In his latest film, the Coen brothers caper Burn Before Reading, actor Brad Pitt plays a flamboyant, dim-witted physical trainer entwined in extortion plot with an ex-CIA agent (John Malkovich). Appearing in tight red workout clothes, his hair frosted within an inch of its life, Pitt’s wackadoodle character is at once a parody of the bright, boyish face and Adonis-like physique that’s catapulted the star to tabloid-baiting fame. Of course, that should come as no surprise: Like the equally beauteous Johnny Depp, Pitt appears to demonstratively choose roles of contrasting appeal. Yet unlike Depp, who works hard to stoke his eccentricity, the 44-year-old Pitt doesn’t bother mustering any particular image—the Missiouri-bred actor just effortlessly comes off as a dude, albeit an über one.
And that’s exactly what he played in his breakout role in 1991’s Thelma & Louise. As a twangy, corn-fed drifter who seduces Geena Davis’ angsty housewife, he brought scene-stealing male charisma to the movie. (Bit of trivia: William Baldwin was originally up for the part, but dropped out to do Backdraft.) In an industry where branding oneself as a movie star, that is a predictable, accessible big-screen personality, can reward you with consistent box-office thumbs up (think Will Smith, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Cruise before he went loco on Oprah’s couch), Pitt (the catnip) had found his niche—but was remiss to cultivate it.
The actor gravitated towards grimier or idiosyncratic roles. For every benign drama—say, the fly-fishing period film A River Runs Through It (1992)—he’d sign up for two in which he played, oh, a creepy, white-trash serial killer (1993’s Kalifornia) or a hapless stoner (1993’s True Romance). His challenging excursions from the mainstream won accolades but rarely grossed much. Still, they did calibrate Hollywood minds into thinking of him as a risk-taking actor—with the two sensibilities culminating in his role as a sexy reluctant bloodsucker opposite Tom Cruise in 1994’s Interview With a Vampire.
Therein lay the paradox of Pitt: The harder he tried to tested his dramatic mettle with weightier projects such as Ed Zwick’s Western Legends of the Fall (1994), the more those soulful efforts enhanced his aesthetic allure to women. His final rite of pop-culture passage: People magazine named him Sexiest Man Alive in 1995 (and again five years later). The actor, in kind, began to straddle both sides of his fanbase. He courted women with earthier projects like 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet and 1998’s Meet Joe Black; the ladies for the most part demurred and preferred him as a dreamy tabloid presence—the significant other to girls-next-door like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston. His enduring bro-mance with men, meanwhile, ignited with a series of disturbing pictures such as 1995’s Twelve Monkeys (in which he played a twitchy metal-ward patient), plus his David Fincher one-two punch of 1995’s Se7en (a detective to all things grisly) and 1999’s Fight Club (and aggro soap salesman).
Personally, Pitt proved a mellow foil to his extreme characters: You never heard stories of Pitt going too method, or fighting with his costars, or partying at hoity-toity clubs, or sparring with photographers. Heck, the guy even admits to being an architecture geek. In the 21st century, Pitts two sides have somewhat merged into becoming another Brad Pitt––the movie star everyone thought he was. Whether as a charming cool-as-ice con man in Ocean’s Eleven (2001) or as a buff-and-bronzed demigod in Troy (2004), Pitt seemed to embody the suave sexuality the public believed he had and had repeatedly voted for.
This year, Forbes magazine ranked Pitt, who in the past year starred in the hits Babel and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the tenth most powerful celebrity, pulling in an estimated $20 million a picture. But his influence is twofold. As one of the most photographed stars in the world, he and girlfriend Angelina Jolie collaterally reinvented themselves as sex symbols who were Samaritans. Mia Farrow, Richard Gere, Jane Fonda—few commanded the culture-shifting power of the baby-toting Brangelina, who in Namibia, India, Louisiana, have turned paparazzi into globetrotters and made enviable, and much mimicked, adventures out of humanitarian missions. What better metaphor for Pitt’s impact than when he and Jolie appeared with their twins on the cover of People magazine for more than $14 million (the most expensive magazine cover in history), then donated the dough to a children’s charity? You see, Brad Pitt isn’t simply a star anymore—he’s sort of transcended that.