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.