BORN TO BE BRAD - by Michael Angeli
Brad Pitt felt the need to follow up his role as the Golden Boy of A River
Runs Through It with a turn as a serial killer. The guy from the "show
me" state doesn't want show biz fencing him in.
There are flagrant conclusions to be drawn about people who choose to live in
the steep hills collaring the rabid, happy dog of Los Angeles. If cauton is
not a way of life to everyone who faces the twists, turns and runaway decents
of these neighborhoods, it's because some were born lucky.
The ascent up the street toward Brad Pitt's new home on the high ground above
Sunset has me leaning forward, in the posture of an Olympic ski jumper. You
look up too quickly scaling this incline, you wind up on your duff at the bottom
with the tourists, the acting homeless, and the statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
But being off-balance and worrying about little ways of conquering it might
be the right idea for the work ahead.
Perfumy Sade music engulfs the Pitt household. In fact, the volume is notched
up so loud that no one can hear me knocking. As the minutes pass, I fight off
the image of Brad Pitt and his live-in companion, Best Supporting Actress Oscar
nominee Juliette Lewis, embracing on a squeaky slab of bed. By the end of 10
minutes, I have taken to hanging on the door, in the spirit of Martin Luther
with his satchelful of heretical proclamations. A sandwich delivery man joins
me now, and his knuckles prove golden. Two short raps and Brad Pitt, the guy
who knocked everyone’s socks off as the glorious Paul Maclean in A River
Runs Through It, appears at the door, waving us in like a matador who once played
for the Fighting Irish.
"I was taking a shower,” Brad apolo- gizes, signing for the sandwiches.
A smile breaks across his face that could set femi- nism back 25 years. He is
handsome to the bone—tall, with good shoulders free from the tyranny of
over-developed muscles, waist as thin as a Bible page. Blessed with the kind
of looks that less fortunate actors with four times the desire would sell their
souls for, he may, it seems, have gone through some effort to hide them. An
untended, marshy beard hangs across the lower half of his face, roughly matching
the tarnished blond of his damp hair and giving the impression of a low-budget
Jesus waiting between shots on a set some- where outside of Needles. Certain
parties, Brad reveals to me, have been lobbying heavily for exfoliation. The
magazine that has to shoot him for the cover wants him cleaned up.
"I'll shave for tomorrow,” he says, his vow lacerated by an irritable
moan. ~They always make a big deal out of it. I say, don’t tell me how
to tie my shoes.” The present ones arc of the basketball variety. bloated
and spilling their innards, lashed to his ankles like a couple of mattresses.
In general, Brad is dressed as if he expects to spend the afternoon cursing
at the stuh- born drain plug of a crankcase.
When the phone rings, I politely ask if Brad has to get it, since he’s
told me Juli- ette is on location in Texas Ah, no. I check my machine every
three. four days. Call the people I need to,” he whispers.
We’re browsing through the house, which is really an apartment. one of
a few long, narrow units surrounding a courtyard with a dirty swimming pool
in it. In the living room, a thick, silver crucifix stands upright on a small
antique end table, the kind that fits smack up against the wall as though another
half existed on the other side in an alternate universe. Hanging near- by is
a framed print of El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz.
I point at the El Greco"This yours?” "Yeah, hut it’s
just thrift shop stuff. Ten dollars.”
"It’s a famous painting.”
"What, with the dead guy here?” Brad scoffs. I’m fairly certain
Brad knows exact- ly who El Greco is. but he proceeds to play with me. He points,
as if discovering an Easter egg everyone else has missed, and says. ~So what’s
going on here’? Look at the dead guy’s face—in black and white?”
The colorless face of the dead Count Orgaz—above whom the heavens spill
open in an upward swirl of beatific turmoil encompassing the Virgin Mary, saints,
cherubim and archangels, all rendered in brilliant reds, yellows and oranges
is. of course, the curious heart of the picture.
"But hey man, don’t write about my house,” Brad says as he
sees me looking at the opened copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop splayed over
the arm of a stuffed chair near the window. Every time they come up here, like,
my house gets ripped to shreds. I like my house. My poor mom, she reads these
pieces, she says, "You really live like that?’ I gotta tell her.
No mom, it’s really nice.”’
