One of the many annoying things about The Artist’s apparent march to Oscar gold—not only in the best picture category, supposedly, but, if you follow the prognosticators, best actor, best score, and maybe a few others, too—is that it has thwarted a showdown that fans of American movies and watercooler debate deserve: Brad Pitt vs. George Clooney, for all the marbles.
Instead we’ve got Clooney vs. Dujardin, or so they say—and that just isn’t as fun.
Clooney and Pitt have of course been twinned in the minds of the movie-going public since Ocean’s Eleven (though they became actorly rivals even earlier: Clooney was the runner-up for Pitt’s breakout role, J.D. in Thelma & Louise). A review of the sequel compared the pair to Newman and Redford—and if you follow Google to chat rooms and comment threads across the Internet, you’ll see the analogy pop up more than a few times. It’s an imperfect analogy for any number of reasons—first and foremost, there is only one Paul Newman, obviously—but it’s a useful one for pointing out how the general perception of Clooney and Pitt as actors has become thoroughly warped.
Clooney, it should be perfectly clear (and yet somehow is not, if those comment threads and chat rooms are any indication) is Redford. Pitt—well, like I said, there’s only one Paul Newman. But Pitt is much more like Newman than Clooney is.
George Clooney is a good actor, certainly. He commands the screen in a manner not totally unlike a Golden Age movie star. His range is not tremendous; he’s best when he can use the distant, elusive quality he never shakes anyway—witness his turns in Out of Sight, Three Kings, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, the Ocean’s movies. Like Redford, he has turned to directing, with a particular interest in films that display an old-fashioned moderate leftiness (and an old-fashioned moderate loftiness).
And yet somehow it’s Pitt who gets saddled with the Redford comparisons. Sure, he’s slightly younger than Clooney, but not by much. He’s sort of blondish, I guess, like Redford—and his part in the Redford-directed A River Runs Through It was important for his career. Redford also played Pitt’s mentor in the forgettable Spy Game, for whatever that’s worth. But Pitt’s accomplishments as an actor put him in Newman’s class, not Redford’s.
People like to say that Pitt is a character actor in a leading man’s body, thanks to his standout supporting parts in 12 Monkeys, Burn After Reading, and Inglourious Basterds (his over-the-top turn as Tyler Durden in Fight Club may be a factor here, too). And there is some resistance, I think, to taking Brad Pitt seriously; he’s never seemed quite as sophisticated off-screen as the bachelor Clooney with his Italian villa and what have you. But it’s what’s on the screen that matters, and after Tree of Life and Moneyball—two movies in which Pitt delivers excellent, understated performances in quieter, dominant roles—his abilities as a leading man are indisputable.
Clooney, meanwhile, and to his great credit, attempted, in The Descendants, a character he knew he would be “uncomfortable” inhabiting, as he recently told James Lipton. Matt King, his character, must convey a sense of rootedness, of attachment—to the land, to his kids, even to the adulterous wife in a coma on a hospital bed. And Clooney can’t quite pull it off. Pitt, on the other hand, leaves a mark with a few stern words to his sons in The Tree of Life and makes driving around by himself and occasionally eating things somehow interesting in Moneyball.
And yet Clooney has a better shot at the Oscar, according to those who know. If it weren’t for that perky quasi-silent movie, his biggest threat would be Brad Pitt, and we would all be having fun Oscar arguments about which of these Hollywood friends and supposed rivals is really the superior actor. And the answer would clearly be Pitt.