Thinking about Brad Pitt (which is something I do on occasion) reminds me of Alec Baldwin’s description of Jerry Seinfeld: “Your life has been one unbroken boulevard of green lights, hasn’t it?”
And then I think about what my dad told me once when I was complaining about a kid in my high school where everything seemed to go his way—he was handsome, smart, and athletic.
“Life just always works out for that guy,” I said, bitterly.
“Yeah, well,” my dad said. “Everything looks easy from the outside.”
Truer words may never have been spoken about Brad Pitt. In (almost) all of his roles and in his public life, Pitt seems to be a person completely at ease with himself and who he is—the man walking in an orchard full of low-hanging fruit. His career, however, was anything but easy for its first decade. He spent years struggling with minor roles or major roles in bad movies. But once he reached stardom, he didn’t put his career into cruise control. Pitt continues to take on difficult projects and make them his own.
Pitt dropped out of the University of Missouri in 1987, two weeks before he was due to graduate, and moved to Los Angeles to become an actor. He landed a few non-credited roles in movies, got a TV guest spot here and there, and then got a small role in Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991). He played a small-time drifter and petty criminal who ends up riding along with Thelma and Louise for a while. The love scene between him and Geena Davis had a galvanizing impact on his career because, well, he was just so incredibly sexy. This small role sent Pitt on to a durable and remarkable career.
Over the years, Pitt has developed a presence as an actor with a sort of shambling grace that belies a stubbornly intense spirit. This presence hit its apex with his performance in Moneyball (2011). The film retells the story Michael Lewis first told in his non-fiction book of the same name. It’s the story of a baseball player, Billy Beane, whose career was a bust but who had a deep and voracious love of the game and who ends up as the younger General Manager of the struggling Oakland Athletics. Beane rebuilds that nearly-broke franchise into a perpetual playoff contender by using a new form of statistical analysis of the game that defies traditional approaches.
Pitt’s performance in this movie is one of my all-time favorites in a career filled with high water marks. Pitt doesn’t have an enormous range as an actor. He’s one of those movie stars like John Wayne or George Clooney whom audiences love because, regardless of the role, they are playing a version of themselves. Which is fine in its way. For instance, his performance as heist plotter and guy-who-never-tucks-in-shirt, Rusty Ryan, is completely charming and delightful in Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Twelve (2004), and Thirteen (2007). But it’s full of empty calories. When Pitt reaches into the souls of his characters and allows their darkness out, he produces some memorable performances, as he certainly did in Moneyball.
Pitt has a large filmography and plenty of his movies are intensely enjoyable. I’m thinking here of A River Runs Through It (1992), Legends of the Fall (1994), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), The Tree of Life (2011), or Fury (2014), to name but a few.
The following movies, however, are the ones where I think Pitt pulls back the curtain a bit and allows us to see that while everything may look easy from the outside, inside there is considerable unnoticed struggle.
This, for me, was Pitt’s breakout movie, the role where he stretched himself and showed us a character of inner moral torment. Pitt and Morgan Freeman are paired as a couple of homicide detectives on the trail of a serial killer (Kevin Spacey), whose murders are tied to the seven deadly sins. Estimable director David Fincher pulls an intense performance out of Pitt in this edge-of-your-seat thriller. Fair warning: it’s violent and gruesome and definitely not to watch when the kids are around, but well worth your time.
Movies don’t get much more controversial than Fight Club. The studio hated it when it was released, and critics had a field day arguing over it. Paired again with Fincher, Pitt is brilliant as the violent and vengeful Tyler Durden. He is joined by Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter. The movie has achieved a certain cult classic cachée, but this is no B-movie cult classic. This is a genuinely great—albeit unsettling— film.
Pitt generally does his best as an actor when he is part of an ensemble. And he’s at his surprising best here in this hilarious and violent Coen Brothers spy picture. Co-starring with George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, and Richard Jenkins, Pitt is laugh-out-loud funny as a vacuous gym employee trying to blackmail a spy. It’s a relentlessly amusing performance in a relentlessly amusing movie. This movie has been largely forgotten, but it’s one of my favorites from Joel and Ethan Coen.
This is one of the strangest major studio movies of all time, right up there with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in terms of just pure strange. Benjamin Button is a man who lives his life in reverse, born an old man and aging into infancy. Another partnership with Fincher, Pitt puts in a moving and affecting performance in a doomed love story with Cate Blanchett, the couple whose lives are moving in opposite directions. The cinematography by Claudio Miranda is breathtaking and heartbreakingly beautiful at times. As I said, it’s a strange movie and a strange story, but it delivers a powerful emotional punch because of outstanding and affecting performances by both Pitt and Blanchett.
If you ask me, this is the best zombie picture of all time. Okay, granted, that sounds like a pretty small accomplishment, roughly equivalent to saying the 1978 PX is the best Vespa model of all time. (In other words, so what?) But this is a simply fabulous epic movie. Pitt bought the rights to the classic graphic novel of the same name in 2007 and then spent four years fighting to get the movie made. He’s just great as Gerry Lane, UN investigator of dangerous war zones, who travels the world trying to figure out how to defeat the furiously expanding population of zombies taking over the world. I LOVE this movie and have watched it at least four times. Pitt is in every scene and he’s magnificent.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.