The shades. The goatee. The chin. The charm, the cool, the wit, and the words that breathe the very being of his demeanor — the actor.
He’s the Hollywood hunk with books behind the looks. He’s in front of the screen and around the humanitarian scene. Pretentious? Maybe, but he’s a guy who knows how to loosen up from time to time and even make fun of himself. He’s gone through a few relationships, holding up that irking tendency of most celebrities of his status. Tabloids have eaten him up and pounded past the privacy he’s entitled to, but honestly, as ugly as his stories can get (both true and fabricated), his personal life must be separated from his professional one — he’s one of the most accomplished performers around.
Believe it or not, even the most intricate snowflake can find a twin. The description above doesn’t apply to one person — it applies to two. (Actually, the ambiguity there could help it apply to many actors, but I have two in mind. Stay tuned.)
Yeah, these guys probably have no personal beef with each other; they probably have more of a problem with the people (me) who act like there is something to be contested between their two lengthy careers. My justification for the match-up — nothing necessarily antagonizes either of the actors in comparing them this way. Nor will anything change the fact that, however much each of these men have achieved in the realm of film, they’ve each had ups and downs (WAY downs). It’s a matter of where and when they’ve had them, and those dimensions don’t come into play without context.
Yeah, there’s the service they participate in and the world organizations they deal with, along with the headlines that don’t put them in the best of light. I’m not in the position to judge these two based on character; I’m about movies, people. So, with that said, they will be pitted (no pun intended) against each other based on the influence they’ve had in film, whether it’s been fiscal or artistic.
There will be a winner. I’m not going to cop out. Read until the end.
So. Brad Pitt. George Clooney. Here we go.
Warming Up — Ascent to Stardom
Even the best start from somewhere. Clooney makes his film debut with the 1986 flop Combat Academy, Pitt with Hunk in ‘87 (the latter named actor is listed in the movie’s cast as “Guy at beach with drink” — humble beginnings). For the most part, Clooney becomes the “Clooney” we now know in 2016 through his role in the NBC show ER — the doctor drama that started them all — which he stars in from 1994 to 1999. Pitt bounces around looking for the spotlight for a while, grabbing small credits in Less Than Zero and No Man’s Land. The promotional poster of The Dark Side of the Moon, Pitt’s first leading role in a feature length film, looks like a travel agent took Pitt’s picture when he wasn’t ready (needless to say the movie goes straight to video).
They make their mark on cinema soon enough. For Clooney, although the name already leads television, it’s Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (repeatedly dubbed one of the worst movies of all time, but you know, he’s Batman now). For Pitt (who comes onto the scene more subtly and gracefully), it’s Thelma & Louise. Strong female protagonists, played by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, take the lead in this movie (and rightfully get the majority of its praise), but Pitt more or less holds his own weight as a cute hitchhiker. The critics reward him for it, along with other early works like Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It. When all’s said and done, though, there’s no doubt which one out of the two has the hearts of America at the moment — Clooney’s got the head start and, for now, comes out on top.
In the Ring — Life as Top-Listed Actors
Off to the races. Clooney gets his hands on the war satire Three Kings, made by an up-and-coming David O’ Russell (yet to make Silver Linings Playbook and his modern classic, American Hustle) and received with nearly universal acclaim. He also teams up with the Coen brothers, two of the most dominant filmmakers in the business, to pull off Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, which looks modest in comparison to Blood Simple and Fargo but works well enough to end up successful.
Pitt finally focuses on closing the gap, and makes quick work doing it. His run of thrillers in the late 90’s range from the intense Seven to the rather overrated Fight Club (which gets him and his likable co-star Edward Norton attention anyway) and puts him in a position to profit off the turn of the new century.
For the first time, the two cross paths in Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven in 2001. Ironically, they make for some rather appealing screen chemistry, as do Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, and other experienced talents that make the movie as fun as it is. As we zone in on Pitt and Clooney in particular, who each handle themselves smoothly in this con film, we realize for the first time how similar they actually are. They’re both smart, suave, and collected, and they like to inhabit the same kind of skin. Their acting is accessible and transparent. They have a sort of external thought for you to share with them as they mold it. And — above all — they’re pretty darn good at what they do.
With the release of Alejandro Inarritu’s masterful Babel in 2006, Pitt is finally admitted into the short list of respected actors within the film industry. We now look to him not for Ocean’s sequels — the number of which, by 2007, has amounted to two — but for legitimate mediums of craft. Same with Clooney and Syriana, a similarly multi-timeline story that’s better received as an actor showcase than as a comprehensive demonstration of plot.
These are no longer pairs of pretty eyes to google at. These guys are the real deal.
In Full Swing — Expectations Arrive Neck and Neck
Clooney hits hard critically and commercially with Michael Clayton — in which he plays a lawyer in a movie that is about far more than lawyering — before sharing the screen again with Pitt in the Coen brother’s screwball comedy Burn After Reading. For the reputation that the two naturally gifted writers and directors have attained, the film comes up weirdly short; it’s a wash for our two competitors.
George hardly takes a break before promoting the offbeat The Men Who Stare At Goats and Up In the Air, the latter of which generating multiple Academy Award nominations. Pitt, on the other hand, comes out with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Inglorious Basterds. While the two movies are similarly Oscar-enticing, Button is accused of pocketing some plot holes (or just plot points that sound… weird). Pitt’s fierce in Inglorious, but Christoph Waltz, playing a startlingly ruthless German officer, steals the show.
