A video of Brad Pitt getting hit by a car went viral a few months ago. Technically, he gets hit by two cars, the first launching him into the air to bounce off the windshield of the other with the rubbery spring of an egg soaked in maple syrup. The slapstick severity of the accident isn't even the weird part. The weird part is the scene that precedes it, in which Pitt and Claire Forlani walk away from each other down a city street for what feels like forever, the soundtrack assuring us that this is the most poignant shit we've ever seen. First she stops and looks back, and then he does, then her, then him, her again, him again, and then, boom, cars. Forlani puts visible effort into projecting yearning and indecision into her backward glances. Pitt looks more like someone who's idly wondering if Whole Foods is down this block or the next one.
The clip was from the 1998 movie Meet Joe Black, and it wasn't just a sign of how one decade's interminable romantic fantasy can fade from pop cultural memory only to be rediscovered as another's internet novelty. It was also a reminder of what a curiously inert leading man Pitt could be, and was, for long stretches of his A-list career. In the tepid top-billed roles Pitt took when he was breaking big in the ’90s, in films like the aforementioned Joe Black, or Edward Zwick's silly/serious Legends of the Fall (1994), or the trudging biopic Seven Years in Tibet (1997), he wasn't — as critic Dana Stevens once perfectly described Keanu Reeves — blurry. He was bloodless (literally, in the otherwise-a-scream 1994 Anne Rice adaptation Interview With the Vampire), an absurdly angel-faced absence at the center of these failed prestige pics.
But at the same time, he was doing infinitely more engaged and exciting work as a supporting character in Kalifornia and True Romance (both 1993), in 12 Monkeys (1995) and Fight Club (1999). And in his latest role, as Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he’s maybe the best he’s ever been as a professional sidekick to Leonardo DiCaprio's TV actor Rick Dalton.
Pitt — blondish, blue-eyed, square-jawed, possessed of a physique that became a touchstone for personal trainers — is one of the most movie star–looking movie stars out there. He’s a powerful industry player, a tabloid staple, and, in the words of Doreen St. Félix, "the last good-looking white man." The contradiction of his three-decade career is that his best roles are almost entirely supporting ones.
It's not that Pitt seems at war with his looks — a lot of those supporting roles, including his latest, revel in them. But the interesting thing about his career has been the context in which he's seemed most comfortable deploying them, as an object of envy or resentment for other men — a guy's guy ideal, an expression of (sometimes intentionally toxic) masculine ambitions and insecurities. He's a character actor in a movie star’s body.
Pitt is not a bad actor. But he might be a bad movie star, in the sense that being a movie star is a separate — quite possibly unteachable — quality that involves being someone the viewer gets emotionally invested in regardless of the material. While he was irresistible in his brief but memorable breakthrough appearance as the charming cowboy-hatted drifter who beds Geena Davis and then makes off with Susan Sarandon's money in Thelma & Louise (1991), in leading roles he’s been a lot more selective about deploying that same charisma and inviting the audience in. He has the aura of a heartthrob without having the filmography you might expect of one, at least when it comes to movies that cater to women — he's been an erratic romantic lead.
Pitt is direly blank in Meet Joe Black, both as an unnamed young man who has meet-cutes with Claire Forlani and some motor vehicles, and as the incarnation of Death who takes over his body (the movie is not nearly as enjoyably weird as this makes it sound). When Pitt costarred alongside Julia Roberts in the genre-hopping The Mexican (2001), they both ended up getting eclipsed by James Gandolfini. When he and Cate Blanchett finally synced up in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), she came across like a flesh-and-blood person while he still felt more like a concept. Both Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) and By the Sea (2015), the films that bookend his relationship with Angelina Jolie, have an electricity because they're as much about the desire to fight as to fuck. (The 2016 World War II thriller Allied, which he's good in, feels like a Jolie-less sibling to these movies.)
And though he's an object of desire in Fight Club, he is, tellingly, not a romantic one but an aspirational one — a swaggering figment of hypermasculine id. Tyler Durden tells the nameless narrator played by Edward Norton, "All the ways you wish you could be, that's me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck." And what that looks like is Brad Pitt, the chiseled actor, magnetic and ominous with his retro collars and his sinewy frame and his ability to take a punch. (He was so convincing playing this macho messiah that it would turn out to be one of the signature roles of his career.)
Pitt actually did something similar in Kalifornia (1993), playing a mesmerizing psychopath who entrances a bored yuppie played by David Duchovny with his authentic air of dirt and danger. And he was a funnier version of this type in Snatch (2000), as an Irish Traveller boxer with an intentionally incomprehensible accent. (Pitt is funny! He's funny as the constantly snacking second-in-command Rusty Ryan in the Ocean's movies and, though he’s trying a little harder, as the frosted-tipped fool Chad Feldheimer in the dark 2008 DC farce Burn After Reading.)
Whether he's playing an outsider or not, Pitt's often at his best when he's being observed from the outside by a more central character. In A River Runs Through It (1992), he's the radiant, reckless younger brother who burns too bright for this world in the memories of his older sibling, played by Craig Sheffer. He's a father in The Tree of Life (2011), looming in the life of the main character, Jack, as a figure revered and feared as he tries to shape his son into what he believes a man should be. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), he's a train robber as celebrity, radiantly and deliberately distant, refracted through the obsessive adoration of his eventual killer (Casey Affleck).
Pitt plays another masculine archetype in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — the actual tough guy that his employer/bestie Rick pretends to be on TV. He's calm, collected, and effortlessly cool in his moccasins and battered denim, living a life of unbothered bachelorhood with his dog, capable of doing parkour up the side of a house and then whipping off his shirt to reveal a 55-year-old torso that's generated impressed gasps from more than one audience. The twist is that, aside from his key participation in the act of revisionist history that ends the film, Cliff is the kind of guy the world has little use for, something that's not initially clear because both Rick and the camera like him so much.
Cliff is violent, getting in fights on set, and scary — he's someone who may have killed his wife. Men seem to see his appeal much more than women do — the only woman who appears to take an interest in him is Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who seems to sense the dark streak in him, and who turns out to be more interested in him as a possible Manson recruit than a lover. His relationship with Rick is treated, fondly but firmly, as a thing to be set aside on the way to Rick's better-late-than-never adulthood.
Cliff Booth feels like a bookend of sorts for Tyler Durden, and not just because he's represents another peak screen moment for Pitt, a neat 20 years later. Cliff's also a paragon of a particular idea of manhood — one who doesn't need to be violently overcome at the end, because he is, with a serious degree of optimism, naturally outgrown. And his place as a supporting character is key, because it allows him to be a little opaque, and it allows for an implicit critique that'd be a lot harder to pull off were he the hero.
2019 is looking like a big year for Brad Pitt. In the fall, he stars in director James Gray's Ad Astra as an astronaut who searches space for his missing dad. He’s not the distant father figure this time, but the character trying to reckon with the distant father figure's legacy. Still, it's hard to imagine anything topping his role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s one that plays to all of his strengths while also complicating them. Cliff's the man other men admire or fear, but he's a dinosaur too, and he feels like both a wink toward the type of characters Pitt's been so good at playing, and maybe a natural conclusion to it as well. He's a scene-stealer, sure, but he's the kind of supporting character who illuminates the rest of the film — and that, it turns out, might be Pitt's calling. ●