Writing about Brad Pitt is too easy. He’s the quintessential movie star. He’s the type of star that fits so neatly into Richard Dyer’s conception of stars as images both extraordinary and ordinary that embody and reconcile ideologies. That’s a complex way of saying that Brad Pitt plays the societal function that classic stars did: his image is of a particular type of masculinity, and that masculinity mirrors what the dominant American society values/tolerates/expects/valorizes in a man in terms of looks and attitudes towards women, parenting, multiculturalism, philanthropy, or marriage.
When we say “Brad Pitt is the ideal man,” what we are actually saying is that he embodies what our current society thinks is ideal. Brad Pitt didn’t make those things ideal; he became popular because his image matched the things that our society values.
And Pitt, like all iconic stars, also embodies ideologies that are seemingly contradictory. Take, for example, his attitude towards marriage. He went through a very public divorce, joining himself with another (sexual, sultry) woman who seemed to have moved in when he was still married to his first (All-American) wife. He and this women then adopted several children and had three biological children of their own, but Mom and Dad are still not married. Very un-American of you, Brad. Very anti-marriage. But here’s the thing: his relationship with Angelina Jolie is, by all accounts, the very portrait of a blissful union. They forward an image of happiness and engagement, modeling a parenting style that is tolerant, multicultural, and cosmopolitan. (Whether or not this is true is completely beside the point: they sell it so well, it’s impossible not to buy).
In other words, Pitt and Jolie are ahead of the (ideological) curve, but not so ahead that they profoundly disturb existing ideologies. They model an ideal, but one that’s not quite been achieved across America: a couple together because they love each other; a blended family; tolerant and playful parenting; a global lifestyle that promotes understanding, awareness, and philanthropy.
If Brad Pitt and George Clooney started dating and had the same family, that still might be too out-there (read: transgressive) for mainstream audiences to swallow. But Pitt and Jolie are just “normal” enough — and just beautiful enough — that they make practices and attitudes that might otherwise be “other,” “weird,” or otherwise transgressive into the mainstream. Or at least make them speakable — some may not agree with their parenting style, their refusal to marry “until everyone can,” or how they let Shiloh dress, but that parenting style and non-marriage decision is still very visible. In this way, it prompts discussions that might not otherwise take place, and it makes what was formerly “fringe” behavior into the mainstream.Sometimes the popularity of a star can highlight a societally regressive moment (Britney Spears, Charlie Sheen); sometimes they highlight a progressive one (Obama, Gaga).
Superstardom makes Brad Pitt easy to talk about. But the way he arrived at superstardom was more than just marrying Jennifer Aniston and leaving her for Angelina Jolie — although that certainly has a tremendous amount to do with his seemingly everlasting appeal. (That and the crinkled eyes when he smiles, but I digress).
Plainly put, actors become stars through two primary means:
1.) Playing “themselves” on screen, which is to say playing a relatively consistent version of their established image;
2.) Maintaining an extratextual (“private”) life that reinforces that image.
They’re reinforcing processes, but as long-term readers of this blog know, it’s all about constructing a unified and coherent image. Sometimes that image can be summed up in a word (“cool,” “indie,” “All-American,” “girl-next-door”) sometimes it’s a combination of things (gravitas and sex appeal; hooker with the heart of gold, etc.). Angelina Jolie is intense, dark, and sultry physical sexual energy; Brad Pitt is shining, golden, easygoing sex appeal. That’s part of why their images go so well together: sex and sex. (Sex and cute, not so much. See Aniston and Pitt. Sex and snotty, also not so much. See Pitt and Paltrow).
The star also needs to not play himself from time to time, mostly in the name of proving that he/she can act. There’s a fantastic academic article from the early ’90s on how Warner Bros. would use the times when Bette Davis played “against” her image as a means of selling the picture — “See Bette Davis play a husband-killing total bitch!” (See: Little Foxes!). In these cases, playing against type actually functions to reinforce type. Look at this star acting so different from their “true” image! (these performances are also the opportunities for big stars to win Oscars, mostly because the “acting” is so on display).
