FROM THE GLARE OF FLASHBULBS, A SERIOUS ACTOR STEPS FORWARD - by Caryn James
WHILE the world was shouting Brangelina and Brad Pitt was dodging paparazzi, he also pulled off this unlikely feat: He was involved in two of the past
year’s best films. In one he is a silent partner, a producer of Martin Scorsese’s “Departed.” For the other — his supporting role in Alejandro González
Iñárritu’s wrenching political fable “Babel” — he has become the subject of Oscar chatter and a studio campaign. Plenty of Oscar promotions exist only to
massage stars’ egos, but here is a campaign that actually makes sense.
In “Babel” Mr. Pitt delivers the most mature, complex performance of his career as a distraught husband whose wife has been shot on a tour bus near an
isolated Moroccan village. With little more than half an hour on screen he restores seriousness to a career that started off like a dream combination of
stardom and artistry, only to veer into the realm of the truly silly.
First came the dazzling years, as a golden-haired romantic rebel in films from the early 90s that remain surprisingly moving today: “A River Runs Through
It,” “Interview With the Vampire” and “Legends of the Fall.” Maybe he began to overcompensate for all the flowing locks and backlighting, because then
there were some ugly-guy years (or as close as he could come) in gritty, misbegotten movies like “Fight Club” and “Snatch.”
He has indulged a weakness for lumbering epics like “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Troy” and made clunkers like “Meet Joe Black”; the post-Rat-Pack hit
“Ocean’s Eleven” wasn’t really his film.
Then came “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” with Angelina Jolie; someone with a lot to answer for coined the word Brangelina, and Brad Pitt entered the
relentless-gossip phase of his career. It takes extraordinary work to break through all that celebrity noise, but “Babel” goes beyond the easy reminder
“Oh, yeah, he used to be able to act.” His performance seems more controlled and powerful with each viewing.
“Babel,” with its four interlocking stories, offers political themes unusual in Mr. Pitt’s career: how the personal and political blend; how children are
especially vulnerable to the crossfire. Mr. Pitt’s character, Richard, and his wife, Susan (Cate Blanchett), have left their own children in California in
the care of a sympathetic Mexican nanny, who unwittingly and heartbreakingly endangers them. Susan is accidentally shot by Moroccan children playing with
their father’s rifle, but the act is assumed to be terrorism and provokes a minor international incident.
Apart from the film’s political heft, there are conspicuous, superficial differences from Mr. Pitt’s earlier movies. With dark blond, graying hair and
beard and creases around his eyes, he is made up and photographed to look like a handsome but definitely middle-age man. (He is, after all, 43.) And the
awards-bait clip leaps out: it’s the moment near the end of the film when Richard talks to his small son on the phone, hears that the boy has been
harmlessly bitten by a crab at school and barely holds back sobs.
Awards voters are suckers for tears, but it is this character’s control, not his sobbing, that makes the scene poignant. Throughout the film Mr. Pitt
displays Richard’s suppressed anger, fear and urgency as he struggles to get help for his gravely injured wife. The look of anguish on his face as he sees
the tour bus drive away, abandoning them in a remote village, is every bit as eloquent as a stifled sob.
And there is tenderness as he holds his wife and whispers to her as she lies on the dirt floor of a villager’s house. Because Mr. Pitt seems unaware of his
looks or his effect on screen, we believe he is an ordinary man blindly fighting for his family’s survival.
The supporting actor category is crowded this year — the cast of “The Departed” alone could eat up all five slots — but “Babel” is a genuine ensemble
piece, so Mr. Pitt has to be positioned in that category. His only Oscar nomination so far was also as supporting actor, for Terry Gilliam’s 1995 dystopian
fantasy “12 Monkeys,” a film whose whimsical approach seems more strained than ever. As an inmate in an asylum, where he meets a time traveler played by
Bruce Willis, Mr. Pitt gives the kind of twitchy performance that often gets award attention: wild-eyed, full of tics and jerking hand gestures. It’s a
perfectly fine job in a role without depth.
That performance wasn’t nearly as good as his work the same year in David Fincher’s dark murder mystery, “Seven,” as a young detective who is working with
Morgan Freeman’s character and married to Gwyneth Paltrow’s. Mr. Pitt seems to rise to the level of good co-stars, and here his restraint matches Mr.
