Brad Pitt: From college drop-out to Hollywood icon
“I’ve always been at war with myself, for right or wrong.” – Brad Pitt
American actor Brad Pitt has established himself as one of the biggest names in Hollywood, rising to the top of the film industry with stellar performances in cult-classics like David Fincher’s psychological thriller Fight Club as well as recent hits like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time inHollywood. With several accolades to his name, including Golden Globe wins and Academy Awards, on his 57th birthday, we take a look at the trajectory of Brad Pitt’s meteoric rise.
Born in Oklahoma, Pitt was raised as a Southern Baptist, and his family eventually moved to Springfield, Missouri, which he later described as “Mark Twain country, Jesse James country.” In high school, Pitt was an active member of sports teams and participated in debates and other public speaking activities. After graduating from school, he wanted to become an art director and took up journalism, with a focus on advertising, at the University of Missouri, but he grew increasingly disillusioned as the end of the course drew nearer. Pitt felt attracted to the film industry, claiming that cinema opened “a portal into different worlds” for him. Enthused by his new creative desire, he decided to quit college and move to Los Angeles during his final semester when he was just two weeks short of graduating with a college degree, choosing to try his luck at making it in the film business. When his parents asked about his hasty decision, he told them that he had moved to California in order to study at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena but, in actual fact, he took acting lessons instead and spent several months as the driver of a limousine. After his early struggles, Pitt landed an agent when he went on stage as his classmate’s partner for an audition which was initially meant for her.
Under the tutelage of Roy London, Pitt’s acting career started in 1987 with uncredited parts in films like No Way Out and, soon after, he made his television debut that same year in NBC’s Another World. In an interview, Pitt explained the influence of Roy on his life at that time: “I sat in on a few classes, and they just felt a little guru-ish and just didn’t feel right to me. Until I met Roy,” he recalled. “He was tough, lovely, compassionate, tough. I give him full credit for pointing me in this direction…I learned so much from that man. I miss him.”
In 1988, slowly beginning to build a reputation in the entertainment business, Pitt landed his first leading film role in the Yugoslavian–American co-production The Dark Side of the Sun. With one major credit under his belt, Pitt was resting on his laurels and, the next year, was cast as a drug addict pimp in NBC television movie Too Young to Die?, a performance for which he was praised by critics. However, despite signs of early success, it wasn’t until Ridley Scott’s 1991 crime adventure Thelma & Louise that Pitt was thrust into the spotlight. The offbeat film about a road journey that featured Brad Pitt as J.D., a drifter with an unabashed cowboy spirit. This is where it all started for Pitt, Thelma & Louise established him as an actor of immense sex appeal, an unfortunate label that he has struggled to get rid of. He managed to command the screen in the few scenes he was in and gave the world a glimpse of his potential.
Pitt followed it up with a few lacklustre films like The Favour and Johnny Suede in 1992, but he hit the jackpot again with Robert Redford’s drama A River Runs Through It. Pitt delivered a stand-out performance and justified Redford’s faith in him who said that he had cast the young actor because “[he] had an inner conflict that was very interesting” to him. With momentum fast-growing, Pitt would go on to receive his first Golden Globe nomination in the Best Actor category for his starring role alongside Anthony Hopkins in the 1994 historical western Legends of the Fall.
Several critically acclaimed films followed, including David Fincher’s 1995 Biblical thriller Se7en and Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi thriller 12 Monkeys for which he won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor and received his first Oscar nomination. Pitt would go on to cement his position as one of the top actors of his generation with his iconic performance in Fincher’s 1999 masterpiece Fight Club where he played Tyler Durden, a chaotic rebel who inspires a revolution by injecting fleeting scenes from porn videos into animated films meant for children and urinating in the food that his catering service prepares for the opulent sections of society. Although the film has become a cult classic now, it did not impress critics at the time of its release. Pitt also starred in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000), the follow-up to his 1998 hit Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He was brilliant as Mickey O’Neil, an Irish traveller who is also a more-than competent boxer with a devilish side to his character. Pitt proved that he could handle comical roles with equal ease in this morbid black comedy.
In the first decade of this century, Pitt reinforced his portfolio with some of the best films to have been made during that time. Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 blockbuster heist film Ocean’s Eleven featured Brad Pitt as Robert ‘Rusty’ Ryan, a role which he would reprise in the later instalments of the franchise. He played the right-hand man of Danny Ocean who is played by Pitt’s close friend George Clooney. The sex-god like the on-screen status of Brad Pitt is deconstructed in Ocean’s Eleven, a project in which he is shown eating fast food in multiple scenes and where there is no pressure on him to fulfil such expectations. Further adding to this growing sense of Hollywood sex symbol, he starred in the historical drama Troy as the mythical figure of Achilles.
Now at the peak of his powers, Pitt picked up a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 drama Babel and, in 2007, he played Jesse James in what has come to be counted among the most beautiful and important films of the 21st century: Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. A sad and scary performance by Pitt, he made the character of Jesse James a highly unpredictable one, capable of sudden violence. He was also a part of Fincher’s experimental adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008, where he played a man who is born old and ages backwards. Pitt brilliantly captured the loneliness of someone who cannot grow old with his loved ones and becomes increasingly estranged from them.
The latter part of Pitt’s career has been just as eventful, if not more. He won critical acclaim for his performance in Terrence Malick’s beautiful 2011 drama The Tree of Life which is set in the 1950s and follows the story of a Midwestern family and the complicated relationship between Jack (played by Sean Penn) and his father (Brad Pitt). Pitt gracefully portrayed the archetypal role of the 20th century American patriarch with all the complex nuances attached to it. Shortly after, he was a part of the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave as well as Hollywood blockbusters like the zombie-apocalyptic thriller World War Z. His performance as Billy Beane in Bennet Miller’s Moneyball also struck audiences and critics alike who watched him effortlessly pull off the cocky and carefree character.
However, the highest point of his acting career came recently when he finally won his first Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category for his work in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Pitt played the role of Cliff Booth, a loyal and dedicated employee to a washed-out actor, Rick Dalton who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It is an authentic and honest portrayal of a man who is struggling to make it in Hollywood but is also laid back when confronted by the absurdities of the film industry, something which Pitt can relate to because of his own early experiences. He also picked up other accolades at the Golden Globe Awards, BAFTA Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and Critics’ Choice Movie Awards for his brilliant performance.
Apart from acting, Pitt has worked for and founded humanitarian organisations like the Make It Right Foundation which helped rehabilitate residents after Hurricane Katrina. He is also a patron of organisations which are leading the fight to end AIDS, poverty and displacement of refugees on a global level. He is set to star alongside Emma Stone in Damien Chazelle’s Babylon as well as David Leitch’s upcoming American action thriller Bullet Train. Looking back on his role as an artist, Pitt said:
“I think it’s just an amazing thing we get to do. We’re so complex; we’re mysteries to ourselves; we’re difficult to each other. And then here’s this storytelling that reminds us we’re all the same. I consider it such a privilege.“