BRAD INFLUENCE – by James Kaplan
He caught our eye with those 14 hot minutes in ‘Thelma and Louise.’
Now, in ‘River runs through it,’ Brad Pitt shows he’s more
than a sex symbol.
This is as big as it gets in Bozeman, Mont., on a Saturday night. The occasion
is the U.S. premiere of Robert Redford’s A river runs through it. Most
of the movie, which is based on Norman Maclean’s autobiographical 1976
novella about two fly-fishing brothers in early 20th century Montana, was shot
in the vicinity; local participation was high. At a postpremiere gala held at
a converted hotel called The Baxter, Redford—arguably the biggest blond
male star to hit the area since George Armstrong Custer—stands amid a
mob of Bozemanites who have abandoned any pretense of high-plains cool. Still,
a few yards away, the other blond star in the room—Brad Pitt, who plays
the doomed, charming wastrel and ace fisherman Paul MacLean—isn’t
doing too badly himself. The difference between Redford’s crowd and Pitt’s
is that the younger man’s is almost exclusively female.
Beaming and patting their hair like crazy, the women line up for a few words
with the young actor. “Hi, I’m Betsy,” says a woman of a certain
age. “I know you don’t remember us—we were on the set.”
We were hanging around like a bad smell,” her friend says, grinning. Another
presses an autograph pad on Pitt. “I just turned 40 today,” she
tells the 28-year-old actor. “Would you write something to make me feel
He has this power. Pitt’s J.D., the drifter he played in Thelma and Louise,
was the stuff of female fantasy: polite, devilishly cute, mildly dangerous,
and sexually skilful to a fare-thee-well. And then there were those blue eyes,
those abs, and, of course, those glutes. (“I love to watch him go,”
purred Thelma, whom he seduced.)
Pitt’s total screen time in that movie was about 14 minutes, but those
were 14 very big minutes. The epitome of white-trash soul, he emanated a sly
mystery, a superbly modulated disingenuousness, that seemed to a signal—long
past the graying of Newman and Redford and just when we thought the genus was
extinct—the advent of Hollywood’s next Golden Boy.
River pays off on the promise. Pitt’s Paul Maclean is bigger and fresher-faced
than J.D., with a straight-backed, clean-jawed raffishness that barks back to—alley
oop—none other than Redford himself. Much has already been made of the
likeness. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin even went so far to claim
Pitt dyed his hair blond for the role. Pitt denies it. And both director and
star are at pains to assert that any resemblance is coincidental.
“The only thing I was conscious of,” Pitt says, “was that
I grew up watching the guy’s movies. Everything I’ve done, they
said I look like somebody,” he widens his eyes. “Once some writer
said I reminded him of John Davidson.”
Right now he doesn’t even look much like Brad Pitt. While publicizing
River, he hasn’t been quick to lose the goatee and greasy mane he grew
for his next project, the recently completed Kalifornia (due next spring), in
which he plays a serial killer named Early Grayce. Perhaps disguises are in
order. Pitt and housemate Juliette Lewis (Husbands and Wives), who costars in
Kalifornia as his girlfriend, are currently, to the delight of neither, the
hottest young couple in Hollywood. “The national Enquirer goes through
our trash” Pitt says, shaking his head.
In a boisterous family restaurant in Bozeman, Pitt isn’t getting recognized
at all. Montana brunch, as you might guess, is no lily-livered, eggs Benedict
affair. And the actor is right in synch, mopping up plates full of ham and eggs,
potatoes, and biscuits with gravy.
At six feet, he’s bigger than you expect him to be. He built up his body
for River and then put on additional muscle to acquire the requisite menace
for Kalifornia. The beard and long hair give him a rebel sharpshooter look;
he could be one of Mosby’s Raiders. And true to his Ozark roots, the Springfield,
Mo., native brims with an edgy country presence, so much that it almost seems
calculated—he’s all mumbles and sidelong looks and Tom Waits growls.