Indeed, someone here is a fine house- keeper, and having seen Juliette’s
place before she and Brad moved in together, I have my money on Brad. The decor
is Depression Era articles of faith: a restored blade kin and a dial-tube radio,
grain belt bric-a-brac. and a smattering of•’5(~)s deco, all displayed
with the spit-and-polish pre- scntation of a Smithsonian exhibit. Every- thing
has its placc here. Stacked in the cor- ncr of a small reading alcove are enough
film scripts to provide a week’s worth of toilet paper for all the major
studios. Two weeks, if you don’t count Disney.
About the only thing around that seems cluttered is Brad’s speech. His
honeydew Missouri drawl has a hitch in it I don’t remember from his movies.
The letter ‘s” suffers aggravated diphthong battery on the way out
of his mouth. House” tends to become Thoush.” Since the aberration
is disappearing now that his conversation is more spontaneous, my guess is that
Brad, who reportedly did his own underwear- ripping for his part in Johnny Suede,
is still suffering from a kind of posttraumatic stress disorder after playing
a homicidal drifter in his most recent film, Kaliforrna. I haven’t seen
it but I know that his char- acter, Early Grayce, is bad news and has a sweet
and naive girlfriend, played by Brad’s real-life girlfriend, Juliette.
I wanted to do one of those trailer- dwelling, greasy nails guys"—no
educa- tion, canned food, real white trash,” says Brad. He seems fairly
pleased with his portrayal. "You almost have to see KaIi- Jorniu, he tells
inc. I get the feeling Brad thinks I have to see Kaliftwnia because he knows
I’ve seen A River Runs Through It.
"You wanna show what you can do.” he says. You wanna do something
different from the last one, before they think they know what you’re about.
I’ve seen the light, It’s part of this,” he pauses to brace
himself, as if he’s about to swallow a handful of staples, ‘it’s
the farthest thing from Golden Boy, know what I’m sayin’?”
Brad Pitt knows the impact of his effort in A River Runs Through It. Vie knows
that his Paul. with prodigalities simmering under the joyless flame of his minister-
father’s love, has created a classical impression. He knows that when
we see the hint of unrequited danger in Paul’s smile, the sleepy cool
of his eyes, the fuck-all chivalry, the blond similarities with the young Redford
are evident. And Brad wants to fight the obvious.
These, then, are the two bodies of water that await Brat Pitt, who by all accounts
will soon be a very big fish. There’s the freshwater pond of the Golden
Boy and the briny tide pool of the Rebel. It should be noted that few species
survive in both. The Golden Boy inhabits a blue-blooded world of idealism and
virtue. The sponsors at his confirmation of divine right are Gable, Grant, Cooper,
and, of course, Red- ford. The Golden Boy lives in sublime segregation from
us commonfolk, and is what we aspire to be; he is the team cap- tain in youth,
and ever after, autumn, autumn and more autumn calls up the melancholy of past
accomplishments won in an atmosphere of freedom, before the chip on his shoulder
became globe- shaped. The idea of T-shirts, not to mention the Magna Carta,
subtly erodes the Golden Boy’s dazzling coastline. Now, for the Rebel,
memories are only as good as the brain cells scorched from mak- ing them. His
saints are Dean howling at the moon, Brando in the dwindling soul of Kurtz,
Nicholson clearing a restaurant table with a sneer. Consequently, the Rebel
needs the confessional for absolution of a long list of human frailties~. The
Rebel plays to win and occasionally loses as well, although he willfully resists
the temptation to allow the results to move him in any way. This is why Hemingway.
a lapsed Rebel, could chortle at the irony of dying from gangrene gotten from
a mere scratch.
"Could I have played the good guy in Kaliforniu? Sure. But I needed to
play the bad guy. I needed the balance,” Brad main- tains. " I don’t
believe in the 'all-your-eggs- in-one-bucket’ kind of theory. You get
pushed in this business, you just gotta push back harder. Because it comes down
to you. I mean, people got different takes on things, people got good takes.
But only you know about your own deal—your own cre- ation, right?”
"You ever been in a real fight?” I ask. Sade has been put to bed
in favor of the incomparable Stevie Ray Vaughan.
‘Ohhh, yeah, you kidding?” he chuckles. You don’t get to
this age without being in a fight. I remember one. I was 18. Worst one I ever
had. The teacher got involved, she got her dress ripped. When you’re going
at it you get lost. It was over some- thing stupid, I can’t even remember.
