Up until the announcement of the New York Film Critics Awards, Brad Pitt had been fairly low on my radar in the Best Actor race. I thought perhaps a nomination for Moneyball might happen, maybe, a distant chance for a nod for The Tree of Life was a possibility. But a win this year? Not likely. Winning the Best Actor prize from the New York Film Critics Association propels Pitt into the thick of the Oscar race, and could land the popular actor his first Academy Award.
Now let’s be clear, I still believe George Clooney is the man to beat for the award, but Pitt is going to make it a race. Now that said, let’s never forget that the winner of the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor has often gone on to be snubbed by the Academy entirely. Steve Martin in All of Me (1984) felt the sting of such a snub, as did Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988). David Thewlis seethed his way through Naked (1993) to an awards from the critics, though no Oscar nomination, while the great Paul Giamatti won the award for his masterful work in Sideways (2004) only to be ignored by Oscar. So until the morning of the nominations, we know nothing.
We have in Pitt an actor very much like Paul Newman, who has grown as an artist before our eyes, carefully balancing being a major movie star with being a gifted actor, and for the most part making the two work for him instead of against him. Pitt likes to take risks in his work, which I admire in any artist, and though he has not always succeeded in those risks, rather than calling his work failures, I prefer evolving as an artist, learning about himself, learning what he does well and what he does do so well. The very best actors know themselves better than their agaents or people, they understand what their strengths are and where their weaknesses lie, and most of all they know what their audiences expect of them. Pitt has played an interesting game with his career through the years, not shying away from blockbusters but making sure he had time to do a very personal film for himself, or work with a filmmaker he admires. It is in those films he usually shines as an actor. His performance as American outlaw Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) remains the finest work of his career and the finest, certainly the most accurate portrayal of James on film. Critics adored the film, but audiences failed to show up, not realizing they were missing one of the truly great films of the last ten years, and Pitt’s finest piece of acting.
Was there really any doubt he could act? He stole every scene he was in as J.D., the hustler who steals money from two women on the lamb from the law in Thelma and Louise (1991), and stealing scenes from Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in that film was no small feat. Pitt did not so much evolve onto the Hollywood scene as burst into it, after a few years making several bad movies, he found instant success with Thelma and Louise (1991) and was cast as the lead in Robert Redford’s beautiful adaptation of A River Runs Through It (1992). Once again he demonstrated strong ability as an actor, stealing the film as the troubled son of the small town preacher, a role that Redford himself might have portrayed in his youth. However it was his performance as Early in Kalifornia (1993) that perhaps truly announced Pitt as a major new actor. Grubby, filthy, his eyes filled with hate and mocking he gave a terrifying performance as a serial killer, becoming, with his girlfriend the passengers of a young couple on the road. The film utterly belongs to Pitt and he does not disappoint, delivering a strange performance that is as terrifying as it is entertaining to watch.
While Hollywood came calling, and Pitt answered with a series of blockbusters, he did not lose his edge as a true actor. Risks were taken continually in films such as True Romance (1993) in which he was hysterical as a stoner, and the oddly muted film Interview with the Vampire (1994) which drew more headlines for the casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat than it did for the actual end result. If Pitt was trying for something in the film, he missed, because his performance was really nothing more than sleepwalking, and not one of his career highlights. No one knows it more than he. A triumphant return to form was made in Legends of the Fall (1994) in which he was electrifying as Tristan, the wayward son, protector, warrior, as close to nature as he can possibly be in this epic from Edward Zwick that is far from perfect but huigely entertaining and vast in scope.
Seven (2005) was a film unlike anything Pitt had done before, casting him against a brilliant actor, Morgan Freeman, another in strong support, Kevin Spacey, with a director whose dark vision would dominate this powerfully brilliant film. Pitt handled himself exceptionally well in all of his scenes with Freeman, but more effectively with Spacey, where the most emotional scenes in the film took place. Pitt’s work was very strong in this near perfect film that was adored by critics, admired by audiences, and then snubbed by the fickle Academy. That same year Pitt would have his first date with the Academy, earning a nomination for Best supporting Actor in Terry Gilliam’s wild science fiction thriller 12 Monkeys (1995). Wild eyed, hyper active, and constantly moving, this ball of energy was always a dangerous character and Pitt gave the role just the right amount of edge to make it work and not come off as ridiculous. His choices following the Oscar nomination led to some of the weakest work of his career, The Devil’s Own (1997), especially Seven Years in Tibet (1997) and the dreadful Meet Joe Black (1999). More than anything else, the first two confirmed that Pitt should resist the urge to do foreign accents, they simply do not work for him.
Fight Club (1999) was a revelation, one of the greatest films of the decade, that generation’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), with sensational performances from Edward Norton and Pitt as Tyler, a modern day anarchist who might not be as real as he seems. Pitt had never before commanded the screen as he did in this film, never been as forceful, as sexy and as dangerous. He was the guy all guys wanted to be, and the man all women wanted, whether they would admit to it or not. Both he and Norton gave stunning performances, yet the Academy ignored the film in an act of sheer idiocy. It would be a full seven years before Pitt was taxed as an actor again on screen, in Babel (2006) in which he gave a powerful performance as Richard, an American tourist in the middle east who watches as his wife is shot on a tour bus, far from decent medical help. Pitt was again excellent in the film, though attention was paid to the lesser known actors in the film. No matter, the best work of his career came next in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward robert Ford (2007) in which both Pitt and Casey Affleck gave astounding performances. Jesse seems to know that it will be Ford that kills him, understanding the the younger man is fascinated with the outlaw to the point that Jesse cannot figure out if Ford wants to be like Jesse, or in fact, be Jesse. Ford will eventually shoot Jesse in the back in the man’s house as he fixes a picture on the wall, his wife in the next room, catapulting himself into legend. Pitt was superb in the film, quietly lethal, very much like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a bomb ready to go off at any time. HOw the Academy missed nominating this brilliant film, Pitt, and the director is something I have never figured out, but they did, nominating the pleasant comedy Juno (2007) or the love story Atonement (2007) in its place.
His second Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actor came for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) which re-united him with director David Fincher for the third time. This time the story was a sprawling fantasy about a child born old, his age reducing as the years go past. Much was made of the film’s superb visual effects, which often had Pitt’s head on another body or computer generated images in place of actors until one wondered where the actors were really giving the performances. Now make no mistake, Pitt is very good in the film, and making visual effects work for the actor is difficult, but he could just as easily been nominated for his hilarious turn as the personal trainer goof ball in the Coen Brothers Burn After Reading (2008).
As Aldo Raine in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) one could see the glint in Pitt’s eye at the sheer fun he was having as an actor, getting to say that dialogue, getting to do what he did in the film, and as an American, getting to kill Nazis. It was a nasty fairy tale for adults, re-writing history in the manner only Tarantino could do, and Pitt was exceptionally good in the film, anchoring a cast of either well known or sort of known actors. Speaking with a harsh southern accent, a good ol’ boy, a cracker who enjoys a good killin’ Pitt was magnificent, and knew it, giving one of his finest performances.
This year he has two films for which he could be nominated, the highly touted Moneyball (2011), the more likely choice, and The Tree of Life (2011) which as good as Pitt is, I do not see a nomination coming to him for the film. His performance in Moneyball (2001) is brashly comic, exciting to watch, and real, we cannot see the actors wheels turning as he says his lines. He moves about the screen as the character never the actor portraying the character. Pitt is good enough to win, well liked enough to win, and at a point in his career when Academy members start to believe it is his time. So while I still champion Clooney, Pitt is in the race for real.