#7 — Brad Pitt as J.D. in Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)

Brad Pitt was an immensely frustrating actor through much of the nineties. He had obvious movie star gifts; not only his looks (on more than one occasion, I’ve been part of audiences that included distinctive, helpless, audible groans of desire when he took off his shirt), but an immense natural charisma that popped off the screen. More than any of his peers, he had the capability to take full command of a scene with an irresistible ease. Perversely, he usually did the best he could to disguise these talents, apparently in the service of being a serious actor. His turn in Martin Brest’s dire 1998 endurance test Meet Joe Black is a perfect example of what he could do, and what he too often chose to do instead. His first scene, in which he charms a woman in a coffee shop, is a little triumph of casually disarming acting. It’s not just the damsel he’s winning over. The entire audience is under his sway. Too bad that guy gets hit by a bus, replaced by a chirruping animatron meant to illuminate precious humanity by staring quizzically at everything like a dimwitted dog in a calculus class. His acting becomes solemn, fussy, and tripped up by quirks and a creeping self-reverence. The first part of the performance has the irresistible appeal of a guy who doesn’t worry about impressing anyone; the rest is slick with the flop sweat of a guy who worries about nothing else. Pitt expended so much effort through the decade trying to prove himself a worthy thespian that he disregarded his inborn skills.

Basically, I think he got it right in his first significant film role.

Pitt is the dangerous beefcake in the fierce feminist fable Thelma & Louise. Penned by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott, the film is an agitated paean to the primacy of female friendship in the face of a patriarchal world that’s at best indifferent to their needs, at worst callously dismissive of their hardship. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, respectively, play the title characters, two women who have embarked on a playful road trip together, only to find themselves fugitives when an act of self defense leaves them standing over a corpse in a honkytonk parking lot. Their initially tentative stab at unleashing their inner spirits become a full-on unleashing of the soul as they gradually embrace their new outlaw status. The girls’ vacation is seen in a whole new light when illuminated by the exploding tanker truck driven by a lewd drive-by harasser.

Part of that release of feminine id involves Thelma engaging in her own sexual conquest. Enter Brad Pitt. He plays J.D., a drawling, cowboy hat adorned charmer. He exudes the complicated calculation of a cad, but it’s shaded with a joyful effusiveness, a sense of chummy solidarity that pulls the mark in as a willing participant in the con. His personality is reflected by his credo when he perpetrates robberies, which he explains to Thelma as he gives her a demonstration of his technique, “Well, I’ve always believed that if done properly, armed robbery doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience.” This is Pitt’s best scene in the movie, squirreled away in a hotel room with a woman staring at him with lustful adoration as he performs for her, using a hair dryer as a stand-in for a pistol while he runs through a well-practiced monologue designed to put people at ease as he swipes their money. He’s a grand showman in this scene, the hotshot whose finest moments come when he’s graciously easing an audience from their seats into his outstretched palm.

Naturally, turning on the charm before he absconds with ill-gotten funds is exactly what he’s doing with Thelma. When she leaves him alone in the room, he vanishes with the bundle of cash that Louise has just secured, an act that gets him hauled in before the law enforcement officials trying to track down the women. He sullen slams around his hat and tries out little bursts of defiance before finally being humbled before the stern detective played by Harvey Keitel. There’s a hint here, too, of the different career path Pitt might have followed. Cast as the flawed golden boy in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It, Pitt was essentially the director’s stand-in, playing the role that would have been perfectly suited to Redford in his youthful stardom. That didn’t pigeonhole him, but it did give him a track to follow, playing those Redford parts, the men that life came to a little too easily, with even nature itself often opening up to welcome them in like Ali Baba’s cavern quarry, their very bearing serving as the necessary incantation. These roles don’t actually suit Pitt well; he disappears in them, only his physical beauty remaining like hazy shimmers of blazing hot sun. The scene in the interrogation room demonstrates that Pitt would have been better off following in the filmography footsteps of Redford’s good friend Paul Newman, playing the sort of guy who gets by on an edgier brand of charm and defined by a brutish perseverance the continues well past the point it’s dawned on him that he’s in over his head. There are some distant echoes of Hud Bannon to Pitt’s wriggling defeat in this scene, and it makes for a solid, satisfying fit.

Pitt’s surge to stardom gave him opportunities and the rare Hollywood privilege of being highly selective, but it also confined him in ways that were sometimes difficult to see. It gave him an automatic gravitational pull in movies that made it harder for him to slip in and truly surprise people, which in turn led to needlessly fussy, showy material like his performance in 12 Monkeys being overpraised just because they were noticeably different. There’s a better route for Pitt to follow. It’s all there, already mapped out in Thelma & Louise.

    Previously…

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island

19 thoughts on “Greatish Performances #7

  1. I love your lists, so I’m sorry to say that this article about Brad Pitt is so insulting towards him. The only thing it is is a big lecture about how he should only do roles that focus on his charm and good looks. He’s an amazing actor with a heck of a lot more talent than half the people on this list. The others get compliment after compliment, while it seems to me the only thing you’re saying about Brad is that he’s nothing but a pretty face.

    1. Your criticism of my implied, unintended criticism is probably fair. I absolutely don’t mean to argue that he’s only a pretty face, and it’s actually his charisma (which really has nothing do with his looks) that I think is his greatest natural strength. The comparison to Paul Newman isn’t one I make lightly. Newman was as handsome as any actor who ever strode across the screen, but he also burned with intensity and a real sense of danger, sometimes to others, mostly to himself. I may have got overly tangled up in the career assessment angle to this piece, losing sight a bit from the main purpose: to praise the work at hand instead of to grouse about missed opportunities.

      This also goes back to the original intro to this series in which I made the point that I wasn’t necessarily picking the best performance from each actor featured, nor the best performance from the film covered. These are simply the performances that, at the time, I had some interest in writing about. I could have easily written about Pitt in any number of other films, including the mentioned A River Runs Through It, or Oceans’s Eleven. I could have easily sung his praises in underappreciated films such as The Mexican or The Devil’s Own. Hell, a few months later, I regretted I’d already written about a Pitt performance because I’d love to devote one of these to his amazing turn in Moneyball (and just might at some point).

      Anyway, I appreciate the feedback. Truly. I’m glad for these to be opening salvos in an ongoing discussion about film rather than some definitive statement. Any comment that makes me think more deeply about the film and the performance (and what I wrote in the first place) is welcome. And your comment did all of those things.

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