the pecking order, but in that partial anonymity, Pitt seems to find freedom and fulfillment. As an audience, that’s where we’ve seen some of his better work. Fingers crossed for the upcoming Happy Feet sequel in which he’s signed on to join Matt Damon as Krill 1 and Krill 2.
Burn After Reading felt like a kind of rebirth for Pitt, a return to character roles like Twelve Monkeys and a step away from the bland leading man roles he seemed to sleep through, from Meet Joe Black to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But now here comes Moneyball, a movie, as mentioned before, being sold entirely on Pitt's starpower, charisma, and good looks. The surprise isn't that he's being given that kind of role, but that he nailed it, eschewing all the character quirks that usually lead him to his best performance and simply being up there on screen for us to enjoy. Pitt's been compared to Robert Redford throughout this career, and in Moneyball he owns it, from Redfordian tousled blond hair to the lean ease on camera, the sense that he's no more comfortable anywhere else. It might just be the trickiest character Pitt has played yet-- the charismatic hero with no qualms about the spotlight. But whether he's faking it or has simply grown into it over time, in Moneyball Pitt finally proves himself as a leading man who's both interesting and pretty to look at. It's the role he seems to be born for, but the one that took him the longest time to make his own.