The Blockbuster Artist: How Brad Pitt's Refusal to Make Bad Movies Changed Movie Stardom

I first discovered Brad Pitt along with the rest of the world – leering at his tight blue jeaned butt with Geena Davis. Who would have predicted how he'd shake his money maker to help enable great cinema?

“Thelma & Louise,” Ridley Scott's film of Callie Khouri's ur-Girls Gone Wild tale, could not have plucked a more handsome specimen upon which to reverse the male gaze. Chiseled, rugged, with a crooked smile, sparkle in the eye and beautiful hair. Pitt's character JD didn't really have to act, he just had to turn everybody on. He succeeded.

Pitt was quick to gain magazine cover fame and he took to it well. In fact, a whole cottage industry exists writing (or, should I say, “writing”) about Jennifer Aniston in a post-Brad Pitt breakup context. It didn't matter much to Pitt's stardom that, by and large, most of his movies stunk, and acting was arguably not quite the most important part of his job description. (Indeed, James LeGros' character Chad Palomino in the filmmaking satire “Living in Oblivion” is a none-too-subtle parody of Pitt.)

In 1995, though, he made two interesting choices. He appeared in David Fincher's “Seven,” a pretty asinine thriller that somewhat redeems itself with a pronounced sense of style, and “Twelve Monkeys,” Terry Gilliam's slick and entertainingly fatalistic sci-fi film. It was “Twelve Monkeys” that surprised people – in it, Brad Pitt actually did a character. He played an anarchic and psychotic eco-terrorist/spoiled rich kid and he took a lot of chances on the screen. I've actually watched the movie recently and, quite frankly, I think Pitt is the worst thing in it – partially that's because everyone else is so good – but it was still a breakthrough for being taken somewhat seriously. 1995 was the year Pitt began to align himself with directors who could reasonably be called auteurs.

Time marched on and every forgettable “Sleepers” and “Meet Joe Black” was met with a “Snatch” or “Fight Club.” I wouldn't exactly call these art films (no: “Fight Club” is not an art film, you'll discover that when you aren't 21 anymore) but they are films coming from directors with a distinct voice. Then came the “Ocean's” films.

Steven Soderbergh, as we all know, is one of the finest filmmakers living, dead or yet unborn. The “Ocean's” films are probably his least interesting, which is why they've made the most money and had the largest ephemeral cultural impact. Pitt's involvement with the trilogy blessed him with some sort of nose for sensing true genius in collaborators, and in picking out projects that needed to get made, and probably wouldn't get made without his star power.

Pitt's resume since “Ocean's Thirteen” have been important works of art and entertainment that, I think, will only grow more valuable over time. You can pretty much go down the list.

the assassination of jesse james brad pitt

The cult of Andrew Dominik's “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward of Robert Ford” keeps growing. In fact, people are still waking up to the fact that 2007 was a watershed year for cinema and its relationship to the West. (We had this, “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country For Old Men” all looking for our attention – plus we hadn't quite shaken off the last season of “Deadwood.”) It is a formal masterpiece and an actors' triumph. Casey Affleck upstages Pitt from time to time, but there's no way in hell this movie would even exist if Pitt didn't believe in it. It is gorgeous and thought provoking and not commercial in the slightest.

After the so-goofy-it-hurts Coen Brothers film “Burn After Reading” came one of the only two David Fincher films that is actually worth a damn: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” (The other is “The Social Network,” by the way.) “Benjamin Button,” a beautiful fantasia on loss, remembrance and human connection, is a weird movie to wrap your head around. A lot of people flat out don't like it. (These are, I should point out, people who don't know how to live, how to truly live!) It is one of those rarest things, a genuine work of art done with a large canvass, and it made money for everybody, no doubt because Pitt's magazine face got butts in seats.

Next up was “Inglourious Basterds,” another masterpiece. Now, Quentin Tarantino could no doubt make magic with just about anybody, but Pitt's performance (particularly the shootout in the bar and the interrogation of Christoph Waltz) is played at a perfect pitch. What you'll find with so many of his current films is that the directors are finding a way to use Pitt's (let's call it) limited range and zeroing in on that – giving him characters that play to his strengths.

After “Basterds” comes one of the greatest stunts ever pulled on the mainstream American movie audience: Terence Malick's “The Tree of Life.” The fact that this movie played in mall multiplexes is nothing short of a miracle. It probably would have been more appropriate in the installation spaces of the Whitney Museum of American Art, but screw it: the people need to be exposed to beauty.

“The Tree of Life” is sublime. What's that, you say? The movie is confusing? The plot is messy? Nothing happens? EVERYTHING happens, and if you think the parents are too vague (Mom is nice, Dad is a jerk) that's because Malick has the insight and ability to strip things bare. Malick's paintbrush needed broad stroke characters to tell his impressionistic story, and Pitt is perfect in it. (And he ain't too hard on the eyes during magic hour.) Now shut up as I twirl and tussle in the ground.

Pitt felt no need to reconnect with the slobbering masses with a “Troy 2” after “The Tree of Life.” He jumped right into “Moneyball,” which is arguably the least rah-rah big game sports movie ever made. Some might argue it is the anti-sports movie, where the eggheads are the heroes and the determination of will, spirit and might are all coldly shoved aside against bloodless, cruel math. Hardly apple pie.

His next theatrically released live action feature was “Killing Them Softly,” again from Andrew Dominik. It is an up-from-within tone poem about criminal behavior that has remarkably elegant sequences of violence as well as hilarious monologues. It does all it can to shake off its traditional three act structure. This structure exists, but it colors outside of the lines so much it resists sinking your teeth into it. It isn't a big budget picture, but I imagine none of it would have been raised without Pitt saying yes.

But the siren's call of a potential Hollywood franchise ended the streak. "World War Z" isn't a paycheck gig - it is very much Pitt and his production shingle Plan B's baby. And it was a breech birth. While the end result isn't terrible, it sure as hell ain't marvelous. It is also documented as one of the more boondoggled productions of our time (see Vanity Fair's expose.) Pitt was smart enough to see a train wreck coming, and knew enough to put his ego in check and allow for a team of specialists (including Damon Lindelof and Chistopher McQuarrie) to overhaul the film to something a tad less ridiculous. The current ending is flawed, but when you read about what could have been, it's worthy of a standing O.

The reaction to "World War Z"'s original cut is the decision of a mature, intelligent man - not some Hollywood haircut.  And when all the US Weeklys are left floating amid the melted ice caps, we’ll still be talking about movies like “Jesse James” and “Tree of Life.” Who’d'a thunk it: from a pair of tight blue jeans to great art patronage. It’s a hell of a package.