What kind of birthday present do you get the man who has everything, including Angelina Jolie and a gaggle of kids? About the only thing Brad Pitt may lack, as he turns 50 today (December 18), is the full measure of critical respect he’s long deserved. As a ridiculously handsome leading man, consort to La Jolie, pal to George Clooney, Pitt has long seemed to get by on his looks, charisma, and connections, not his talent. That’s neither fair nor true, but it’s the perception.
In fact, he’s a crafty character actor trapped in the body of a leading man, an actor whose performances are full of unpredictable, offbeat, human choices. He’s a chameleon who’s worked with his looks or against them, depending on what’s advantageous at the time. And to prove it, he’s been nominated for four Oscars (three for acting, one for producing Moneyball). In 2013, he proved himself equally credible as a hero trying to save the world from zombies in the summer spectacle World War Z and in a small but pivotal role as a laborer forced to put his abolitionist ideals to the test in 12 Years a Slave. So, to give Pitt the credit he deserves as an actor, here are 10 of his best performances.
Happy birthday, Brad.
Thelma & Louise (1991)
The then-unknown Pitt had only a few brief scenes as J.D., a slow-talking hitchhiker who knows how to fill out a pair of jeans, but he made them count. The grinning charmer didn’t just steal Thelma’s heart (and her cash), he also stole the movie. You can see him literally becoming a star before your eyes.
A River Runs Through It (1992)
As golden-boy Paul Maclean, the idol of his bookish younger brother Norman (Craig Sheffer), Pitt resembles no one so much as the young, gleaming Robert Redford. So it’s no wonder the older Redford (who directed and narrated the picture) cast him. He’s a lovable bad boy, but he’s also an artist with a fishing pole, clearly touched by grace.
Pitt proved he could do dark as detective David Mills in David Fincher’s descent into serial-killer hell. Morgan Freeman is there to lend him some gravitas-by-association, but Pitt is capable of plenty of bleakness on his own. By the time the film reaches its notorious climax, it’s clear that Pitt’s character won’t survive with his soul unscathed.
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Pitt earned his first Oscar nomination for his role as Jeffrey Goines, an asylum inmate who may have sparked an apocalyptic biological war. He could have relied on stereotypical mental-patient tics and clichés, but he went deeper, in surprising and mercurial ways. It’s a turn full of mischief and misdirection.
Fight Club (1999)
Here’s another truly tricky Pitt performance, one designed to fool viewers, to satirize masculine behavior, and to sell viewers on anarchist revolution. Give credit to Edward Norton as the hapless narrator, but Pitt’s Tyler Durden is the multi-dimensional puzzle piece that makes it all work.
Pitt got a lot of flak for his impenetrable Irish accent, but that’s part of the joke, a way that his Mickey O’Neil takes advantage of adversaries. In Guy Ritchie’s colorful crime comedy, he’s a boxer with devastating fists, but he defeats opponents out of the ring just by flummoxing them with indecipherable blarney.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Director Andrew Dominik tends to guide Pitt into jagged, spare, haunted performances, whether in 2012 crime drama “Killing Me Softly” or in this earlier Western, where Pitt plays the title outlaw as world-weary man of destiny, one who meticulously polishes his own legend by selecting, courting, and goading his own Judas. Neither film was a hit; both are ripe for re-discovery.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Working again with Fincher, Pitt plays F. Scott Fitzgerald’s backward-aging character not as a gimmick but as a real person, eager to give and receive love. Whether he’s playing a young man trapped in a feeble old body or a wizened elder in a young man’s body, it’s hard to imagine another actor who could have pulled this off.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Sure, Aldo Raine, Quentin Tarantino’s alternate-history World War II commando bent on scalping “Natt-sies,” is a cartoon, but Pitt plays him with complete conviction. He takes Tarantino’s mission – which is all about vengeance, bloodlust, and rewriting history – and makes it seem almost noble and heroic.
Pitt could have played Oakland manager Billy Beane as a misunderstood genius, a prophet of a statistic-based strategy of roster-building whom the baseball gods can’t forgive for being right. Instead, Pitt goes the more interesting route of playing him as a once-promising athlete with a lifetime of regrets for bad decisions, seeking on the diamond a redemption so precarious that he can’t even bear to watch the games. He’s a man of intelligence, heart, and deep scars, and he’s surely an exemplar for the roles Pitt will be playing for the rest of his career.