If you built a movie star from scratch, he would probably possess these qualities: traffic-stopping looks, charisma, wit, character, and probably most important, the savvy to get to the top of the Hollywood heap and remain there.
Somehow, Brad Pitt figured out the formula. But it isn’t that simple. He also seems to have pursued a career with a dismissive shrug toward conventional wisdom. Take a gander at his credits and notice that, although there are plenty of times when his name stood atop the marquee (“Legends of the Fall,” “Meet Joe Black,” “Seven Years in Tibet”), many of his most memorable roles were in supporting or ensemble roles ("Thelma & Louise," “Twelve Monkeys,” the “Ocean’s Eleven” series, “Inglourious Basterds”).
Also, he has defied the norm further with forays into art-house fare like “Babel” or the recent Terrence Malick film, “The Tree of Life.” And he does all of that while in a relationship with Angelina Jolie that couldn’t be more high profile if they adopted a Kardashian.
This week, Pitt tosses another curve with “Moneyball,” the story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who devised a new way of evaluating talent and building a baseball franchise that upset the establishment’s way of thinking.
Sort of like the way Brad Pitt approaches acting.
“Looking at Pitt's career to date, I'd say he's done a remarkable job of alternating roles that keep him on the A-plus list as a leading man with interesting, challenging parts in quirkier and smaller films,” noted film critic Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times and the ReelZ channel. “I'm not saying he's Paul Newman because there was only one Paul Newman. But there's a similarity between the two in that they refused to coast on their looks and garnered more respect as they got a little bit older and their faces had more character.
“One of the things I respect about Pitt is he never phones it in, even when he's doing light lifting in an ‘Oceans’ movie. You can tell he's always trying to add something interesting or three-dimensional to even the most mainstream characters he's played. I don't know if he's broken the mold of the typical Hollywood leading man's career, but I think he's made consistently strong choices. Even if the films don't quite work, he's never dull.”
Pitt has managed quite well to overcome the debilitating physical curse of being strikingly handsome. Yes, that’s an advantage to some degree in singles bars, in the business world and in modeling. And yes, even in motion pictures. But it can also work against a gifted actor, who can become lionized for his looks while at the same time denigrated for being a pretty boy.
Yet all the images on movie posters, as well as those on the covers of glossy supermarket tabloids featuring Pitt standing alongside his equally famous squeeze while a screaming headline spells doom for their union, remarkably hasn’t seemed to dampen his career momentum one iota.
“Rather than chafing against his good looks in the style of Johnny Depp,” explained movie critic Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News, “he’s embraced them to interesting effect. He does occasionally subvert expectations, by showing us the limitations of physical beauty in ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’ or reminding us that a pretty face is no guarantee of a strong mind, as in ‘Burn After Reading.’
“Overall, his most interesting performances have been the ones in which he disregards audience assumptions — like his hilariously unintelligible comic turn as an Irish fighter in ‘Snatch.’ However, he’s perfectly comfortable playing the hero, in a way Depp is not, and even his antiheroes are undeniably cool. Tyler Durden (“Fight Club”) could reasonably be called a cult icon.”
Actors like to use the tightrope analogy, which may have been popularized with Al Pacino in his early stage days. But historically there has always been a semblance of the same idea in every performer’s philosophy: You have to take great risks to get great rewards.
Pitt certainly has adhered to this in his professional life. Yet the personal side, in many ways, might be even more of a gamble. When two extremely successful Hollywood stars pair up, intense strain often ensues. That can result from one spouse having more success than the other (see: Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe, now divorced) or the celebrity persona rising while the star fades (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes).
Oddly, Pitt seems to have glided through all that. Even a recent minor blip on the gossip meter involving a comment he made in an interview about his previous marriage to Jennifer Aniston — which he was quick to clarify — was quickly forgotten.
There will continue to be a public fascination with Pitt-Jolie as long as it exists, but it also seems obvious that if Pitt has weathered it this long, he’s probably immune to the scrutiny.
“Unfortunately, Pitt is a prime example of someone whose celebrity has very nearly eclipsed his career,” Weitzman said. “He’s responsible to some degree — 2005’s infamous ‘Domestic Bliss’ spread in ‘W’ comes to mind — but it’s hard to imagine he appreciates the endless tabloid obsession with his personal life.
“It would be nice to think that eventually people will stop caring what he does at home, and focus more on his efforts onscreen. But right now that seems about as likely as the notion of aging backwards.”
Regardless of what People magazine and the National Enquirer have to say about him and Angelina, fans tend to keep his career flourishing by purchasing tickets. According to the site boxofficemojo.com, Pitt’s 30 films have grossed over $2 billion domestically.
(Interestingly enough, Jolie’s 28 films have grossed almost $1.6 billion domestically, and her biggest box office total came with “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” at over $186 million domestically, which of course also starred Pitt, and which also represented his highest total to date.)
“That puts him in a particular stratosphere,” noted Brandon Gray of boxofficemojo.com. “It isn’t the highest gross total, but many actors above him in total grosses have their tallies padded by supporting parts or parts in animated movies. Brad has done a couple of animated films, but he’s typically a leading man.”
Gray went on to say that Pitt’s box-office performances overall have been even stronger internationally. “Some of his movies that haven’t always fared well domestically have done well overseas, even before the foreign market became so explosive,” he said. “A Brad Pitt vehicle could do twice as much overseas typically, in the '90s.”
Andrew Stewart, who covers box office for Variety, noted that Pitt belongs among a group of actors who had their heydays in the 1990s. Yet in Pitt’s case, he still attracts moviegoers. “You look at a star like Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson, you certainly can’t say the same about them as you can about Brad Pitt,” he said.
And Stewart explained that there is good reason for that, which goes back to Pitt’s eclectic tastes in projects. “He’s very smart in the types of pictures he does,” he said. “He doesn’t do a lot of big tentpole films. Not a lot of screwy comedies that could in any way hurt his brand. He works with auteurs and makes films that both adult audiences and young audiences want to see. ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is a prime example.”
“Moneyball” might be an especially hard sell. Generally speaking, baseball movies have had limited appeal. “This is not a traditional baseball movie, either, nor does it have a romantic angle like ‘Jerry Maguire’ had,” Gray said. “So I don’t think this is going to sell like a Brad Pitt movie in the sense that people have flocked to Brad Pitt movies in the past. But certainly his presence should help the movie.”
Naturally, Hollywood folks will be fixated on the bottom line. For Pitt, however, the bottom line is something he continually dances along en route to new and creatively fulfilling territory.
Said the Daily News’ Weitzman: “He always seems determined to earn not just easy admiration but our respect, with an added layer of self-awareness and gravitas.”
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Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to TODAY.com. Follow him on Twitter.