To succeed at celebrity is to master the art of image construction and management. It is to turn yourself into a brand in which performance is the method and the point. The step and repeat on the red carpet. The reaction to a seemingly impromptu paparazzi swarm. The interviews. The magazine covers. The charity events. It’s all in service of an image created, not born. Throughout the history of Hollywood, there have been figures who buckled against the weight of the personas they walked behind, like Errol Flynn and Lana Turner during the height of the studio system. There have been others whose image-making was so refined as to make it hard to tell where the real person began and the star ended, à la Archibald Leach, better known as the debonair Cary Grant. After the fall of the classic studio system in the 1960s, much changed in the imagination of what Hollywood could be. Chiefly, stars were free agents unwed to a single studio. But the tricksy, mercurial alchemy that goes into becoming and remaining a star endured. No one has proved more adept at playing this game lately than Brad Pitt.
In the wake of his contentious, ongoing divorce from Angelina Jolie — on the heels of their grand, volcanic romance that bloomed on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, when he was still married to Jennifer Aniston, causing a tabloid obsession that continues to this day 15 years later — Pitt has played the celebrity game with slippery splendor. While Jolie has kept relatively quiet, Pitt has been more forward-facing. His star persona is that of the high-school quarterback: charismatic and beloved. (If anything, Hollywood at large comes across as a more knotted version of petty high-school politics anyway.) Pitt hasn’t played the game perfectly so much as invisibly — his relationship with his new 27-year old girlfriend, whom he took to the chateau he shared with Jolie, might read like a rote, midlife-crisis sort of scenario. And one of the most cunning turns in Pitt’s recent approach to his own image is to once again position himself in solidarity with his ex-wife, Jennifer Aniston, an alliance that bloomed during the 2019–2020 awards season, perhaps helping him nab an Academy Award for his supporting performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, he’s sidling up to Aniston once more, for a recent Fast Times at Ridgemont High table read.
What better way to shore up goodwill than painting yourself as the breezy, charming man who easily spends time with an ex-wife — with whom people are still obsessively hold out hope you’ll reunite? “Hi, Aniston,” he croons. “Hi, Pitt” she replies before calling him “honey.” I could practically feel the heat index increase on Twitter in that moment. Personally, I have never been invested in the Pitt and Aniston relationship; I was far more intrigued by the sexual heat and emotional complexity between Pitt and Jolie. But the dynamic between Pitt and Aniston demonstrates the ways in which the personal can be leveraged for the professional for celebrities. And Pitt isn’t just good at it, he ranks as one of the best, a talent fully on display during this table read. He’s more than merely charming, he’s a supernova of lightning-bright presence. He’s more than willing to be silly and carefree, listening with full-bodied attention. It’s a way of being he’s mastered, that helps him to create indelible moments in celebrity history, like his suburban-themed photo shoot of curdled domestic bliss with Jolie in the pages of a 2005 issue of W magazine and now this video alongside Julia Roberts and Morgan Freeman. Pitt’s unique skill comes in how effortless he makes everything look, which takes his star image away from feeling studied and makes it seem natural. Every celebrity is playing the same game. But the ones who make it seem like they aren’t performing, and instead are speaking directly to us with some conspiratorial intimacy, are able to carve the kind of immortality actors dream of.