After the first Sunday of March, movie star Brad Pitt might be an Academy Award winner — not for his acting, but for his role as producer. His production company, Plan B, has been deployed since 2006 as a platform for making films (many that star or co-star Pitt, and a few that don’t) largely outside of the franchise and sequel mentality that a name brand like Pitt would otherwise be subject to.
Pitt is hardly the first example of an actor who exchanges celebrity capital for some industrial and artistic autonomy – examples of powerful actors who have used the capacity of producer to buck the studio system go as far back as Humphrey Bogart – but Plan B is unique particularly because it’s been utilized as a means for Pitt to rather self-consciously define himself against any conventional understanding of his movie star image.
Rather than use the production arm as a means for gritty, challenging, Hollywood-unfriendly lead roles (as Bogart did with In a Lonely Place), Pitt is casting himself conspicuously on the margins of his own work, often in supporting roles that have in common characters who somehow omnisciently perceive a bigger picture than what’s available to the foregrounded characters around him. These are characters that exist inside and outside the narratives of their films simultaneously.
It’s not that Pitt is simply enjoying roles both on and offscreen in less overtly commercial work – in 2012 and 2013 his on and offscreen filmmaking capacities merged into the persona of an onscreen producer.
When the Italian poster of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave circulated around the Internet, we were quick to denounce the advertisement as prioritizing the promotion of the film’s most bankable (read: white) name over the film’s actual protagonist and subject matter. But as several of my colleagues have pointed out, this moment also brings to light, perhaps unintentionally, the staggering “white savior-ness” of Pitt’s cameo, a potentially self-congratulatory tonal diversion from an otherwise brilliant movie devoted exhaustively to representing a harrowing chapter in American history through African-American eyes.
12 Years a Slave is brimming with laudable supporting turns by name actors. From Benedict Cumberbatch’s benevolent slave owner to Paul Giamatti’s ruthless auctioneer of living human bodies to Michael K. Williams’s brief turn as a would-be slave who attempts to kill his way out of a state of no-win subjection, these brief turns by recognizable faces have the potential to distract as much as they offer an opportunity for memorable acting talent to stand in for institutions and ideas prevalent during the era depicted. Yet unlike his fellow actors’ supporting turns, Pitt’s role as a real-life Canadian abolitionist and migrant laborer named Bass seems completely out of time, as if Bass were sent down to aid directly in Northup’s plight, fully equipped with the wisdom of 21st century hindsight and an indiscernible accent.
It’s difficult to see Pitt’s character as anyone other than Brad Pitt in this moment. And the knowledge that Pitt also produced the film (not to mention vied for this particular role) only adds to the uncanny, fourth-wall-breaking tenor of his appearance.
His role, which features an extended explanation of an abolitionist future served as a historical “fuck you” to Michael Fassbender’s white suprema-fascist, almost verges on fortune telling from a credible source. Brad Pitt’s onscreen cameo is perfectly consonant with his offscreen role as a privileged and progressive movie star shepherding a film about the horrors of slavery.
Pitt’s supporting performance in 12 Years a Slave is consistent with other recent roles he’s taken, albeit perhaps less problematically so. In Andrew Dominik’s Plan B-produced Killing Them Softly, Pitt was promoted in ads as the lead in what is actually an ensemble piece about the unfortunate, yet seemingly inevitable, circumstances in which a group of working class gangsters meet their unceremonious ends. Thus, Pitt is not as much the focus of the story’s progression as small-time hoodlums Fred (Scott McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn).
The character of Hogan finds Pitt once again in the role of an omniscient observer who carries the capacity of doling out the narrative-mandated fates of those around him. For much of the film (and Pitt doesn’t appear until more than 20 minutes in), Pitt’s character is not directly involved with the movie’s central events – he merely discusses them and makes arrangements for intervening. He only selectively (in the three decisive executions he makes) “gets involved.” Even in the film’s final monologue he knows more than the other arms-length overseer of events, Richard Jenkins’ Driver, as Hogan informs him that a colleague of theirs has passed, previously unbeknownst to either him or the audience. Pitt’s Hogan is a man whose job mandates that he sees the big picture in ways that people in more specialized roles do not, a role strangely reflective of a producer’s.
In last summer’s “surprise” blockbuster, Marc Forster’s Plan B-produced World War Z, Pitt finds himself in a role more in tune with that of a movie star: front-and-center, consequential to the narrative’s events, and included in nearly every scene. Yet even this role finds Pitt once again in the position of omniscient overseer. Where the Max Brooks novel that the film was adapted from took a decidedly fragmentary approach, envisioning a zombie apocalypse through the subjective accounts of particular individuals around the world, Pitt’s Gerry Lane is seemingly capable of donning the gaze of the entire world itself. His expertise as a former UN investigator functions in the film as a convenient justification for his uncanny ability so see fully within, and beyond, any given situation in order to get himself, and the other good guys, out.
That World War Z’s production was notoriously plagued with problems, yet found significant commercial and qualified critical success, supports a view of Pitt as filmmaker along the lines of how he now undeniably sees himself as a movie star: as a cool, functional leader capable of bringing order to the types of chaos that consumes most people.
Even in Pitt’s memorable supporting turn in the multiplex provocation that was Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor, the actor plays a character that is more instructive of than involved with the story at hand. The Counselor even features a scene between Pitt and Fassbender that strongly echoes their scene in 12 Years a Slave: Pitt’s Westray basically explains to the ill-fated Counselor what, precisely, is going to happen to him now that he’s involved himself in the border-set drug game. Pitt’s character unwittingly becomes involved, of course, as well as subject to the film’s brutal and incessant gifting of bad news, but not until he’s explained to Fassbender in no uncertain terms how he’s able to keep a logical distance between himself and the game from which he profits.
That Plan B didn’t even produce The Counselor speaks only further to the expectation that we’ve come to have of Pitt in terms of the less commercial roles he chooses. Pitt, perhaps even more so than the rest of the film’s impressive cast, was likely part of Fox’s justification to distribute Scott Free’s gloriously cynical, anti-commercial venture. So even when he doesn’t hold a producer credit, Pitt’s onscreen roles allude to the function he has offscreen: as a creative only marginally apparent in but deeply instrumental to a film’s getting made.
While I acknowledge that stars with names as big as Pitt’s are perhaps our last final hope for seeing unconventional work achieve wide notice (and releases), the business relations that allow such films to come into being have made for an onscreen star whose roles speak in no uncertain terms to his decisive and influential role offscreen. Thus, Brad Pitt’s laudable attempts to escape the strictures of movie stardom have indirectly resulted in an onscreen persona that is impossible to see as anyone but Brad Pitt. No matter what characters he’s trying to save.