Freeman’s. He never grandstands, even when his character learns that his wife has been killed. In fact there is an unlikely line running from “Seven”
through “Babel”: in both he is exceptional as a husband trying to keep his emotions in check while confronting a tragedy.
Mr. Fincher didn’t do him any favors later when directing him in the nonsensical “Fight Club” (1999), as the founder of a secret club who turns out to be
the imaginary alter ego of Edward Norton’s wimpy character. Mr. Pitt is currently working with Mr. Fincher again on the more intriguing “Curious Case of
Benjamin Button,” with Ms. Blanchett, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story about a man who ages in reverse. Several Internet sites have already run a photo
of Mr. Pitt in a bald cap for that movie.
You can’t blame him for working against his looks at times. He was just a pretty face and hunky body in the brief role that got him noticed, as the boy
toy Geena Davis’s character picks up in “Thelma and Louise” (1991) because she likes the way he looks walking away in jeans. Even then he displayed the
nonchalant appeal that has served him so well, along with another trick that hasn’t: the persistent mannerism of licking his lower lip, especially in the
middle of a serious speech.
Even now his pal George Clooney (who recently tied the Pitt record for two wins as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive) teases him on talk shows, calling
him Pretty Boy Pitt. Trying to escape some kind of pretty-face curse might even account for his part as another grimy boxer in Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch”
(2000), this time as a British Gypsy with an accent so indecipherable that another character comments on it.
But escape shouldn’t have been necessary because those golden-boy roles were braced by emotional truth. In “A River Runs Through It” (1992), Robert
Redford’s enduring, lyrical story of two Montana brothers, Mr. Pitt is the charming rebel who breaks every rule and dies as a result. In “Legends of the
Fall” (1994), Edward Zwick’s guilty-pleasure soap opera about three Montana brothers, he is the charming rebel who breaks every rule and survives. Both
films rely on the audience’s ability to embrace him as the other characters do: a man of effortless charm, more attuned to nature than society, so true to
himself that all things are forgiven.
And in Neil Jordan’s lush “Interview With the Vampire” (1994), Mr. Pitt plays a vampire with a conscience who tells a story running from 18th-century New
Orleans to the present. He steals the film from Tom Cruise, who was then the bigger star. Mr. Pitt’s romantic aura may have obscured the strength of those
performances, but they are worth rediscovering.
He learned the hard way that good looks aren’t enough to carry a movie, especially a big-budget epic. As an Austrian adventurer befriended by the young
Dalai Lama in “Seven Years in Tibet” (1997) and more recently as Achilles in “Troy” (2004), he is chewed up by the films’ gigantic machinery.
In “Troy,” when his mother (Julie Christie) says that going to battle will be his death but will ensure him everlasting glory, he turns his head in profile
and poses, presumably to be thoughtful, or to glance toward the future or toward Sparta, who knows? Whether it’s his fault or that of the director,
Wolfgang Petersen, what we see on screen is less a performance than a modeling assignment.
“Mr. and Mrs. Smith” was commercial fluff too, but it changed his life. This story of professional assassins married to and hired to kill each other is
still a better idea than it is a movie, but it was a smash. The shadow of the rumored — and strongly denied at the time — Pitt-Jolie romance certainly
added heat that wasn’t evident on screen.
It’s not as if he had been a little mouse during his marriage to Jennifer Aniston, but his fame vaulted into a different sphere when he became half of a
world-traveling, child-adopting, Africa-saving couple, a team shrewd at manipulating its own image. Whether some fresh seriousness and maturity drew him
to this new life or the new relationship made him more serious and mature only he can say.
But social activism, including architectural projects to help rebuild New Orleans, don’t automatically translate into great movie roles. “Ocean’s Thirteen”
is scheduled to arrive in June, and we can only hope it’s more like the fun “Ocean’s Eleven” than the unwatchable “Ocean’s Twelve.” He goes back to the Old
West, but without the golden glow, as a dark-haired Jesse James in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” a film that had been
scheduled for release last fall but has been postponed, probably until next fall.
With “Babel” and “The Departed” (which he produced through his company, Plan B), it will be hard to outdo 2006, though. If his stardom helped get attention
for “Babel,” that alone would have meant a lot. To get such a heartfelt, down-to-earth performance from someone who spends so much time on Planet Celebrity
is more than anyone could have hoped for.