Speaking of Brad Pitt, there is an actor who cut his own career off at the knees by choosing to play himself halfway through. Granted, in one sense is career has been doing just fine and he’s an A-lister landing the best roles, but nobody is going to look back in twenty or thirty years and say he was one of Hollywood’s greats.
Which is a shame because back around the time I was in university (1996-2000) I thought he was shaping up to be a decent actor. I first noted him when he played a murderous redneck alongside David Duchovny and Juliette Lewis in Kalifornia (1993). Lewis stole the show as a seriously retarded and sexually active teenager whom Pitt’s character exploits, but nevertheless I thought he put in a convincing performance which showed he wasn’t just going to play the pretty-boy roles people wanted him to (e.g. Thelma and Louise, A River Runs Through It). He showed up in a minor but memorable role in True Romance (1993), a film with more memorable roles than you can remember, as pot-head Floyd who my schoolmates at the time thought was a character to aspire to. For some reason I missed out on seeing Interview with the Vampire (1994) but found him convincing as the young detective in Se7en (1995), one of the most highly-rated films of that era. Next came Twelve Monkeys (1995) in which he played an ideologically-driven nutcase, which showed he was interested in complex roles that weren’t written just to make him look pretty. Sleepers (1996) was a good film but not because of Pitt’s performance, although he was made to look like Orson Welles by the film’s lead (whose name I forgot).
Then came Fight Club (1999) which all the pot-heads in university loved and everyone still raves about it. Me, I thought it was overrated at the time and not that clever, and recent viewings have done nothing to convince me I was wrong the first time around. Whereas I thought Ed Norton did a great job, it took a friend of mine to point out what I found wrong with Brad Pitt in that film: he was playing himself. Whereas everyone says how great the character of Tyler Durden is (and you have to credit the scriptwriters for coming up with it), Pitt’s portrayal consisted mainly of standing around in a buff body looking cool and relaxed while shooting off pithy one-liners (or two-liners in the case of the film’s most famous quote). It was hardly a difficult role to pull off, at least compared to Norton’s. But I overlooked this when I saw him in Snatch (2000) which I absolutely loved, and particularly for Pitt’s portrayal of gypsy boxing champion Mickey. I grew up in West Wales where there is no shortage of “pikeys”, and some exaggerations aside, the characters could have been pulled from a documentary and Pitt’s accent was right on the money.
However, it appeared to all go downhill from there, and I think Ocean’s Eleven (2001) was where it started. For whatever reason, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and (to a lesser extent) Matt Damon decided they were going to make a film in which they play themselves: suave gents standing around in nice suits shooting off witty remarks at each other. Pitt’s character is eating in most shots, something he apparently suggested because it would be funny. Although not a bad movie, it is mostly a vehicle for the leading actors to mince about on a screen looking and sounding cool, and that’s rarely a good reason to make a film. It’s fine for an actor to look and sound cool in a film, but that should not be the primary purpose of the picture.
Unfortunately, his next feature film was Troy (2004), which was probably his worst. If in Ocean’s Eleven he looked as though he wasn’t acting, in Troy he looked as though he couldn’t even if he wanted to. He followed this up with Ocean’s Twelve (2004) to which my comments from Ocean’s Eleven apply, then Mr & Mrs Smith (2005) which wasn’t a bad film but it was hardly a defining role. So since Snatch in 2000 it’s largely been crap. I wasn’t convinced by his performance in Inglourious Basterds (2009) despite being handed a half-decent character and script to work with, and everything else I’ve seen him in has failed to impress. With him now being 53, it’s hard to see him doing anything which will make him a Hollywood legend in what remains of his career. I expect he’ll end up a bit like his pal George Clooney, starring in films such as The American (2010) which get made seemingly only to demonstrate that the lead is still a Casanova who can bang hot, young chicks.
One could contrast Brad Pitt’s career with that of Leonardo DiCaprio, who around the time of Pitt’s peak was filling pretty-boy roles in Titanic (1997) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1998). I’d written DiCaprio off as a serious actor until he surprised me in The Aviator (2004), followed up by mature performances in good films such as The Departed (2006), Blood Diamond (2006), Body of Lies (2008), Shutter Island (2010), and Inception (2010) to make him what is probably Hollywood’s top-billing male star. DiCaprio is only 42 and already has a solid stable of decent films and varied performances under his belt, and has avoided the temptation thus far to play himself in fun-to-make films. I wouldn’t say I thought The Revenant (2015) was a great film (although the cinematography was wonderful) and I didn’t think DiCaprio’s performance was brilliant. But he tried something challenging and gave it a damned good go, and you could see the effort he put in. If he keeps this up for another 30 years he will most likely become known as the best actor of his generation.
Brad Pitt, on the other hand, will probably be known as the fool who dumped Jennifer Aniston for that whats-‘er-name nutcase.