YOU COULD ARGUE THAT Brad Pitt arrived by making sure Geena Davis finally did too. The year was 1991, and Pitt was still dangerously fresh from cheesy TV gigs when he played the sexy hitchhiker in Thelma & Louise who took Davis' repressed Thelma to bed and showed her that men might be good for something after all. Pitt was onscreen for less than 14 minutes, but his washboard-abbed grifter was so memorable he could have easily made a career out of playing sensual pretty boys.

Instead, William Bradley Pitt, 32, a kid from the Ozarks (Springfield, Mo.), departed from the dreamboat grid whenever possible. This year his choices paid off with two hits, Legends of the Fall and Seven. He takes another risk this month with a turn as a hyperkinetic madman in Terry Gilliam's time-travel thriller 12 Monkeys. ''Only you know what you got in you,'' he once said.

Pitt began testing that theory with the role of the Fabian-like teen idol in 1991's Johnny Suede and the white-trash serial killer in 1993's Kalifornia. He essayed just one golden-boy role in between: 1992's A River Runs Through It. For Seven, Pitt lopped off the flowing tresses he wore in Legends -- yet he still dazzled as an unkempt homicide cop who teams with Morgan Freeman to catch a serial killer.

Pitt is already knee-deep in projects for next year. He's filming Barry Levinson's adaptation of Lorenzo Carcaterra's Sleepers, has signed to play a fugitive mountaineer in Seven Days in Tibet, and is set to do the IRA thriller Devil's Own with Harrison Ford. The roles are varied, but it doesn't seem to matter to Pitt's legions of feverish female fans. Like the softly drawling hunk who captivated Thelma, Pitt's secret is simple: He's not the guy you want for your first time; he's the guy you want when you're ready to learn how good it can be when it's really done right.

These days, Pitt's likely to talk about doing it right only when it involves acting. And even then he's getting more reticent. A stint as People's ''Sexiest Man Alive'' and appearances on the Internet, via nude photos of Pitt and girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow frolicking in the Caribbean, have turned the gregarious actor into a budding recluse. In one recent interview he wouldn't even use Paltrow's name, preferring to flutter his hand whenever he mentioned her.

Of course, that kind of body language is sure to drive Pitt's fans into even more of a frenzy. Courtney Love has been caught boasting she got a valentine from Pitt. (She didn't.) And lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge has been so vociferous about her crush on him she might have titled her last album Yes I Am -- Except When It Comes to Brad Pitt.