Brad Pitt, left, and Sean Penn: a classic piece of movie casting
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By Paul Harris
The London Observer
As films go, the ambition of The Tree of Life is hardly small. The eagerly awaited epic from enigmatic auteur director Terrence Malick aims to explore the very meaning of existence in its two hours and 18 minutes run time. News that it is showing at the Cannes film festival has set pulses racing among Hollywood’s great and good. But it’s not just Malick’s lushly artistic directorial style that has people excited. It is the identity of the male leads: Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.
Tree of Life will showcase the acting skills of two of modern Hollywood’s biggest stars, appearing in a movie together for the first time. It is a classic piece of casting. “I’m eager to see these two work together,” said Professor Richard Dubin, a director-turned-film-academic at Syracuse University.
On the face of it, the film’s leading men appear dissimilar. Pitt, 48, retains much of the boyish good looks that made him a classic matinée idol. The 51-year-old Penn, meanwhile, with his craggier looks and outspoken opinions, appears more to epitomise the tortured artist. Yet both are now undisputed masters of their game. Until the reviews come in, it will not be known if Malick’s film will shed much light on the meaning of life, but its leading men appear to have already unlocked something almost as important: the secret path to Hollywood megastardom.
Pitt and Penn play men of different generations and differing temperaments. In the few teasing bits of information and the brief trailer released so far, it is clear that Pitt plays Penn’s father as a classic male of the 1950s: stern and traditionally masculine. Penn’s character, meanwhile, struggles with that paternal legacy decades later, seeking to resolve his adult problems by searching for meaning in their troubled relationship.
In reality, their journeys towards Hollywood celebrity have largely paralleled each other. Each has ticked a series of boxes demanded of top male stars and in return the industry has showered them with success. Both are hugely talented and good-looking. But the streets of Los Angeles are littered with such people who will never make it.
There has to be more than simple ability: there is also a pattern and a strategy. Both actors got their breaks early and both began with bit parts on television. Pitt started in 1987 with an appearance on the sitcom Growing Pains and a short role in Dallas, before the sight of his chiselled six-pack in Thelma and Louise sent America’s women into Pitt-mania. His brief, but highly effective, appearance catapulted him into the mainstream.
Penn’s first role was as an extra in The Little House on the Prairie. He graduated into playing a young recruit at a military school in 1981′s Taps before hitting it big in the 1982 teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, playing a stoned surfer. Theoretically, such a role should not have paved the way to a serious career. But Penn, like Pitt, just needed an audience and rapidly progressed to more serious and critically acclaimed work in projects such as Bad Boys and The Falcon and the Snowman.
Both men have been careful to cultivate as wide a fan base as possible. Penn, despite a reputation for his serious thespian roles, has not been shy about doing mainstream thrillers and action movies. He starred in the cop movie Colors and the mystery caper The Game, each full of gun battles and car chases.
Pitt is even less of a stranger to the big bangs, screen kisses and frantic bullet-dodging that form much of the meat and potatoes of Hollywood life. He became a movie star on the back of manly roles in big-budget films such as A River Runs Through It, Interview with a Vampire, Troy and Mr & Mrs Smith.
Yet both avoided the classic pitfalls: typecasting and stereotype. “They got into a good position where they could make some choices, then they both made hay out of it,” said Dubin. Many of Hollywood’s leading men – especially those expected to draw audiences simply by having their name on the movie posters – seem to repeat role after role in the same rut. Pitt and Penn have been careful from the very beginning to stretch their skills in smaller, more difficult roles.
Pitt, especially, could have just relaxed into being a sex symbol. But he agreed to play Death in Meet Joe Black, the impossible-to-understand Irish boxer Mickey in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, a famous outlaw in the acclaimed art house western The Assassination of Jesse James and the title role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where he lives his entire life growing younger, not older. Penn, meanwhile, won numerous awards and acclaim for tough roles as a murderer in Dead Man Walking, a mentally disabled man in I Am Sam and a gay rights activist in Milk.
Both perfected the art of keeping mainstream crowds streaming into the multiplexes while also indulging their artistic passions. There are parallels in their personal lives, too – a sphere that remains a key part of any Hollywood career no matter how distasteful an actor may find it. Both found themselves in celebrity relationships, with Penn marrying Madonna and Pitt, Jennifer Anniston. Each marriage guaranteed mass tabloid exposure. Neither did the resulting divorces break the pattern of famous spouses that are bound to keep an actor in the public eye. Pitt is now famously partner to Angelina Jolie, while Penn was last week reported by the US tabloids to have started living with Scarlett Johansson.
The final box to tick in the magic “Penn-Pitt” formula for conquering Tinseltown is to get behind the camera as well as in front of it. Pitt has been executive producer on some great films, including the masterful The Assassination of Jesse James. Penn, meanwhile, has long honed his directing skills, particularly on 2007′s Into the Wild.
Luck, too, plays a major role. “It is being in the right place at the right time. A lot of success for Hollywood stars is just dumb luck,” said Peter Shankman, an author and PR expert. That was certainly true of Pitt, who followed the classic path to Hollywood from a small city in the middle of America (Springfield, Missouri), doing a variety of jobs to make ends meet while attending audition after audition. He struggled for years before a shot of his rippling chest catapulted him to world fame and he was able to leave the thousands of other struggling actors behind.
Penn, meanwhile, was born on Hollywood’s doorstep. Both his parents were involved in show business. His father got him his first role in a TV show he was directing. It clearly takes luck of all sorts to make a star, but both men have had their flops. Not many people care to remember The Weight of Water, the 2000 thriller in which Penn starred with Elizabeth Hurley.
And Pitt may have looked wonderful playing Achilles in Troy, but the movie did not please many critics. He did not even look good in 1992′s Johnny Suede, in which he sported an immense pompadour that one critic called “the worst movie hairdo ever”.
They also have different acting styles, many critics say. Dubin sees Pitt as more of a “personality” actor in the style of a classic leading man such as Cary Grant. Penn, however, is more of a character actor who inhabits the roles he plays. “Actors like Penn clothe themselves in their role more fully than actors like Pitt. That does not make them better, just different,” Dubin said.
Another large difference between the two is their attitude to politics. Both are active for their favoured causes but they have markedly different ways of expressing it. Pitt has spoken out in favour of gay marriage and taken an active interest in helping to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But much of his work is under the radar.
The famously fiery Penn is renowned as an outspoken Hollywood liberal who is unafraid to make political points. It is hard to imagine Pitt abandoning Jolie to spend a year running a Haitian refugee camp, as Penn has done. Yet in the end studying their careers offers only hints of why they succeeded where so many have failed. “There is a limit to how much you can plan this sort of thing,” Dubin said.
There is one more thing, that both have in spades: ambition and drive. In one of the few pieces of dialogue to be released from The Tree of Life, Pitt’s character addresses the issue. “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world,” he said.
Both would probably agree on that.
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