By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | July 1, 2011 |
By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | July 1, 2011 |
I was once told that being beautiful was a burden.
I didn’t buy it.
I was lurching through my 20s at the time and like a lot of people of that age, I was a toxic mix of self-loathing and self-regard. You would, of course, hope that these oppositional forces would balance themselves out, but they did nothing of sort, choosing instead to amplify one another. And so, it’s fair to say that I had my share of insecurities. Skinny, but not in an elegant or desired way, I was home to set of British teeth and a quietly simmering resentment of beauty. I knew that it was wrong, unfair and transparently compensatory on my part, but when I met somebody beautiful I immediately made some sort of negative presumption about them in order to feel better about myself.
“Moronic Ken doll.”
“She gives her hair 10,000 brush strokes a day and nobody’s allowed to touch it but her maid.”
“Oh, look who just stepped off the wedding cake!”
That sort of thing.
One woman I knew at the time had long blond hair, a strong, curvy body, an aristocratic nose that announced business and a bullying, kind of revolting confidence. While at a party one night she happened to overhear me confessing my beauty-prejudices to a friend, and she immediately took up their fight, shouting more at the entire party than at me, “It’s not easy for us, you know! It’s very hard when people like you are making all sorts of negative judgements about us! We’re always being underestimated because of our looks!”
This led to an ugly debate, one that I managed to lose immediately, and then once again very slowly as I doggedly continued through the night, somewhat drunkenly, to portray myself suffering unfairly under the tyranny of beauty.
And somehow, this brings me to Brad Pitt.
For a long time I thought that I hated him because he was beautiful, but it actually turned out that I loved him in spite of it.
The first glimmer of my recognition of this took place while watching Fight Club, a movie I didn’t actually like and maybe even hated. The film was washed in a kind of fluorescent nausea, and Helena Bonham Carter? Well, she just grossed me out in this one, but Brad Pitt? He was a fucking rock star! His charisma was easy and unforced, his wardrobe the aces and even in an extravagantly physical role, he maintained a real dynamism even in the absence of motion.
I never imagined he could actually be a good actor, thinking he was little more than a mannequin moved around to fulfill whatever our cinematic fantasies were, but later, the more I thought about it, the more impressive his body of work became.
For instance, if you look at the 2005 movie Mr. & Mrs. Smith, at first blush you see a big, commercial Hollywood production, which of course, is exactly what it was. Everything in it was expertly produced and put on display like a sparkling line of Rodeo Drive platinum watches. At the time, Brangelina was the biggest thing on the planet, and as a consequence of this relentless over-exposure they were getting on everybody’s nerves. They were just too idealized, too omnipresent, and the concept of them pairing up in a movie seemed like a smug, self-indulgent vanity project, and so I was expecting to hate the movie. But I really enjoyed it, and at the heart of what made it work was easy charm of Brad Pitt. Unlike Angelina Jolie who was all sucked-in cheeks and glowering looks, Pitt never seemed to be trying to hard, and this in my mind is what a good actor should project—effortlessness.
I think one of the problems that Pitt has faced in being recognized as the first-rate actor he is, is not just his pretty boy looks, but his blinding fame. When you see Brad Pitt you see the biggest, most recognizable movie star on the planet and it’s impossible for him to dissolve into a role free of that strangulating context. If Pitt were to make an effort of transforming into an unrecognizable version of himself, as Christian Bale or Benicio Del Toro so frequently do, he’d be serving himself and not the role. He’s so culturally iconic that we can’t escape his looming image, and by necessity, the roles he plays become Pitt, rather than Pitt becoming the roles, and the result is almost always unexpectedly excellent.
The actor Pitt most reminds me of is actually Harrison Ford, who was able to express a kind of intelligent panic in his face. Just at the moment the plot twists disastrously for his character, Ford’s face would go on a mini-journey, starting with a wholesome shock that morphed into horror and then settled into a rigid and brave determination. In movies like Babel and Se7en, Pitt’s been able to do this, too, but without the comic book hyperbole of Ford. Pitt actually has a maturity, a gravitas to his best work, where he can elicit the entire subtext of character and narrative in one crystallizing moment.
Perhaps Pitt just makes it look too easy. There’s a real physical wit to the man, and he has a sense of rhythm, grace and purpose in his movements. Comfortable in his own skin, he invites the audience to this comfort zone, too. I swear, he seems utterly absent of pretense or even artifice, just like the guy you might smoke a joint with at a cottage party. And as anybody who’s seen Burn After Reading can tell you, he’s funny as hell, too.
For the majority of his career he’s been vastly underrated as an actor and relegated to movie star status, but now, pushing 50, he’s finally starting to be seen as something other than the pretty boy. He was the best thing in Malick’s turgid The Tree of Life, and he always seems to be the gravitational centre in whatever movie he appears in, something he manages to do in spite of being a movie star and not because of it.
The thing about beauty, or any specific, readily defining talent, is that it can be confining. If you grow up beautiful, for instance, accustomed to always having the eyes of a room falling upon you, then you’re going to grow up in a different environment than the rest of us. And one of the dangers, of course, is that you come to expect and feel entitled to this attention, and even most perniciously, that you believe your core value is dependent upon it. This is horribly limiting, trapping people in a ghetto of approval, but Pitt, as self-assured a man as they come, seems to have to understand and view himself free of the defining external eye, a quality that’s reflected in the depth and stretch of his work.