erik lundegaard

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Brad Pitt: Scuzziest Man Alive

You can’t ask for a better introduction to the movie-going public than Brad Pitt got in “Thelma and Louise.” In a film seen mostly by women, in which most of the men are jerks, Pitt, too, plays a jerk, but a good-looking jerk, a bad boy who differs from the others in this way: He’s the one who gives women orgasms. Sure, Harvey Keitel is fatherly, and Michael Madsen is loyal; and, sure, Brad Pitt steals from Thelma and Louise, beginning a chain of events which eventually causes the women to drive their car off a cliff. But still: He’s the one who gives women orgasms. You don’t have to look like Brad Pitt to make this work for you.

Quirky, off-kilter, scuzzy

For nearly 15 years now Pitt’s been the most famous handsome man in Hollywood since Robert Redford, for whom he’s starred (“A River Runs Through It”), and with whom he’s co-starred (“Spy Game”), and with whom he’s often compared. But the comparison is inexact. Once Redford became a star he almost always played the good guy — generally a westernized, taciturn good guy who showed the ropes to uptight city women (Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kristin Scott Thomas).

Pitt? He’s reveled in playing the quirky and off-kilter and scuzzy. If a character didn’t bathe, or if his face got pummeled, that’s a role he wanted. In 1994 he was named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine and almost immediately began a series of roles which, in effect, told women to back off. Listen, honey, I’m stupid (“Se7en”). I’m insane (“12 Monkeys”). I’m a terrorist (“The Devil’s Own”). I’m a Nazi (“Seven Years in Tibet”). I’m Death (“Meet Joe Black”). Oh, and I’m a figment of your imagination, too (“Fight Club”).

Women were slow to pick up on this message. Maybe because the message was mixed? Sure, I’m Death, but look at these full lips. Sure, I don’t bathe but look at these pecs. Pitt’s entire career has been a mixed message. Indie-movie hero and tabloid fodder. Dull leading man and scene-stealing supporting player. Robert Redford’s face, but you can imagine Jack Nicholson in almost every role between 1995 and 2000.

But after a second “Sexiest Man Alive” award in 2000, and after joining George Clooney’s rat pack in 2001, and maybe after 9/11 touched too close to the let’s-blow-up-financial-buildings ending of “Fight Club,” Pitt, rather than throwing mud on his star status, began to embrace it ironically. He cleaned up nicely for Clooney in the “Oceans” movies, and appeared as himself in “Full Frontal” and as “Brad/Bachelor #1” in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” (Get it? Cause he’s, you know, Brad.) He was grungy again in “The Mexican” but the most interesting relationship in that film is between Julia Roberts and James Gandolfini, and when Pitt dances over Gandolfini’s body, it’s a tragedy the film doesn’t recognize. He gets his face pummeled worse than ever in “Spy Game,” but the movie is Redford’s, nonsensically Redford’s, and Pitt’s romance in it is awkward and unbelievable. Then there was the disaster of “Troy.”

The butt that launched a thousand ships

Financially “Troy” killed, earning nearly half a billion dollars worldwide, Pitt’s biggest box office to date. But the film exemplifies Pitt’s dilemma, which is a sharper version of the dilemma of most male screen idols. Traditionally, men are judged on what they do, women on how they look. But the power of the male movie star is feminine; they are where they are, to a great extent, because of how they look. Too many feminine squeals, too much passive admiration, and stars like Pitt become unmanned. Thus Pitt — smartly — hangs with guys in his movies. Thus he gets his face pummeled. And thus Achilles. For how can the world’s greatest warrior be feminine?

Here he is. Helen of Troy is supposed to have the face that launched a thousand ships but she’s nothing next to Pitt. The camera lingers on his torso and gives us peek-a-boo glimpses of the curves of his behind. He’s so beautiful he’s a threat to heterosexuality, and in a sane world (or a more insane world) would be picketed by the Family Council. Watching the film you ask yourself, “Who’s the man here?” and the answer comes back: Hector (Eric Bana), who is undone by an impetuous brother, a doddering father and a cry-baby warrior, but who remains stolid throughout: determined to love, determined to do his duty. His reward? In death, he is dragged behind the chariot of the cry-baby warrior, who only went to war because of the marquee value of it all. Achilles may be a great warrior but he’s a pathetic man, and the film doesn’t own up to this discrepancy. Don’t even get me started on the British accent.

So, yes, “Troy” did boffo box office, but in the film’s parlance no one will remember its name. Same with Pitt’s other movies for women. “Legends of the Fall”? “Meet Joe Black”? Who watches these anymore? It’s his movies for guys that stick. On IMDb.com’s user-ranked list of the top 250 films of all time, four Brad Pitt films make the cut, and in each one he’s quirky, off-kilter and scuzzy:

  • “Snatch”
  • “Twelve Monkeys”
  • “Se7en”
  • “Fight Club”

Obviously this is an unscientific ranking, and obviously IMDb’s users skew young, and so the movies on the list skew young (the highest-ranked pre-1940 film is “M” at 47); but these are the movies that people who like movies like, and that’s an altogether too ignored constituency in Hollywood.

Family man

Are Pitt’s best movies behind him? Maybe. He seems bored now, and keeps making noises about retiring. He wants to start a family. Ladies, the line forms outside Hollywood.

In the meantime there’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” which is a good choice for Pitt in this way: For once he’s not the most beautiful creature in the film. Even women look at Angelina Jolie and go “Damn.” But it’s another ironic, low-key performance. It’s his “Ocean’s” character as an assassin, stuck in a loveless marriage, trading quips with lips more famous than his.

More promising is the announcement that Pitt, a son of Missouri, is scheduled to play one of Missouri’s most famous sons, Jesse James, in a film based upon Ron Hansen’s novel, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Why is this promising? Because it’s a chance to undo the damage of the glory-seeking Achilles. In Hansen’s book, Jesse James comes off as a man who does the deed for the deed itself and not because of how the deed will be perceived. It’s the coward Robert Ford who confuses appearing with being, and who, as a precursor to various 20th century assassins, kills his idol in order to become his idol. One could call him the first 20th century man. James, meanwhile, has both feet planted firmly in the 19th century.

Maybe Pitt does, too. At the least, it’s his chance to act quirky and off-kilter and scuzzy again. About time.

—Just because critic Erik Lundegaard has a library card doesn’t make him Yoda. This piece was originally published 7/6/05 on MSNBC.com.