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Wednesday 18 September 2019

Brad Pitt's long learning curve - is he a good actor?

Brad Pitt in his latest film, Fury
Brad Pitt with his then girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996
Brad Pitt, playing an Irish Traveller in Snatch
Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise

Brad Pitt

Is Brad Pitt a good actor? He's certainly a very famous one, arguably the most famous in the world. But over the years some have questioned his ability and accused him of being stiff, and lightweight.

He's been nominated for an acting Oscar three times but has never won, and the suspicion remains that his extraordinary good looks have landed him roles others might have handled better.

If you look, for instance, at some of his early performances in films like Interview with the Vampire, Sleepers, The Devil's Own and Legends of the Fall, you might think that here is a man who's managed to get away with it. Like his old friend George Clooney, Pitt has come a long way on a handsome face and pure charisma, though he lacks the former's easy charm and has sometimes looked ill at ease in comedies. But if all of that is true, and if Brad Pitt will never be nicknamed the next Laurence Olivier, he has at least taken the trouble to learn his trade and improve as he's gone along.

He's given some of his most interesting and daring performances over the last eight years or so, almost as if the fading of his youthful beauty has freed him to fully commit to the characters he plays. And he's most convincing as a chillingly ruthless tank commander in his latest film, Fury, which opens here next week.

In fact, the role of Staff Sergeant Don Collier may just be the best thing he's done to date. Known as 'Wardaddy' by his devoted crew, Collier has led his Sherman Tank and its occupants safely through three long years of combat in Africa, Italy, the Low Countries and France, a remarkable achievement in a job with a brutally high attrition rate.

It's April of 1945 and Collier and co are rolling through southern Germany towards Berlin when they encounter incredibly fierce resistance from a mortally wounded enemy.

David Ayer's film plunges the viewer straight into the World War II's messy and brutal endgame, and Pitt is compelling as a battle-scarred veteran who struggles to cling to his humanity as he holds his men together in intolerable circumstances. Pitt recently said that he lacks "the weight of some of the actors I like," but in fairness it's hard to see how he or anyone else could have brought more depth to the character of Wardaddy, a world-weary man resigned to his fate.

Fury shows just how far Brad Pitt has come since his pretty boy days in the 1990s, and his recent work has included some equally impressive performances. It seems he's finally arrived at the point where he can be called an actor, rather than just a star.

One thing I've always admired about Brad Pitt is that he's one of those people who arrived in Hollywood owning nothing and knowing no one, and worked his way slowly and steadily to the top. He's paid his dues, and never comes across as a man who takes his great good fortune for granted.

He was born a long way from the bright lights, in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on December 18, 1963. His father ran a freight company, his mother was a school counsellor, and Brad and his two siblings were raised quietly in Springfield, Missouri, which he has called "the heart of the bible belt". After school he studied journalism at the University of Missouri, but two weeks before graduating he quit and set out for Hollywood to follow his dream.

He struggled through the mid to late 1980s, taking acting lessons, queuing for auditions and supplementing his meagre income in surprising ways. He moved furniture, drove a limo for a stripogram company, and apparently once dressed as a giant chicken while working for a fast-food chain. That's paying your dues alright, but in the late 80s things finally began to go his way.

His first roles were on television, in shows like Dallas and the NBC soap Another World, and he landed his first decent film part in a low-budget American/Yugoslavian co-production called The Dark Side of the Sun. Pitt played a young American suffering with a rare photo-sensitive skin condition who travels to the Balkans to meet a supposed faith healer.

The film was shot in 1988, but completion was delayed by the outbreak of the Croatian War of Independence and a hacked together final print was only released in 1997, by which time Brad was already a big star. Supporting turns in a 1989 horror film called Cutting Class, and the sex comedy Happy Together, were equally underwhelming and, as he approached 30, Pitt was still struggling to make his name. He did receive good notices for his portrayal of a manipulative drug addict opposite Juliette Lewis in the 1990 TV movie Too Young to Die? but it was Thelma & Louise that changed everything for him.

Ridley Scott's hit road movie starred Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as two desperate women fleeing unpleasant lives and Pitt played a charming conman called JD whom they meet along the way. He was not first choice for the role but stole every scene he was in, particularly a memorable love scene with Geena Davis.