Just as it seems as though Clooney’s pulling away, Pitt drives through with a power-play in 2011. Two, in fact: Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life and Bennett Miller’s Moneyball. Pitt has only a supporting role in the former, a landmark of directorial ability for Mallick. The actor delivers a critical performance as a father whose inner conflict provokes a strict method of parenthood, though its challenging nature, ostensibly jarring, throws early audiences for a loop. The film community will open up to The Tree of Life with time. For now, it’s Moneyball that gets Pitt his recognition; even Field of Dreams devotees can’t doubt that Pitt’s new film deserves to be placed among the best baseball pictures of all time. It isn’t as much about America’s favorite pastime as it is about the brains that go behind it; the script soars. Very quickly, Pitt has arrived at a higher level that dares to be matched.
Clooney doesn’t go unnoticed during this time. After cashing in one film for 2011, The Ides of March (good, not great), he turns in a monster second — The Descendants. Alexander Payne’s film, set in Hawaii, enlists the actor as a man faced with the decision whether to sell a vast grant of rich land for hotel construction in the midst of a family crisis. His performance is heartbreaking. The output race, however, is now favoring Pitt. Clooney needs to restock and stay fresh in people’s minds, fast.
The Wall — Expectations Catch Up
And yet, it’s only so long before Pitt loses ground. 2012’s mob-thriller Killing Them Softly slides by theaters without attracting much attention. World War Z, while a huge contrast in terms of box office earnings, is a routine zombie flick; the genre (I guess it’s a genre now?), as the Western did in an earlier time, has grown stale in its familiarity. With only a small role in 2013’s Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, he needs to re-establish a cushion for himself, one that his next big-budget title, Fury, fails to provide. It’s got two times the gore of Saving Private Ryan but only half its depth. Brad nearly saves it, but the remainder of the cast — Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, and, get this, Shia LaBeouf (?)— is too questionable, and Pitt gets lumped into the indifference.
Clooney uses this to his advantage — the brilliant Gravity is just rolling out onto the big screen. He’s what director Alfonso Cuaron needs him to be: charismatic. He’s opposite Sandra Bullock, the other of the two (two) actors in the picture, but with Cuaron commanding advanced technology to this degree, the visual display turns out to be the star.
So when The Monuments Men comes out a year later, there’s no scent of sympathy.
If the script was as strong as its cast (Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman), maybe it would have worked. It’s got the heart, but certainly not the soul. The story of an Allied regiment tasked with saving artistic relics from the hands of the Nazis is told in strict narrative; a dose of artificial fun is uncomfortably pumped in, too (some of it, surprisingly, from Clooney himself).
And then, in 2015… well, Tommorowland. So, yeah (it’s almost as if people were waiting for a movie to pan).
Pitt and Clooney are still formidable as actors, but their recent material hasn’t been helping them out. Both resumes have entered a minor slump, and it’s tough to see who’s in the lead.
End of Match — The Last Year
Pitt ends 2015 on a moderately sweet note with The Big Short, a skittish comedy-drama that indulges in its knowledge of the stock market crash of 2008. The film snags an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (I’ll leave the question of whether it deserves to win over Carol and Brooklyn to you), but Pitt’s marginal role in the film only parts the way for some respectable nods. Clooney returns the blow early next year — no time to waste — with his fourth collaboration with the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar!. The movie skips with relatively light pace, considering the filmmakers’ dreary and often sarcastic tone in previous works. Money Monster, about a television program for financial device (a blatant play off Mad Money) gone haywire, is released shortly after, though to rather reserved approval.
All Pitt can do now is wait for the arrival of Robert Zemeckis’ Allied, the date of which is slated for November 23 of the current year. A complex love story between potentially conflicting spies during World War II combines a dense plot with a mainstream supply of action and is rapidly generating interest among possible audiences. Clooney’s next project hasn’t been given a definite time frame, and it looks as though Pitt might carry off this year like he did with the last.
We arrive at 2016’s end. The total count comes down to 8 Oscar nominations for Clooney — one of them a Best Actor win for Syriana — while Pitt rakes in 6. George has acted in 76 films in total; Brad, with 75, has missed his opponent’s number by a slim margin. Pitt does, however, have Clooney beat in earnings; he now averages $25 million a year, noticeably ahead of Clooney’s $19 million (quite a different story from Pitt’s first wee acting years — he got $38 for Less Than Zero). Beyond acting, the two aren’t blind to other sectors of filmmaking. They’ve made large statements as producers, having been involved in over 60 movies in the role. Clooney has even dabbled in direction.
However, these are actors first, and we still need to determine a winner — who has more control over cinema?
We’ve discussed how similar these two personalities are, and yet, in the same motion, we’ve managed to uncover an undeniable nuance in the fine print: there’s a big difference between being handed your ticket to fame and earning it. Clooney had ER to launch him onto the big screen, but Pitt has belonged to the movies from the very start. We’ve watched Brad build himself up through minor characters, low-budget films, and long shots. Even in the thick of his stardom, he’s continued to take risks and grow as an actor, constantly finding new tests for his niche. He’s also a team player, knowing when to concede the foreground to those who need (and deserve) it. It’s true that Pitt has a rebound move that Clooney doesn’t; our sentiments depend on more than a wink, and Pitt remembers how and when to prove it.
The game has changed numerous times over, but even when his muted surroundings don’t serve him well, Pitt has always mastered the art of relevancy. Clooney keeps reappearing because he thrives on it, but Pitt does so in harmony with the lay of the land.
For that, Brad Pitt comes up with the victory.