But this is more youth than affectation, self-protection rather than self-satisfaction.
When I comment on the enthusiasm of the party crowd the night before, he brightens.
“You know what they do instead of asking questions? Or saying it’s
great? Which is just kind of the normal thing—saying it’s great.
You’re great. Whatever. People last night, they all came in and told me
really personal stories. They want to relate. It’s a whole ‘nother
deal. This one hit people.”
It’s true. Outside the restaurant he finally gets recognized, by a man
in a leaping-trout baseball cap, a man who would probably rather eat worms than
gush over a movie star.
“Good movie,” the man calls. “You really captured the essence.”
Fly-fishing is specifically what he’s talking about, yet something in
what he says goes beyond that. No major-studio picture in recent memory cuts
so close to the essence of what is means to be a man in America, nor has any
movie since Redford’s 1980 Ordinary People so captured a family whose
members can’t quite talk to each other.
“Can I tell you what the movie’s about for me?” Pitt says.
“It didn’t hit me till last night, seein’ it the second time.
It’s that life is not a work of art. I think most people want to understand
what they’re even doing walking down the street—why they’re
here. And this film gives you an understanding that you’re not going to
While the public Pitt is winsome to an almost J.D.-ish degree (“Hi, I’m
Brad,” he said, smiling earnestly, to every woman who lined up for an
audience), in quieter surroundings he gnaws ceaselessly at a variety of questions,
not least of which is the puzzle of Brad Pitt. He knows he’s got the goods—looks,
talent, brains. No young star today is in steeper ascent, but many a one has
come unhinged under similar circumstances. How, as the world grows ever more
dazzled, to build a fitting career?
Before the world took notice, he did a series of odd jobs around L.A., studied
acting, and finally began to get small TV and movie roles, usually as a surly
adolescent. Then came a longshot audition for Ridley Scott’s Thelma and
Louise. “After Thelma I had a lot of pretty-bow offers,” he says.
“Nice packages with nothing in ‘em.” Instead he decided to
go his own way, first with… *couple sentences missing* …which Pitt
got lost trying to play screens. Had he made a wrong turn?
“In this town and in this industry, the push is to make somebody an icon,”
says Patrick Markey, co producer of River and a longtime associate of Redford’s.
“Here’s a kid who could be a teen idol. The camera dearly loves
him. Instead, he chooses these interesting, difficult, not necessarily commercial
projects. I think he’s very, very serious about his acting.”
Despite his still-fresh splash in Thelma and Louise, Pitt was no shoo-in for
River. “These were a couple of plum roles,” says Redford of the
brothers Norman (Craig Sheffer) and Paul Maclean. “Everybody was up for
them.” And, like many other young actors in town, Pitt has zeroed in on
the project early. “About a year before, I’d heard that Redford
was doing a film about two brothers in Montana. That, was pretty much it for
me,” he says. He immediately read the Maclean novella. “I just kept
tracking and tracking [the project]. Come time to audition, I auditioned, and
I wasn’t real happy about what I did. There was an importance on it. It
was more important to me than the other ones I was going for.”
“Was it intimidating meeting Redford?”
He mulls it for a moment. “Intimidating’s not the right word,”
he says. “There’s definitely a power there. You gotta get yourself
up and out of bed to meet him. Redford has to carry around—you know, he
always plays this one man against the system, standing up for integrity, and
he always gets the girl, and all men want to be him. People’s expectations
are high going in. And you find the same integrity, the same good man. It’s
not so much intimidating as…”
“Challenging. Right on.”
Pitt asked Redford if he could redo his two audition scenes for River on tape
at home, and together with a friend, actor Dermot Mulroney, turned the scenes
into a mini-feature, complete with period costumes by Mulroney’s wife,
Catherine Keener (Keener costarred with Pitt in Johnny Suede), and background
music by another friend, Melissa Etheridge.
