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What We See When We Watch Brad Pitt

No movie star has greater chemistry with the audience than Pitt. It often appears he’s watching us, watching him. In 2019’s ‘Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood’ and ‘Ad Astra,’ there was something both reassuring and challenging in his reciprocal gaze.

Sony Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Brad Pitt is the star who watches you back. For 30 years now, we’ve been gazing at him, and for 30 years, in movie after movie, he’s been gazing back at us—sometimes with sadness, more often with amusement, but always through the corner of his eye, so that none of his costars can see it.

Like Humphrey Bogart, he’s most effective when he’s most still, when all the movement and energy of a film can whirl around him. But where Bogart’s stillness is a mark of the deadly high stakes of a scene—he’s still because he’s smart, because he’s waiting for his enemies to make a mistake, because he’s looking for an edge in the existential game that will prove his worth as a man—Pitt’s stillness is both stranger and gentler. It’s a mark of the fact that he knows something the other characters don’t, he’s registered something they haven’t, and what he knows makes him hesitate slightly. He feels, if anything, a little sorry for the other characters; it seems a little unfair for him to press his advantage over them. Think of the patient, almost tender smile with which he greets the would-be Manson killers in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, before his character, tripping on an acid cigarette, tells his pit bull to rip them to pieces. He can see us, while the murderers, Nazis, casino guards, zombies, and gunslingers around him can’t, and this gives him an entirely different perspective on the story.

It’s for this reason that Pitt seldom has truly intense chemistry with another actor. His real chemistry is always with the audience. The secret relationship he enjoys with the people in the theater, the tiny glint of conspiracy that sparks between us and him, places him on a different plane from the other people on the screen.

In 2019, a year when information itself seemed broken, one-sided, and fragmentary, when so much of what we saw on screens was designed to manipulate us in the service of an undisclosed agenda, there was something both reassuring and challenging in Pitt’s reciprocal gaze. He starred in two movies this year, each of them, in some way, about what it means to watch. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino, was about the movies themselves; Ad Astra, directed by James Gray, was, in part, about the effects of surveillance on the surveilled. Both films shed light on Pitt’s nature as an actor, and in both films, his calm, accommodating face offered a counterpoint to the frenzied world outside the theater.

Brad Pitt’s quality as a movie star has always been curiously elusive. You can’t describe him, as you can most stars, by describing the social fantasy he represents. You can say Tom Cruise embodies the American fantasy of the hard-charging winner, George Clooney embodies the cosmopolitan fantasy of the suave man of the world, Bruce Willis embodies the blue-collar fantasy of the everyman hero, Robert Downey Jr. embodies the roguish fantasy of the fast-talking rascal who gets away with things other people can’t, and so forth. There’s no similar archetype underwriting Pitt’s appeal. He never seems to belong fully to the kind of social world in which fantasies of this type are meaningful. He’s too singular, too separate—and because he takes on such a variety of roles, he even seems to undercut the idea that movie stars should be in the archetype business.

Beauty has something to do with this. Pitt’s sheer good looks have made him, far more than any other male actor of his generation, a figure of dreamy objectification. And this marks him as different, as divine in the Hollywood sense, meaning first you have the power to start a production company, then you have the power to cast yourself as Achilles. (He did both.)

It’s striking, though, that for all his status as a legendary heartthrob, and despite his having had quite possibly the most talked-about love life of any man on earth since the mid-1990s, he’s rarely been persuasive in conventional romantic parts. When he has, it’s because his costar has worked doubly hard to register his filmic appeal on a human level; Cate Blanchett, meeting him with a coolly adoring intelligence in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, might as well have been holding popcorn in their scenes together. Angelina Jolie, called on to show that they were falling in love as she traipsed with him through the carnival scene in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, made herself so radiantly alive that she lit him up like another klieg light. Often, though, playing romantic longing leaves him looking affably mystified. As the tragic hero opposite Marion Cotillard in Allied, he winced his way through the third act as though losing one’s soulmate was like being a parent at an anxious child’s saxophone recital. You never feel that the romance touches his essence.

Strangely, considering that he’s one of the most charismatic male movie stars in film history, that essence comes out most easily in his more off-center parts. It’s hard to imagine Cruise or Clooney playing a sidekick, but Pitt thrives as one; think of him in the Ocean’s movies, chuckling over nachos as Clooney labors at the business of moving the plot. In Neil Jordan’s Interview With the Vampire, he plays the sad undead subordinate to Cruise’s grandiose vampire, and for everything bizarre and ill-advised about the movie, there is something essentially right about this ordering—if they were undead, you feel, Cruise would romp around trying to be the most vampiric vampire who ever caressed a neck, while Pitt would follow along with more reluctance. Pitt doesn’t have to be at the center of the frame to draw your attention, and he doesn’t have to drive narrative events to seem important. He seems just as important, and more purely magnetic, when he’s off to one side, watching, assessing, not interfering unless he has to. And the converse of this is that he never seems more integrated into a narrative than when he’s on screen alone. Most actors need other actors to bring a story to life, but Pitt, sitting by himself in the car in Moneyball, somehow concentrates the entire script into one look. When he’s alone and someone else comes in, the effect is not intensification but dilution. What more could an audience need than to hold his gaze?