"l had a friend in college—real baby face. But he’s built
like a stump. Real solid, like Barney Rubble. People thought because he was
smaller and had this baby face, they could wail on him. Well, I seen that guy
drop some big fellas. Just drop ‘em. Humiliate them. Someone said some-
thing to me. even, he’d drop him. Listen, it’s really easy to get
out of a fight. But when you’re a kid, you just swing and ask questions
later. I’m the one who hit the teacher, by the way. I know I didn’t
win, but I didn’t get my ass kicked. There just wasn’t a winner
“There” was Springfield, Missouri, where Bill and Jane Pitt raised
their chil- dren to know the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. Brad once
recounted an incident from that life, in which, fearful that he might be called
upon to give benediction one Sunday. he averted his eyes from those of his Baptist
preacher. It may be part of the congregation’s faith that every believer
is a priest, but on that day, and one suspects, most days since, Brad’s
faith was supplanted by the desperate chant of “Don’t let it be
High school brought with it a more secu- lar dimension: debate clubs, student
gov- ernment, bit parts in musicals, girls and baseball. Then there was the
decision to enroll in a journalism/advertising program at the University of
Missouri. “It was about creating—creating, say, a successful, imag-
inative ad campaign,” says Brad, evenly defending his lengthy stint (he
left just two credits shy of graduation) in a world about as marvelous as unbuttered
toast. “Finally I realized there was something better. But it’s
an individual thing. I’m not knocking the job.”
Like countless others before him, Brad came west to California. Those who have
done so know that to achieve the maximum funk from one of America’s great
nonde- nominational sacraments is to go by car, with the mountains of your personal
belongings surrounding you to blot out the flatland monotony of Highway 70,
and then once you arrive, to unceremoniously aban- don your original purpose
for coming. Brad was no exception. The dull thought of going through with art
school seemed about as realistic a plan as holding up a gas station with an
ocarina. Instead, Brad shouldered himself into the perpetual marathon of those
pursuing an acting career, supporting himself working the req- uisite odd jobs
that show up later in the folklore of the enormously prosperous— chauffeuring
strippers in a limo, passing out cigarette samples, climbing into a chicken
suit for a fast-food chain. After sporadic work as an extra, he did some television—HBO’s
The Image, Fox’s “Glory Days,” then a TV movie, Too Young
to Die, playing opposite the young lady with whom he would eventually share
a toothbrush rack.
With his agents pushing him toward TV serials and sitcoms, Brad might have
become the next incarnation of Dan Tanna or Magnum had it not been for what
he likes to call “the six thousand dollar orgasm.” Ridley Scott,
filming Thelma & Louise, needed someone to replace William Baldwin, who
had chosen to take the lead in Backdraft. Along came Brad Pitt as J.D., swaddled
in Levi’s and Fruit of the Loom, hoisting his dufflebag into the back
seat of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon’s T-Bird, hoisting Geena Davis
to her first orgasm, then hoisting the girls’ traveling money. Looking
like a more wholesome, cornfed version of the James Dean who brooded through
Giant, Pitt gave 15 minutes of screen time that stands out as tall as a Tom
Collins; his performance has the sneak attack ass-kick of spiked iced tea.
Unfortunately the starring roles that fol- lowed Thelma were just colored water.
If you blinked, you missed the esoteric John- ny Suede, a low-budget character
study of a rockabilly charlatan who fancies himself Ricky Nelson but has the
emotional sophis- tication of a fourth grader. Balancing a pompadour bigger
than the bow of the Star of Norway, Brad fashioned a Johnny that got high marks
from those who managed to see it, all two or three of them. The grand experiment
that successfully matched ani- mation with reality in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
yielded tepid results in Brad’s other summer ‘92 release, Cool World.
“Nobody got out of that film alive,” a film industry savant told
me recently, “but Brad looked better than anybody else.”
“It’s hard to be impulsive when you’re working with a blue
screen,” Brad lament- ed after the film’s poor showing. Next came
A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford’s admirable screen adaptation
of the Norman Maclean autobiographical novella on Zen fly fishing and the defective
perfection of WASP love. Brad ruminates over the experience of shooting River
up in the land of Thomas McGuane and Custer’s Last Stand.
“Where’d you grow up?” he asks, that covert Missouri accent
whispering like a panhandle wind through a woodpile.
“Wisconsin ... southern Wisconsin.”
