On one hand, that’s great for Brad Pitt. After a three-decade career, the 56-year-old actor remains a unifying fixture, an A-list movie star who brings joy to many. It’s also great for us, because honestly, we need a distraction from the onslaught of stress-inducing news about politics, climate change and other disasters.
On the other — well. The Aniston pictures have a strange undertone, because as you may remember, she and Pitt were still married when rumblings of his famously controversial courtship with Angelina Jolie began. And Pitt is single after a very messy split from Jolie in 2016 that resulted in some ugly headlines.
The glare of the award season spotlight can easily darken, prompting minor to severe backlash against any given front-runner. Sure, there have been critical comments online. Some have tried to remind people of the Aniston-Jolie backstory, while others didn’t care for an eyebrow-raising joke from his SAG Awards speech that compared his failed marriages to his role in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”: “A guy who gets high, takes his shirt off and doesn’t get on with his wife. It’s a big stretch.” (It’s also implied in the movie that Pitt’s character, a laid-back stuntman, may have murdered his wife.)
Yet mostly, when it comes to Brad Pitt . . . well, few people seem to really care about anything negative. They just want to root for him. How did he escape the scrutiny?
It could be because he has such good will in the industry, operating behind the scenes as a producer for acclaimed movies such as best picture winners “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight.” Or, as celebrity oracle Elaine Lui wrote on Lainey Gossip when she dissected his SAG speech, “What’s the lesson here? A beautiful man can say anything.”
Or it might have something to do with our own psyches. For some deep-seated reason, people cling to the idea of Brad Pitt as they think they know him — or, though it’s impossible to know what goes on behind closed doors, as they want to know him: the strikingly attractive, humble Missouri native who just happened to become a superstar and has made serious mistakes but is trying to change. Maybe we just yearn for simpler times, and in our minds, that time is represented by a tanned and sculpted Pitt at his peak, named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” not once, but twice.
“It has been so surreal — it’s like there’s this nostalgia for some kind of perceived stability from the 1990s when everything made sense,” said Christopher Schaberg, who co-edited a collection of essays that analyzed Pitt. “I think there’s a really deep and weird expression of longing here. . . . We forget this is Hollywood, this is a celebrity, this is a lot of makeup and camera work. There’s a really weird urge to express authenticity around Brad Pitt.”
Schaberg, an English professor at Loyola University New Orleans, remembers when he brought up a potential book about Pitt. He was half-joking, but his colleagues loved the idea: "Deconstructing Brad Pitt" was released in 2014, co-edited by Robert Bennett.
“One of the things that’s always intrigued me is the way we want to see him as this idealized white male figure, but so many of his roles are self-destructive,” Schaberg said. But whether he’s actually destructive in “Fight Club” or falling into a serial killer’s trap in “Se7en” or playing a breezy criminal in “Ocean’s 11,” it doesn’t matter. Even if it’s the Hollywood machine shaping a narrative with magazine covers and talk show appearances, “Brad Pitt is just a safe, neutral icon to kind of rally around right now.”
Not too long ago, that didn’t seem as if it would be the case. Pitt and Jolie’s sudden breakup in the fall of 2016 dominated the news cycle as reports emerged about an alleged altercation between Pitt and one of their children on the family’s plane. The Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services was called, and Pitt was cleared after an investigation. But the situation devolved into warring stories about Pitt’s alcohol issues, child custody and financial battles as Pitt and Jolie worked through their divorce, which reportedly still is not finalized.
Pitt essentially went into hiding until the following spring, when he sat for a GQ cover story to promote Netflix’s “War Machine.” He opened up about how his drinking became a problem; the pain of divorce and the call to child services; and how jarring it was for his kids to “suddenly have their family ripped apart.”
“It wasn’t the easiest conversation to go into, but he was willing to,” said author and journalist Michael Paterniti, who wrote the story. Pitt also revealed that before he got sober, he hadn’t gone a day since college where he didn’t drink or smoke.
“He felt like he had to explain himself,” Paterniti said. “It was his way of acknowledging that his behavior was not commensurate with who he wanted to be as a person.” Pitt agreed to speak candidly about any topic for a lengthy Q&A, and there was no publicist in the room. “It felt like he had to reset the conversation around himself.”
Although Paterniti remembers some critics “didn’t buy into it,” the quotes were picked up by hundreds of publications and websites, which had a generally positive tone. Paterniti theorizes that the simple act of Pitt appearing to be candid continues to draw people to him; he has now opened up in multiple interviews about his sobriety or attending Alcoholics Anonymous. There’s something enticing about that level of honesty, Paterniti said, especially from someone who “happens to be Brad Pitt.”
As Pitt strolls merrily along to his likely first Oscar win (this is his fourth acting nomination), his many acceptance speeches have also reminded the public: Brad Pitt is funny.
At the Golden Globes, he said, “I wanted to bring my mom but I couldn’t, because any woman I stand next to, they say I’m dating.” He declared he would put his SAG trophy in his Tinder profile. At the National Board of Review gala, he explained his goals were “to be happy, stay healthy, not get into a financial situation where I have to do ‘Ocean’s 14.’ ” At the BAFTAs, co-star Margot Robbie read a speech in his absence that said he would name his trophy “Harry” because “he is really excited about bringing it back to the States with him.” (In the audience, Prince William and Duchess Catherine cracked up.)
Leslie Bennetts, a longtime Vanity Fair journalist who authored the famous Aniston profile post-divorce in which the actress proclaimed Pitt had a “sensitivity chip” missing, said Pitt’s knack for humor, self-deprecation and candidness has played a key role in how he has shaped his perception in the past several years, especially after his split with Jolie.
“That could have been a career-ending image if it gained traction, especially in the current climate — but instead, whether it’s a genuine reflection of his real personality or handling this in a smarter way than most men, he’s defused the whole thing,” Bennetts said. “He has done something that is very rare with men in public life, which is own his mistakes. Fully. He’s said, ‘I had things to deal with and I dealt with them.’”
Bennetts vividly recalls the overwhelming interest in the Pitt-Aniston split, and wasn’t surprised by the extreme reaction to the SAG Awards photos of the two exes sharing a nice moment backstage. The images led to a deluge of headlines, generally along the theme of “Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt’s Hug at the 2020 SAG Awards Is the Only Thing That Matters” (E! Online published that one). The response, Bennetts said, proved the “incredible persistence of our sort of fairy tale fantasies that are as simple-minded as those of a typical rom-com.”
Ultimately, it goes back to why these celebrity stories hit a nerve: People see themselves in them. They want to believe that a couple who seemed like soul mates can reunite even after a devastating breakup. They want to believe that Pitt, despite the wealth and fame and scandals, is just a nice guy from the Midwest who has never forgotten his roots. And even if people had issues with Pitt’s past behavior, they believe in his redemption.
“Brad has handled this awards season masterfully,” said Kate Coyne, People magazine’s editorial director of entertainment. “Even if you haven’t seen the movie, but you heard him make these ongoing jokes about Tinder profiles and his much-remarked upon personal life — he’s been funny, he’s been charming. You look at him and go, ‘That is a movie star.’”