Why Brad Pitt Should Not Win An Oscar
First, let me say, I have nothing against Brad Pitt personally. He's a sexy actor — one of the sexiest. Unlike many similar stars with the Midas touch, Pitt has in the last decade or so shown himself to be an activist committed to combatting poverty and injustice, and in interviews he comes across as an all around pretty good guy.
Nor do I have anything against Pitt as a movie star, historically or currently. He's collaborated with directors I like (David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, The Coen Brothers), and belongs — I believe — in most of the roles he takes, including his Golden Gobe- and SAG-nominated performance as Oakland Atheletics GM Billy Beane in Moneyball. On January 24 I expect to hear Pitt's name called as one of the top five performances by a male actor in a leading role, by the Academy; it will be his third nomination. This news will not upset me — I thought Moneyball was smart and engaging, and Pitt did a fine job as Beane. But if Pitt wins the award in February, I will not be happy, because I don't think his work on the film is outstanding, and it doesn't qualfiy as an achievement.
Allow me to explain. If cast correctly, Pitt adds something to a role that few actors can. First off, he's really, really famous. That makes him suitable for movies that need either (a) a reason for audiences to pay money to see it or (b) an actor who is believable as an intellectual underdog. Moneyball, directed by the oh-so-cerebral Bennett Miller and written by the screenwriter's screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, needed both. At the start of the movie, Beane is a failed baseball player who's also failing at managing — until he meets Jonah Hill's Yale-educated math genius, who teaches Beane how to use rationality to build a game-winning team. "It's hard to imagine anyone but Mr. Pitt in the role," Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times, and she's right — but not because Pitt is such a good actor. It's because he fits the bill of a former golden boy athlete who needs a smarter person to point him in the right direction.
Fitting the bill is not acting; it's casting. A few years ago, when he was generating Oscar buzz for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I argued that the effects generated by what many people were calling Pitt's performance were actually due to factors that were outside his control. I believed that in Button, Pitt was more of a special effect — like a fake helicopter explosion — than an agent in crafting the film toward its finished state. It's not that he did nothing, but what he did was so marginal to the film's overall success that it seemed silly to award him an Oscar for it.
I'm saying essentially the same thing about Moneyball, except I think the credit for Pitt's portrayal of Beane belongs less in the hands of the casting director and more with Sorkin, the writer, who as far as I know had probably very little control over who would play Beane. Sorkin, who deservedly won the best adapted screenplay Oscar last year for The Social Network, is a famous dialoguist. (Multiple Emmy-winning episodes of The West Wing will agree with me.) Sorkin's script makes Beane, a real life character written into the pages of a nonfiction book, into a towering human figure teetering on a precipice between success and failure. This on-edge quality is achieved both on a macro level by the architecture of the plot elements (flying buttresses of hope brought down by disappointment) as well as on a micro level by the words Pitt and other characters speak. "There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there's fifty feet of crap. Then there's us," Beane tells his scouting crew, pausing where there are periods, making spitting noises because there's tobacco tucked in his cheeks. Essentially doing what the script tells him to — nothing more, nothing less.
"But isn't that what actors do?" you ask. "Read the script, say their lines?" Yes. Good actors read scripts and say lines. Pitt is a good actor. But great actors — those deserving of acting's highest honor — kick things up a notch. They dazzle us. They surprise us at every turn. They pluck out our eyes and glue them to their costumes. We recognize them as flawed, like ourselves — or immortal, as we wish to be. Once they've won over our hearts we offer them our brains, our allegiances; we carry them around with us after the credits have rolled. About them we can say more than "It's hard to imagine anyone else in this role." We say, instead, "I imagine myself differently because I saw this performance."
I'd say Pitt's buddy, George Clooney, came closest this year to that kind of brilliance, in The Descendants — and he's someone who's always solid but not often transcendent. I suppose it's a much stronger year for actresses, with Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams, in The Iron Lady and My Week with Marilyn, each having made the most out of mediocre writing. Perhaps a better way of honoring the year's best performances would be to award trophies to the year's top four, regardless of gender or "supporting" status, so as to minimize the number of off-year handouts — as Pitt's Oscar for Moneyball would surely be.
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