Redford was underwhelmed. “It was not on the tapes,” he says of
what finally sold him on Pitt. “It was in the office, Brad has an inner
conflict that was very interesting to me. He’s an extremely smart guy
inside, quite sensitive, but it’s all covered over with the part that
needs to act tough to get along in the world. The way it comes out in his acting
is very free, very raw. It’s the way I like to work as an actor. So it
was just worth it to me to try.”
Redford’s praise is delicately nuanced. “You were asking a guy
who hadn’t had much experience being overt to make a big leap,”
he says. “I’m quite proud of Brad’s performance, and I’m
proud of myself for getting it from him. There were a lot of hurdles to get
“Brad was very rural, very laid-back. Very James Dean. That I didn’t
want. I wanted him healthy. Sunny. As vibrant as possible. In those days, when
a good education was hard to come by, young people wanted to create the impression
of being forward-thinking. There were likely to be much more demonstrative.
And Paul was so comfortable with himself physically that I needed Brad to feel
the same way—he had to do a lot of working out. He had to practice his
Redford gives the sense, in speaking of his work with Pitt and Sheffer, of
having reined in two unruly young stallions—an impression Pitt doesn’t
deny. “The film dealt with grace,” he says. “The mind’s
grace, the movement of grace. Bob also taught us grace, as far as just sitting
in a chair, and the power of the unspoken word.”
Pitt’s and Redford’s hard labour paid off. Each helped the other:
Pitt gave the director a character who embodied the luminous yet tragic heart
of the movie, and Redford gave his young star a chance to show his own complicated
essence, which transcends looks and sensitive-rebel poses. Maybe, in a sense,
Redford was replicating his own self-invention as an actor: Coming up in the
early ‘60s, after all, he’d had to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis
of Troy Donahue and James Dean.
Brad Pitt and I are driving in my rental car+ There’s a rocky pass among
the promontories east of Bozeman that he wants to show me. Montana means a good
deal to him; he’s a country boy at heart. L.A., he likes to say, is home
base rather than home. “It’s okay,” he says. “There
are some nice people there—inbetween the other ones. A lot temptations.
“I rented a house up here while we were shooting.” He smiles. “I
had my coon dog Deacon with me. He went crazy with all the smells. I said, ‘Wow,
this is great—I should buy land here.’ Then I asked who owned the
next property. It was Brooke Shields.”
Instead, he bought a tract of woods on home ground, in the Ozarks. “It
makes you really observant to own land,” he says. “You pull up weed,
look at rocks.”
Pitt has said much about his love of music, of travel, of the outdoors, and
little about the reason he left the University of Missouri two credits shy of
graduation (he majored in journalism), packed everything he owned into his car,
and drove to California to fulfill an ambition he’d kept close to the
vest since boyhood. He told his mother and father—Jane Pitt counsels families
about parenting skills, and Bill Pitt worked for a trucking company—that
he was going to enroll in art school. “I didn’t want to worry them,”
Maybe, too, he was protecting himself from the likelihood of failure. Yet the
realities of show business bruise the dreams of successes and failures alike.
“Do you want to keep acting in movies?” I ask.
A half mile goes by. “After this film I loved overseas for about 2 ½
months,” he says, “to think about exactly that question. Films are
very taxing. And I was just trying to figure out if I could keep doing them
without losing any blood, any sleep, any integrity.”
“I came back thinking there are just a million other things I want to
do. So I don’t see so much hittin’ it, then goin’ off and
doin’ something else.”
“But now, there’s a game there. They let you stick around, or you
make them let you stick around. There’s a business-smarts side that’s
needed. But you don’t want the business side to be why you’re doin’
what you’re doin’. And I’m very impractical. I couldn’t
tell you the price of gas—all I know is, I need gas. I like to drive on
a hot day with my windows down and the air conditioner on. Just feels good.”
Seat-beltless, Pitt leans out the window into the clean wind. “They say
when a dog sticks his head out a car window, it puts him in a state of constant
euphoria,” he says. “I can understand.”