Brad Pitt: Born to be Brad

There are flagrant conclusions to be drawn about people who choose to live in the steep hills collaring the rabid, happy dog of Los Angeles. If caution is not a way of life to everyone who faces the twists, turns and runaway descents of these neighborhoods, it's because some were born lucky.

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The ascent up the street toward Brad Pitt's new home on the high ground above Sunset has me leaning forward, in the posture of an Olympic ski jumper. You look up too quickly scalin'g this incline, you wind up on your duff at the bottom with the tourists, the acting homeless, and the statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle. But being off-balance and worrying about little ways of conquering it might be the right idea for the work ahead.

Perfumy Sade music engulfs the Pitt household. In fact, the volume is notched up so loud that no one can hear me knocking. As the minutes pass, I fight off the image of Brad Pitt and his live-in companion, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Juliette Lewis, embracing on a squeaky slab of bed. By the end of 10 minutes, I have taken to banging on the door, in the spirit of Martin Luther with his satchelful of heretical proclamations. A sandwich delivery man joins me now, and his knuckles prove golden. Two short raps and Brad Pitt, the guy who knocked everyone's socks off as the glorious Paul Maclean in A River Runs Through It, appears at the door, waving us in like a matador who once played for the Fighting Irish.

"I was taking a shower," Brad apologizes, signing for the sandwiches. A smile breaks across his face that could set feminism back 25 years. He is handsome to the bone--tall, with good shoulders free from the tyranny of over-developed muscles, waist as thin as a Bible page. Blessed with the kind of looks that less fortunate actors with four times the desire would sell their souls for, he may, it seems, have gone through some effort to hide them. An untended, marshy beard hangs across the lower half of his face, roughly matching the tarnished blond of his damp hair and giving the impression of a low-budget Jesus waiting between shots on a set somewhere outside of Needles. Certain parties, Brad reveals to me, have been lobbying heavily for exfoliation. The magazine that has to shoot him for the cover wants him cleaned up.

"I'll shave for tomorrow," he says, his vow lacerated by an irritable moan. "They always make a big deal out of it. I say, don't tell me how to tie my shoes." The present ones are of the basketball variety, bloated and spilling their innards, lashed to his ankles like a couple of mattresses. In general, Brad is dressed as if he expects to spend the afternoon cursing at the stubborn drain plug of a crankcase.

When the phone rings, I politely ask if Brad has to get it, since he's told me Juliette is on location in Texas. "Ah, no. I check my machine every three, four days. Call the people I need to," he whispers.

We're browsing through the house, which is really an apartment, one of a few long, narrow units surrounding a courtyard with a dirty swimming pool in it. In the living room, a thick, silver crucifix stands upright on a small antique end table, the kind that fits smack up against the wall as though another half existed on the other side in an alternate universe. Hanging nearby is a framed print of El Greco's The Burial of Count Orgaz.

I point at the El Greco."This yours?"

"Yeah, but it's just thrift shop stuff. Ten dollars."

"It's a famous painting."

"What, with the dead guy here?" Brad scoffs. I'm fairly certain Brad knows exactly who El Greco is, but he proceeds to play with me. He points, as if discovering an Easter egg everyone else has missed, and says, "So what's going on here? Look at the dead guy's face--in black and white?" The colorless face of the dead Count Orgaz--above whom the heavens spill open in an upward swirl of beatific turmoil encompassing the Virgin Mary, saints, cherubim and archangels, all rendered in brilliant reds, yellows and oranges--is, of course, the curious heart of the picture.

"But hey man, don't write about my house," Brad says as he sees me looking at the opened copy of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop splayed over the arm of a stuffed chair near the window. "Every time they come up here, like, my house gets ripped to shreds. I like my house. My poor mom, she reads these pieces, she says, 'You really live like that?' I gotta tell her, 'No mom, it's really nice.'"

Indeed, someone here is a fine housekeeper, and having seen Juliette's place before she and Brad moved in together, I have my money on Brad. The decor is Depression Era articles of faith: a restored blade fan and a dial-tube radio, grain belt bric-a-brac, and a smattering of '50s deco, all displayed with the spit-and-polish presentation of a Smithsonian exhibit. Everything has its place here. Stacked in the corner of a small reading alcove are enough film scripts to provide a week's worth of toilet paper for all the major studios. Two weeks, if you don't count Disney.

About the only thing around that seems cluttered is Brad's speech. His honeydew Missouri drawl has a hitch in it I don't remember from his movies. The letter "s" suffers aggravated diphthong battery on the way out of his mouth. "House" tends to become "housh." Since the aberration is disappearing now that his conversation is more spontaneous, my guess is that Brad, who reportedly did his own underwear-ripping for his part in Johnny Suede, is still suffering from a kind of posttraumatic stress disorder after playing a homicidal drifter in his most recent film, Kalifornia. I haven't seen it but I know that his character, Early Grayce, is bad news and has a sweet and naive girlfriend, played by Brad's real-life girlfriend, Juliette.

"I wanted to do one of those trailer-dwelling, greasy nails guys--no education, canned food, real white trash," says Brad. He seems fairly pleased with his portrayal. "You almost have to see Kalifornia, " he tells me. I get the feeling Brad thinks I have to see Kalifornia because he knows I've seen A River Runs Through It.

"You wanna show what you can do," he says. "You wanna do something different from the last one, before they think they know what you're about. I've seen the light. It's part of this," he pauses to brace himself, as if he's about to swallow a handful of staples, "it's the farthest thing from Golden Boy, know what I'm sayin'?"

