The James Clayton Column: In praise of Brad Pitt

Ahead of Brad Pitt’s new film, Killing Them Softly, James reminds us why we should admire his acting and not his celebrity status…

What do you think of when you see the words ‘Brad Pitt’? Do you get images of a tuxedo-wearing man on a red carpet flanked by Angelina Jolie and a swarm of paparazzi? If so you get no points. In fact in this test you get a fail. Fail. You lose.

“You think losing is fun?” asks Pitt himself in the film Moneyball. The answer should be no, losing is not fun, so pay attention and learn how to pass my silly test next time I spring it on you.

Really, the mention of His Pittness should send you down a kaleidoscope stream of memories from an eclectic array of modern cinema masterpieces and have you recalling a ream of exceptional acting performances. It should not have you picturing glossy magazine pages and celebrity shindigs though, sadly, that’s probably the most common response to hearing or reading the man’s name.

This sorry state of affairs offends me, and I’m aggrieved that Pitt is most popularly perceived as a celebrity and not as an actor or even as a human being (I’m assuming that he’s a human being and not a hologram). I’m vexed by the fame game and the media hoopla that configures this screen icon as a ‘showbiz star’ and focuses on what I believe is the wrong stuff – his personal life, the frivolous flim-flam around show business and other superficial, cosmetic concerns.

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This happens to numerous great actors such as George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise and Ryan Gosling as a few male examples. Outstanding artistic achievements are overlooked or ignored because people busy their minds with gossip and the trivialities that gossip rags and feeble chat shows generically trade in.

It’s probably accurate to say that Brad Pitt is at the extreme end of this tragic phenomenon as the subject receiving the most tabloid media scrutiny, afflicted most by a mass empty mind stuck in unwholesome ‘juicy gossip’ mode.

I struggle to get my head around this and as a cineaste and fan of Pitt’s motion picture work I feel sad. It saddens that great swathes of people are more interested in ‘Brangelina’, their cosmopolitan collection of adopted and non-adopted children, Pitt’s past relationships, his hunk status and his public appearances than in his actual movies.

It saddens me to hear him namechecked in an irritating Shania Twain song. It saddens me to think that more people care about these insubstantial, pretty meaningless things than the imminent arrival of Killing Them Softly.

Andrew Dominik’s new crime film is an exciting prospect and features Pitt in the lead role as a cigarette smoking, shotgun-toting slick streak of swagger named Jackie Cogan. It hits me as a very cool proposition – way too edgy for most cosy housewife publications’ tastes – and I’m expecting another superb Pitt performance among an ensemble cast.

It’d be nice if people turned up in droves to see Killing Them Softly and appreciate the actor’s dramatic brilliance. I’m not optimistic, however, and past evidence suggests that the prevailing popular mindset is keen to cling to the ‘A-List Superstar’ image in spite of the sublime Pitt’s consistent high standard across an eclectic array of potent movies.

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How can I remedy this? I thought about forming an underground Pitt Club, which would allow us to unite in solidarity against the asinine modern world and rage against the mainstream consumerist system that undermines essential values and our primal masculine hero. Ultimately however – as appealingly cathartic as it’d be to get in touch with our inner Tyler Durden – communal fight nights and Project Mayhem-style bombings would only amount to ineffective, pointless violence.

I also looked to Pitt’s Aldo Raine of Inglourious Basterds for inspiration, but scalping tabloid hacks, paparazzi and daytime TV personalities seems slightly excessive. All I can do, therefore, is write a gushy eulogy to the prolific, estimable actor with a few nods to his extensive filmography to hammer home the point that Pitt is the shit. You’re looking at that eulogy right now, dear reader, if you are indeed still reading and haven’t gone to glance at the photos of Pitt and Jolie at the Killing Them Softly premiere in OMG! Magazine.

Running through Pitt’s oeuvre reaffirms my belief that he’s one of the most important figures in recent film history and a true icon of modern American cinema. He’s starred in some of the most highly acclaimed movies of the past 20 years and makes his mark on them as a captivating presence, even when he’s just one supporting strand in a star-studded weave. His speciality is excelling and making an impression in smaller roles, mixed in the midst of an amazing ensemble cast (True Romance, Snatch, Inglourious Basterds, etc.).

It’s one of the qualities that leads me view to Pitt as a contemporary kindred spirit to Steve McQueen. He has a magnetic machismo – a charismatic presence that dominates the screen regardless of what or who else in the frame. Pitt seems to have a constant hungry energy about him and this is most explicit in Moneyball and Burn After Reading where his characters never stop chewing. That momentum and ability as a team player brings out the best in those around him, as is clearly the case with his fellow Basterds and Jonah Hill’s metamorphosis into a serious actor worthy of an Oscar nomination in Moneyball.

As for his own range he’s worked the entire dramatic, personality and emotional spectrums from unhinged and anarchic (12 Monkeys, Fight Club) to austere brutality (The Tree Of Life) via comic and goofy (Burn After Reading, Snatch). See the significant shifts and character transformation he undergoes during David Fincher’s Se7en for a prime example of his essential adaptability in the course of one movie.

The handsome, hyper-masculine Pitt obviously appeals as an idealised male hero (Troy, the Ocean’s series, Killing Them Softly) but, as far as I’ve seen, he invests every single role with depth and creates characters with relatable humanity. His protagonists are complex, flawed people that feel real and it’s hard to picture anyone else portraying, say, Billy Beane, Benjamin Button or Jeffrey Goines.

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Pitt gets under the skin and draws you in – an actor who’s always interesting to watch whether he’s playing a bozo gym bunny, a violent ‘50s suburban father or an insane animal rights activist. He makes you care about the character and the movie-world they inhabit, even if it’s something as obscure and baffling as The Tree Of Life or the baseball stat bonanza that is Moneyball.

I reckon that Pitt deserves praise as one of the greatest screen icons of our age. As I head off to see him shine in Killing Them Softly I’ll leave you with that question again: what do you think of when you see the words ‘Brad Pitt’?

James Clayton is hoping to bring down modern consumer society with an army of virulent monkeys, gypsy bare-knuckle boxers, emasculated middle-aged men and misfit baseball players. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

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