It’s that sense, the sense he gives the audience that we’re in this thing together, that he’s uniquely gifted at conjuring; it’s the magic of his appeal. He excels at playing sidekicks because, of everyone in a movie, sidekicks are most like members of the audience: They’re in the story but also watching it. And he excels at being on screen by himself because he’s never truly by himself: The shared privacy that opens up between him and the viewers when they’re alone together is the distillation of what he offers as a star.

This is a sneaky-weird profile for a mainstream movie idol, but Pitt’s persona is sneaky weird, at once deeply familiar and always slightly, mysteriously off. You can see why he’s been a beacon to so many abstruse and oddball directors throughout his career—financing, sure, but also the chance to exploit that bit of strangeness in his idealized Midwestern normalcy, that single fleck of gold in an otherwise perfectly blue eye. If you’re David Fincher or Terry Gilliam or Terrence Malick, it allows for some curious effects. Tom Cruise is infinitely more like Tyler Durden than Pitt is, on the surface, but Cruise would have been a disaster in that part; all the visceral revulsion at the heart of Fight Club comes from watching Pitt play someone loud and gross and kinetic—against type, in other words, but not visibly against type. These pairings don’t always pay off. Pitt’s Oscar-nominated performance in Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys looks, 24 years on, like a very ’90s bag of prestige-seeking movie-star tics. But when they do, as in Malick’s The Tree of Life, his quality of askew familiarity can illuminate a great movie’s depths.

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood was released July 26, a few weeks after the president of the United States called into Fox & Friends to declare, falsely, that his border wall “is going up very rapidly.” Ad Astra was released September 20, the same day Netflix’s CEO said that, despite reports to the contrary, it wouldn’t abandon its established binge-release model to copy the weekly-drip schedule for new shows adopted by Disney+. Neither news item had anything to do with either movie, except to the extent that they both suggest that going to the movies at all in 2019 represented a particular form of escape—not only from life, that is, but from forms of escape nearer to hand. And in fact both films explored the idea of escape and its costs, Once Upon a Time through its focus on the film industry, and Ad Astra through its focus on the exploration of space. Neither film was perfect for the moment; while Once Upon a Time was charmingly fatuous and Ad Astra was gorgeous and maybe profound, both were a little too complacently focused on the problems of middle-aged white men to represent 2019 in full. But Pitt’s performances resonated beyond the films that contained them. In part, this was because both roles were so well-suited to his curious identity as a star.

In Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, Pitt plays Cliff Booth, a washed-up stuntman now working as a sort of chauffeur-handyman for his best friend, a washed-up actor played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s another sidekick role, in other words, in which Pitt can serve as our faintly bemused surrogate and co-conspirator while DiCaprio tries to save his career in late-1960s Hollywood. Coming after a stretch during which Pitt seemed, for some reason, to feel most comfortable playing gruff military leaders (a general in War Machine, a tank commander in Fury; not his best mode, full stop), it’s a welcome return to peak sideline-gazing form. In Ad Astra, he plays Roy McBride, an astronaut who travels to the fringes of the solar system in search of his father, played by Tommy Lee Jones. The course of the long journey requires him to spend enormous amounts of time alone on screen, gazing out at the emptiness (that is, at us) while delivering solemn monologues via voice-over. The wry, cool-headed outsider winking at us while Rome burned represented one pole of Pitt’s persona; the mournful astronaut murmuring to us from out near Saturn represented the other. In one role, Pitt, one of the most famous people on the planet, made perfect sense as a man on the outer rim of the entertainment world, someone who’s not a loser only because he doesn’t think he is. In the other role, he made perfect sense as a man literally lost among the stars.

Both Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood and Ad Astra were shot on 35mm film, and it occurs to me that this coincidence might be the best way to understand what Brad Pitt meant in 2019. This was the year when everything felt like television. Politics was TV; government was TV; Apple and every social media company wanted to make or emulate TV (Instagram already mostly is TV); the biggest entertainment news was the launch of new TV streaming services; even movies, with their ever-increasing emphasis on franchises and seriality and open-ended multiplatform story expansion, were TV; arguably the greatest living film director, Martin Scorsese, criticized this state of affairs, defending cinema, then released a major new work of cinema more or less straight to TV; acclaimed novelists went to work as TV writers; global movie stars looked for parts on TV shows. Not all of this was bad news, but collectively, it was a glut.

Amid all this television, Brad Pitt gave us the movies. Pitt—an actor who’s spent less time in Marvel productions than his former costars Robert Redford and Anthony Hopkins, an actor who’s never yoked his career to a franchise (unless you count the Ocean’s films, a franchise so ad hoc and casual it makes The Pink Panther look like Justice League)—was a living reminder of another way of looking, the kind movie stars used to compel: slower, more attentive, more magical, devoted to one image at a time. The secret of Pitt’s stardom has always been to make watching seem two-sided, to make watching seem like a more alive version of itself. It might not sound like much, but when the world is coming at you on three screens at once and two of them are lying, there’s something restorative in returning to the old romance of the image—in the glamor of sustained attention in the dark.