He wasn't impressed with the results himself and when he saw the film he remembered thinking "Oh that's how I come off - I felt it could have had more weight". But others disagreed and after Thelma & Louise better roles started coming his way.

When Robert Redford cast Brad in his elegiac 1992 period drama A River Runs Through It, critics compared his looks and acting style to that of a young Redford. But Pitt himself did not agree and was more pleased with his work on Kalifornia, in which he played a baby-faced psychotic.

1994 was the year that Pitt established himself as a major star, thanks to starring roles in two big budget movies, Interview with the Vampire and Legends of the Fall. Neither film was all that good as a matter of fact and one could argue that he was miscast in both, but that didn't matter, because Brad had become a sex symbol, and an increasingly bankable young star.

His relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow helped further raise his profile, but in 1995 he got to prove that he was more than just a ridiculously pretty face. Terry Gilliam's nightmarish fantasy 12 Monkeys gave him the opportunity to push his range by playing a shaven-headed mental patient obsessed with animal rights. His performance impressed his detractors and won him a Golden Globe and his first Oscar nomination. And in Seven, he began his fruitful ongoing partnership with director David Fincher.

A stylish and brutal crime thriller, it starred Pitt and Morgan Freeman as police detectives hunting a serial killer obsessed with the seven deadly sins. It caught the popular zeitgeist and was a huge hit: after that, everyone wanted Pitt for everything.

But there followed a relatively rocky period for him creatively, and he has admitted that he did not initially cope with the pressures of stardom especially well. "Fame's a bitch," he once said, and as the 90s wore on he became increasingly remote from his own success. "I'd smoked a lot of weed," he recently told the Guardian newspaper. "I was professional at it. I wasn't participating in life. I was smoking myself into a doughnut, a mollusc. I got disgusted with it."

Films like Meet Joe Black and The Devil's Own didn't help matters, though Pitt did recover his form in Fincher's 1999 film Fight Club and was great fun as a pugnacious Irish traveller in Guy Ritchie's Snatch (2001). But after meeting Angelina Jolie in 2005, he seems to have discovered a new level of professional ambition and focus.

The first sign of this was his remarkably intense performance in Andrew Dominik's superb and underrated 2007 anti-western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Pitt played James as an unstable, paranoid and delusional man who's tormented by his violent past. It's one of Pitt's favourite films and is well worth checking out if you haven't seen it. He surprised me with his hilarious portrayal of a painfully stupid gym employee in the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading (2008) and was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his work on Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But he was much better playing a Jewish-American lieutenant who embarks on a Nazi-killing spree in Quentin Tarantino's 2009 hit Inglorious Basterds.

A third Oscar nod came in 2011 for Bennett Miller's Moneyball, in which Pitt played Billy Keane, a laconic baseball manager who invents a revolutionary way of picking potential stars. And very good in it he was too, but he was nominated for the wrong film. Because the same year he'd played an overbearing Southern father in Terrence Malick's superb semi-autobiographical drama The Tree of Life, which contained Pitt's best work ever in my opinion - until now, that is.

Brad Pitt once said he was "too damn affable" to reach the depths that he wanted to in his acting. But he seems to have overcome that particular obstacle and his electrifying performance in Fury should be good enough to win him a fourth Oscar nomination, provided the film hasn't come out too soon to be remembered at awards time. And if he does get shortlisted, I think this time he might win.

For over 20 years Brad Pitt has had to live his romantic life in the full glare of the spotlight. He's almost exclusively dated co-stars, and began with Juliette Lewis, whom he met in 1990 on the set of Too Young to Die? He was 26, and she was 16, but they remained an item for almost three years.

In 1994 Pitt entered the orbit of Gwyneth Paltrow (right), his co-star in David Fincher's Seven. They seemed a most unlikely couple, but stayed together until 1997. If Pitt got used to dodging paparazzi with Paltrow, nothing could have prepared him for the media storm that exploded around him once he began going out with Jennifer Aniston.

They married in 2000 and became Hollywood's reigning golden couple, but he got blamed for their separation in 2005. Next up, of course, was Angelina Jolie, whom he met on the set of Mr and Mrs Smith. They've been together ever since, and are comfortably the most famous couple on the planet.

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