Of course, the innate fallacy is the belief that a star’s image is not an act in and of itself. A star’s image is no more the “real” star than any other performance. The image, however, is polished, consistent, and has the trappings of “authenticity,” despite the fact that it has been polished and practiced far more than any single movie performance.
Which brings us to Pitt. Pitt’s dominant on-screen image (also known as his “picture personality”) is, to generalize a bit, that of a hot, charismatic guy who gets what he wants. Sometimes this guy is more emotive, sometimes he’s less so, getting by on his charm.
Most of the time, especially in his recent films, he’s doing a lot of eating. There are slight variations — sometimes he plays Brad Pitt-as-half-Greek-god, sometimes he plays Brad Pitt-as-assassin — but there’s nevertheless a strong centerline running through the performances. We’ll call this:
“Pictures When Pitt Plays Himself”:
Thelma & Louise (establishing the persona)
A River Runs Through It
Legends of the Fall
Seven Years in Tibet
Meet Joe Black
Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen (all three of these crystallize the Pitt image)
Appearances on Friends
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Tree of Life
Then there are roles in which Pitt is clearly playing against type — and the spectacle of that “against-type-ness” is part of what draws the audience to the film. We’ll call this:
“Pitt as Character Actor”:
Interview with the Vampire
Fight Club (the dirty underbelly of the Pitt image; absolutely fascinating)
Babel (arguable whether performance belongs here or above)
LATE EDITION: Burn After Reading (I have no idea how I could forget this — SO, SO GOOD).
And, perhaps best of all, there are the films that play on Pitt’s existing star image, creating a text that’s sort of a palimpsest of existing images and what the film inflects on Pitt’s image. Lots of big stars wouldn’t dabble in this, but Pitt partners with smart, savvy directors. (Hitchcock famously did this sort of play with the images of Cary Grant and James Stewart). We’ll call this:
“Pitt and Director Playing with Image”
Appearances on Friends
Being John Malkovich
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Full Frontal (appearing as “self”)
and, most compellingly, The Assassination of Jesse James, which uses the most famous actor in a meditation about fame, gossip, reputation, and the discrepancies between the image and the self. (Which is part of the reason why I think the film is woefully underrated and totally brilliant).
I didn’t put years besides the films, but those of you who have been watching films for the last ten to fifteen years know when these films came out. They weave together, almost tit for tat. Every time he does a film that challenges his existing image, he has another in the pipeline that reinforces it. It’s brilliant, and it’s why he’s been the biggest male star, both domestically and internationally, for more than a decade. Brad Pitt opens movies, even when Brad Pitt isn’t playing “himself.” Brad Pitt playing himself, however, as he does almost perfectly in Moneyball, can turn a film into a global (even if not domestic) blockbuster. (For those of you who disagree with me re: Moneyball, please see: hilarious eating, bonhomie, asshole-mixed-with-charisma, golden-boy past, lots of emotive staring-into-space. No womanizing, but he makes up for it with the comedic timing and ubiquitous chin-ups).
I saw Moneyball this weekend. It was fine. There was something off about the pacing. But I’d go see it again, if only because I love watching Brad Pitt play Brad Pitt. It looks effortless, which actually means it’s probably pretty hard. But because it seems so easy — because the charisma seems authentic, because it looks like he’s just walking out his real life and onto the screen — it makes it all the more appealing. Someone who goes through life with that ease exists. Or at least that’s the promise that “playing oneself” makes. It’s a beautiful illusion to watch — and it’s the reason the film, no matter its merits, will make money, and why Pitt receives the paychecks he does. Moneyball may not have beat The Lion King in 3D, but few things get infrequent movie-goers to the theaters like a real movie star acting as such onscreen. I could watch it all day. And so could you.