Could this be Brad Pitt’s year after all?

Posted by · 10:52 am · February 4th, 2012

Several months ago it seemed as though this may be Brad Pitt”s year. For some, he’s a movie star who happens to know how to act. To others he is a talented character actor who happens to be a remarkably good-looking movie star. Pitt himself will often say that he has learned his craft over the course of a 20-year career peppered with hits and misses, but he has become known for his humility as well as his willingness to take chances and go against the grain of what could have been a one- or two-note body of work.

For a time in the precursor season, it appeared as though he may be nominated for “The Tree of Life” as well as “Moneyball.” Each would offer particular PR challenges. Neither necessarily represents a no-brainer Oscar win (great historical figure, person facing life-altering trauma or, as Ricky Gervais taught us in “Extras,” a Nazi or a nun). But “Moneyball” is also a film that is notably devoid of the bells and whistles of the traditional “sports movie.” There is no great triumph, no moment of cathartic victory in a neatly wrapped package of money and accolades. What the film does offer is a look at how and why we define ourselves and others as we do, as well as an exploration of a thinking man”s way through a system that is inherently inequitable.

Though I love “Moneyball” and count it as my number one or two of this year”s Best Picture nominees, I was hoping for a “Tree of Life” nomination for Pitt. I found it to be the most complex and nuanced performance of his career. It allowed him to explore and express a dark undercurrent of the human psyche without the veil of grandiose insanity. His Mr. O’Brien was, in his own deeply flawed way, loving and well-intentioned. At the very least it was his intention to be loving. He was simply unable to keep the demons at bay. It made for what were, for me, the finest moments in the film: young Jack”s upbringing in Texas.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Pitt has instead been nominated as both “Moneyball””s producer and lead actor. His good friend George Clooney, nominated for “The Descendants,” became the frontrunner after the critics’ awards circuit, but now he seems poised for a potential upset by Jean Dujardin after “The Artist” star’s SAG win. Pitt began to fade into the background (as much as an internationally famous mega-star can fade). But could that air of sudden uncertainty be a window of opportunity?

The actor’s “Moneyball” stumping this week has reminded me of what that portrayal had to offer. It is also striking that, as Kris has pointed out, a campaign for Oscar can be likened to the story of the Oakland A”s’ struggle in “Moneyball” in terms of the influx of cash it takes to win. As far as the film’s themes are concerned, as Pitt said in a recent interview with The Guardian, this is a film about a man finding his value, which may or may not be (solely) via the traditional markers of success.

“We’re so defined by the last success or the last failure that we even start to see ourselves that way,” Pitt said of Hollywood. “You’ve got these awards and there’s going to be one winner and four losers, but the four losers made great films. A subtle point of ‘Moneyball” is that we’re a string of successes and failures. Odds are I won’t have another year like this one.”

With that in mind, Pitt has been engaging in a surge of media rounds with an appearance on the Daily Show, another on the Today Show (alongside co-nominee Jonah Hill) and a cover story on The Hollywood Reporter, among others. In the segment with Jon Stewart he joked that the race is similar to that of the Republican primary and that he”s “gonna be hanging out with Ron Paul” if he”s not careful. “I gotta get in there and mix it up a bit,” he enthused. And so he is.

As Greg Ellwood mentioned in his piece on The Daily Show appearance, Sandra Bullock took a similar track in 2009 to ultimate success. Though, like his character, Pitt appears to be a man who is seeking a path of deeper value. When asked what winning would mean to him, he responded, “I really don”t believe in that.” And oddly enough, I think he is sincere.

“There are so many good performances, so many good performances that aren”t being acknowledged,” he said. “What it does for a movie is that it makes it easier for a film like this to get made in the future.”

To that end, Pitt is likely using his considerable star power to give “Moneyball” (a passion project that it took him half a decade to make) a boost. He is also lending his support to co-star Jonah Hill”s unlikely campaign for Best Supporting Actor for a portrayal that Pitt describes as “a study in reserve.” The somewhat counter-intuitive result may be that Pitt”s own bid for Oscar will receive some momentum. He has the goodwill as well as a strong performance.

I wouldn”t call “Moneyball” as a whole a study in reserve. But it does not possess the pomp and circumstance that is so often associated with Oscar darlings. It”s a pleasure to watch, and yet it maintains an adult tone in the sense that it captures the sacrifice and compromise that comes with a grown-up life. It understands how our vision of ourselves shifts as we age. (And for a look at what happens when it doesn”t, see “Young Adult.”) “Moneyball” maintains an undercurrent of emotional depth even in the moments of levity, which Pitt says in his interview with The Guardian is somewhat reminiscent of a different era in filmmaking.

“He reminded me of the characters I loved from 70s films,” Pitt said of his character, Billy Beane. “When I started in film I was taught that you had to have a character arc and there had to be an epiphany. As years go by I have found that to be utter bullshit. We don’t really change; we evolve in degrees and what I love about these characters from the 70s like Popeye Doyle is they were the same beast at the end of the film as they were at the beginning. I do love obsessive characters. I get off on watching that.”

Perhaps we will discover that voters do as well. I know I do.

For year-round entertainment news and commentary follow @JRothC on Twitter.

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