“Was it a fighting town? Yeah? Mon- tana’s a fighting town. It’s
almost a sport— horror sport.” Brad falls silent for a moment at
the prospect of saying much more about the movie that has undeniably upped the
ante in the career that Thelma created. He is, by turns, vigilant and eager,
as if some exotic creature had stepped unwittingly close and the fear of frighten-
ing it away could not outweigh the joy of seeing it face-to-face. The ease with
which he demystifies his performance in River is startling. “Well, of
my part, there could’ve been more underneath, in my opinion. Lit- tle
more back-story, maybe. But there’s no getting around it. Redford did
a fantastic job crafting that film, shaping it into chis- eled granite. A film
adapted from a book’s got to take its own form—Redford did that.”
Then, cupping his hands behind his head, he settles into the imaginary darkness
and adds, “It’s an afternoon movie. Can’t go see it in a big
crowd. You gotta see it in the warmth of the afternoon.”
There is no denying Brad’s vexation when he mutters the phrase Golden
Boy. The idea of being knighted as filmdom’s next Favorite Son clearly
troubles him, trails him around like a bright yellow bal- loon. “1 don’t
want people to think I’m the next anything,” he says. We are all,
by nature, slow to admit that there might be something we don’t know about
the terms routinely used to define our lives. Golden Boy is as much a part of
Brad Pitt as his blue eyes and which hand he uses to eat, but he’s intent
on stretching the limits of his identity to a point just short of time travel.
Now that he has a place in Young Hollywood, he wants his own place.
“Young Hollywood,” Brad picks up the thread. “What a nightmare.”
“You fit right in, dude.”
“Yeah, that’s me.” He hunkers down, shucking off the teasing.
“Naw, it’ll turn around. It’s a trend, Young Hollywood. I
think it’s sidetracked right now. It’s a night at Roxbury, fighting
the woes of personal hygiene. Just cool for cool’s sake. That’s
okay. It’s gonna turn around.”
“Well, don’t you wonder where the young Pacinos, the young De Niros,
the young Walkens, the young Duvalls, the young Newmans, the young Redfords
are? Who do we have now that’s young and inspiring? Sean took a break.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a few. But not enough. We got Oldman, and
he’s not that young, real- ly. River’s good. Juliette is one. Dermot
Mulroney. There’s Elias Koteas. He’s great."
"What's he been in?"
See, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Someone get him, use him right.
I don’t know. Someone bring Sean Penn back. It’s just gotta come
back around. I wanna see that collection of young guys get strong. I’d
like to be inspired again. Let’s see some intelligence. I don’t
see a lot of intelligence with the young people, you know?”
The possibility exists that Young Holly- wood, rather than lacking smarts,
has sim- ply been trying to keep from dying ot thirst. Today a studio head is
just a canary in a coal mine. In an atmosphere of two strikes and you’re
out, taking ajob as a stu- dio chief ranks right up there with Castro’s
food taster, or the poor slob who mops up the stuff that’s glowing. The
delectable irony of William Goldman’s famous quote, In Hollywood, nobody
knows anything,” is that it has never rung more true—and for reasons
not remotely related to the spirit in which it was intended. Where’s the
materi- al for young actors?
"No one expected Ricer to do well at the box office,” says Brad.
‘Redford’s proved that you can elevate film. So, yeah, it’s
partly material. It’s also partly the people making the movies. But you
gotta take responsibility for yourself, eventually. What kind of choices are
you willing to make or not make? Sure, it’s tough in this climate to make
films. But that’s the chal- lenge of it. You want it to he easy? No. Then
you get bored. Look, everyone’s got their battles. It’s a good thing.
But there’s dangers in every category. You just gotta watch out for the
And the dangers, judging by the continu- ing proliferation of 12-step programs,
are not limited to keeping your distance from leading ladies who are ‘toons
and first-time directors who carry handguns.
"l’ve seen a lot of young actors go through that,” says Brad,
referring to the enticement of drugs and the subsequent mental torture of recovery
for those who think seeing the world through the diffrac- tion of youth is not
somehow destabilizing enough. ~They think they’ll lose their cre- ativity
going straight. So many people—I even had the notion that you had to be
mis- erable to be great. But then you gotta say, well why does everyone either
die from drugs, or quit? So how good can it be? Very simple question. Very tough
answer. I don’t trust drugs.”