Brad Pitt knows the impact of his effort in A River Runs Through It. He knows that his Paul, with prodigalities simmering under the joyless flame of his minister-father's love, has created a classical impression. He knows that when we see the hint of unrequited danger in Paul's smile, the sleepy cool of his eyes, the fuck-all chivalry, the blond similarities with the young Redford are evident. And Brad wants to fight the obvious.

These, then, are the two bodies of water that await Brat Pitt, who by all accounts will soon be a very big fish. There's the freshwater pond of the Golden Boy and the briny tide pool of the Rebel. It should be noted that few species survive in both. The Golden Boy inhabits a blue-blooded world of idealism and virtue. The sponsors at his confirmation of divine right are Gable, Grant, Cooper, and, of course, Redford. The Golden Boy lives in sublime segregation from us commonfolk, and is what we aspire to be; he is the team captain in youth, and ever after, autumn, autumn and more autumn calls up the melancholy of past accomplishments won in an atmosphere of freedom, before the chip on his shoulder became globe-shaped. The idea of T-shirts, not to mention the Magna Carta, subtly erodes the Golden Boy's dazzling coastline.

Now, for the Rebel, memories are only as good as the brain cells scorched from making them. His saints are Dean howling at the moon, Brando in the dwindling soul of Kurtz, Nicholson clearing a restaurant table with a sneer. Consequently, the Rebel needs the confessional for absolution of a long list of human frailties. The Rebel plays to win and occasionally loses as well, although he willfully resists the temptation to allow the results to move him in any way. This is why Hemingway, a lapsed Rebel, could chortle at the irony of dying from gangrene gotten from a mere scratch.

"Could I have played the good guy in Kalifornia? Sure. But I needed to play the bad guy. I needed the balance," Brad maintains. "I don't believe in the 'all-your-eggs-in-one-bucket' kind of theory. You get pushed in this business, you just gotta push back harder. Because it comes down to you. I mean, people got different takes on things, people got good takes. But only you know about your own deal--your own creation, right?"

"You ever been in a real fight?" I ask. Sade has been put to bed in favor of the incomparable Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"Ohhh, yeah, you kidding?" he chuckles. "You don't get to this age without being in a fight. I remember one. I was 18. Worst one I ever had. The teacher got involved, she got her dress ripped. When you're going at it you get lost. It was over something stupid, I can't even remember.

"I had a friend in college--real baby face. But he's built like a stump. Real solid, like Barney Rubble. People thought because he was smaller and had this baby face, they could wail on him. Well, I seen that guy drop some big fellas. Just drop 'em. Humiliate them. Someone said something to me, even, he'd drop him. Listen, it's really easy to get out of a fight. But when you're a kid, you just swing and ask questions later. I'm the one who hit the teacher, by the way. I know I didn't win, but I didn't get my ass kicked. There just wasn't a winner there."

"There" was Springfield, Missouri, where Bill and Jane Pitt raised their children to know the ordinance of the Lord's Supper. Brad once recounted an incident from that life, in which, fearful that he might be called upon to give benediction one Sunday, he averted his eyes from those of his Baptist preacher. It may be part of the congregation's faith that every believer is a priest, but on that day, and one suspects, most days since, Brad's faith was supplanted by the desperate chant of "Don't let it be me."

High school brought with it a more secular dimension: debate clubs, student government, bit parts in musicals, girls and baseball. Then there was the decision to enroll in a journalism/advertising program at the University of Missouri. "It was about creating--creating, say, a successful, imaginative ad campaign," says Brad, evenly defending his lengthy stint (he left just two credits shy of graduation) in a world about as marvelous as unbuttered toast. "Finally I realized there was something better. But it's an individual thing. I'm not knocking the job."

Like countless others before him, Brad came west to California. Those who have done so know that to achieve the maximum funk from one of America's great nondenominational sacraments is to go by car, with the mountains of your personal belongings surrounding you to blot out the flatland monotony of Highway 70, and then once you arrive, to unceremoniously abandon your original purpose for coming. Brad was no exception. The dull thought of going through with art school seemed about as realistic a plan as holding up a gas station with an ocarina. Instead, Brad shouldered himself into the perpetual marathon of those pursuing an acting career, supporting himself working the requisite odd jobs that show up later in the folklore of the enormously prosperous--chauffeuring strippers in a limo, passing out cigarette samples, climbing into a chicken suit for a fast-food chain. After sporadic work as an extra, he did some television--HBO's The Image, Fox's "Glory Days," then a TV movie, Too Young to Die, playing opposite the young lady with whom he would eventually share a toothbrush rack.

With his agents pushing him toward TV serials and sitcoms, Brad might have become the next incarnation of Dan Tanna or Magnum had it not been for what he likes to call "the six thousand dollar orgasm." Ridley Scott, filming Thelma & Louise, needed someone to replace William Baldwin, who had chosen to take the lead in Backdraft. Along came Brad Pitt as J.D., swaddled in Levi's and Fruit of the Loom, hoisting his dufflebag into the back seat of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon's T-Bird, hoisting Geena Davis to her first orgasm, then hoisting the girls' traveling money. Looking like a more wholesome, cornfed version of the James Dean who brooded through Giant, Pitt gave 15 minutes of screen time that stands out as tall as a Tom Collins; his performance has the sneak attack ass-kick of spiked iced tea.

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