Brad excuses himself for a moment and disappears down a hall to the kitchen.
I am left to contemplate the condition of one of the vinyl chairs. It has a
perfect tear across its seat, as though the same clothing- designer Zorro who
opened Hollywood’s jeans at the knees, booty and crotch tried his luck
with furniture. The sound of some- thing akin to the hollow saliva hiss of a
jet engine spirals its way down the hall from the kitchen. When Brad returns
he has a cup of coffee with a suspicious foamy top to It.
Got yourself an espresso machine in there, don’t you, Brad?”
Yeah, hut I don’t know quite how to use it right. But I get coffee from
it.” He savors his cup with a deep. affirmativefarm—kitchen sigh.
I tell him he sounds as though the peak of his content could not be sUrpassed
10 minutes or 10 years from this instant.
“So you’re talking about little perfect moments. Don’t have
many, but that’s what keeps you going.” he grins Because they’re
all over the place, just hard to find. There’s this bag for perfect moments
that you carry around with you. And then when you find them, occasionally, and
add to the hag. yott really appreciate it. That’s all rieht with me that
settles well with me. Stevic Ray Vaughan’s live version of “Tin
Pan Alley” haunts the stereo speakers now. “I’ll tell yoti
what’s not all right. though,” Brad says. ‘It’s a shame
that Stevie’s gone. To nic, he’s it. he’s everything. This
is a great song. A great song.”
Rhapsodizing over the music now, Brad winces his way up the wet, redolent scales
Stevie plucks out of his choral stream. "So. you meet people every week,
try and find something interesting about them, right?” he says with a
wink. I turn the question around on him: Why, I ask, can’t we get cnough
of movie stars? Why do we, as otherwise rational and outwardly sane folk, commune
with Liz Smith’s column each morning the way paramedics check vital signs?
Well, I don’t know,” Brad hedges, in his way of beginning a thought
with a rising moan, as if he’s shy at the idea of being an authority on
anything. 1’m all for showing the pictures, showing he’s still alive,
couple of words about what he’s doing, then hit the checkout line. But
you drive around in small towns, see people’s lives, there’s almost
a . . . I don’t know—they want more, there’s some of that—but
there’s also the notion that they think maybe they could run into someone
who might understand who they are.” Here Brad turns the questioning back
on me. ~What would you do if you had to do something else?”
I tell him that over in that alternate universe containing the other half of
the table in his living room, I am eternally happy calling fair or foul as a
"STRRRIKKE ONE!” Brad jerks his thumb. “Hey, there’re
a mil- lion things to be and do you just gotta get out and do them. People get
too concerned about the damn money. People limit themselves too much. man. There’s
a million things to do. There really are” Outside, the sky looks as if
it’s been wiped by a filmy rag. Inside. Brad Pitt ties a rustler’s
scarf around his forehead and talks about vacation time, leaving town. i’m
just now getting into the opportu- nity to make some decent money. Any money
I’ve come into up to now I’ve put into land. so I’m pretty
There are also worse things to he than a matinée idol. The Rebel can
do no wrong. since rules are br others to follow. He changes for no one, clings
to the cloak of his nonconformity like a life jacket. He charms his own life.
The Golden Boy. alas, is born into an existing world. At 29, Brad has the talent
and physical graces to wade into a wide range of roles tough guys, loverhoys.
loners, family men. He could be at home sobbing in the niiddlc of a French Quarter
hack street or debonairly hanging l~rom a chin on Mount Rushmore. It will ultimately
come down to what he correctly identified before as his deal.” Like the
narrator in Tin Pan Alley,’ he seems intent on step- ping over the threshold
of unleavened danger to test his will to come hack. But, devoted as he is to
maintaining his balance, renouncing his Golden Boy bloodline would seem about
as logical as heating on a snare drum with a couple of long-stem roses. Still,
if uneasy lies the head, then the head keeps moving.
"I’m taking off Thursday morning" Brad stretches out, just
gonna go driving for two weeks, theii end up home for the holidays. Gonna travel
for a while, then do a project called Forget Me Not, with John Malkovich.”
"Gotta break that psycho—killer mold next, huh?”
"Fah fah tah tab,” Brad chuckles, humming the lyrics to the old
Talking Heads number. "So what’s the catchy title for this? They
always put such cheesy titles on these pieces.”