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Notes from the “Overrated in Pop Culture” Files

coverNight on a film set in Buenos Aires

When I ask people who their favorite actor is, the most common response I get is: Brad Pitt.

When I ask people who their favorite actress is, the most common response I get is: Kate Winslet.

And why not?  For one, both just seem like really cool people. Brad Pitt, purely by virtue of his likable nature, managed to emerge from the tabloid-seasoned celebrity affair of the decade as The Man – the Coolest Guy in School, albeit on a global level.  No one, not even his jilted ex-wife Jennifer Aniston, has a word to say against him. It was no wonder that Quentin Tarantino, the consummate Sorta Cool Nerd in the High School of Hollywood, apparently begged Pitt to star in “Inglourious Basterds.”  (Frankly, I sometimes get the feeling that Tarantino’s entire career as a director is in part just his elaborate way of social climbing.  Elaborate, yet successful. Good on you, QT.)

Kate Winslet, in turn, is widely regarded as the greatest actress of her generation.  She has been nominated for six (SIX!) Academy Awards, four of them by the age of 29, which sounds like more nominations than actual films in her illustrious oeuvre.  In interviews, she comes across as both funny and down-to-earth.  And much like Pitt is self-deprecating about his celebrity, Winslet jokes about her “Esteemed Career” and nickname of “Corset Kate.”

It’s not that I don’t like both Pitt and Winslet- I do, I do.  They are impossible not to like.  Not only do they have my vote for Prom King and Queen, they certainly deserve credit for making stellar career decisions, avoiding common pitfalls like selling out and Scientology, and being consistently good at what they do.  But maybe – just possibly – the astronomical amount of goodwill towards them, their mountains of awards and accolades, and their choice pick of any role that comes their way, might just be the smallest bit undeserved.  More precisely, their reputations might have more to do with how cool they are perceived to be offscreen, rather than what they do for us onscreen.

Take Pitt, for one: He seems to stay above scrutiny by choosing a variety of roles in a variety of films, but is he particularly adept at any one of them?  I usually employ a simple matrix here, consisting of three categories of performances: The Scene Stealer, The Character Actor and The Star.  A successful actor need not be able to do all three roles, just one and – for these purposes – let’s say he need only do it ONCE.  And I won’t use the straw-man approach and look at Pitt’s worst roles; I’ll choose his best, and play it from there:

The Scene Stealer: The sort of sizzling role that wins Oscars, “The Scene Stealer” is a character both written cool and filmed cool, and is usually viewed from the perspective of a more straight-laced narrator who, like the audience, can’t take his eyes off of him (or her).  This is the scenery-chewing role – this character crackles with electricity. Think Denzel Washington in “Training Day,” Daniel Day Lewis in “Gangs of New York,” Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Carribean” or hell, even Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted.”

Pitt Exhibit A: “Fight Club.”  If Pitt is indeed The Man, the role of Tyler Durden in “Fight Club” was his moment to blast it onscreen – Durden is the quintessential Scene-Stealer role.  Does Pitt pull it off? Not really. He is oddly upstaged by Ed Norton, the straight-man, Luke Wilson-type in the film. (In fact, following “Fight Club,” Norton and Pitt’s careers went off on what I like to view as opposite trajectories.  Norton is the anti-Pitt. He can act like a fucking house on fire, but he’s made shite career decisions. No one cares about his celebrity girlfriends, whether controversial (Courtney Love) or beautiful (Salma Hayek). No one cares about yet-the-next cop drama he’s appearing in.  And no one cares anymore that he can act.  Pop culture loves Brad Pitt, ergo it hates Ed Norton.)

The Character Actor: Pitt wisely acts in a lot of ensemble casts, with directors such as the Coen Brothers, Soderbergh and Tarantino, each of whom make it a point to stock their films with their favorite character actors.  Famous character actors like John Turturro, Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi work like a medieval acting troupe, each losing themselves entirely in whatever new role comes their way.

Pitt Exhibit B: Pitt’s never a standout, but it’s hard for him to compete; character actors thrive on a certain amount of anonymity, and Pitt’s fame as a celebrity makes any role he plays a “Brad Pitt Role.”  In “Inglourious Basterds,” the audience is still acutely aware they are watching Brad Pitt, just with an accent, and in “Burn After Reading,” the audience is watching “Brad Pitt does ridiculous bumbler.”  Some people might point to “12 Monkeys” as proof of his skill, Pitt’s Oscar-nominated role from 1995.  Suffice to say, I am not one of those people. Seriously, just re-watch “12 Monkeys.” His performance has NOT held up.

The Star: This category is indifferent to traditional “thespian” abilities: it’s reserved for the $20 million paycheck Movie Stars, the small group of men and women who can carry an entire film, often by the strength of their close-ups alone, like Tom Cruise. This could be where Pitt fits in; like his pal George Clooney, Will Smith or Bruce Willis, perhaps his offscreen charisma can translate onscreen, or perhaps his larger-than-life celebrity will make for a Russell Crowe-type of larger-than-life hero.

Pitt Exhibit C: “Troy.” Just – “Troy.”

So what exactly is it that Pitt can do, exactly? Why is he one of the world’s biggest, and most beloved, movie stars? Perhaps because… in real life, he’s The Man.

My gripe against Kate Winslet is obviously quite different.  I can’t put her into the matrix, because she has no matrix.  I’d like to compare her ability as a character actor to that of Frances McDormand, or pit her scene-stealing against Meryl Streep’s or her onscreen charisma against that of Julia Roberts. But other than a few exceptions that Winslet phones in from time to time like “The Holiday,” she comes out in the same role in the same film over and over: “The Brilliantly-Restrained Oscar Bait.”

Having been nominated for an Oscar from practically her first film, if not from birth, onwards, Winslet owns the category of films which are defined by an end-of-the-year Oscar season release date, a high pedigree literary source, and an “Acclaimed Cast.” At least five or six of these “acting master class” type of films come out every year and hold their breath for some nominations before quietly slinking back into the fold.  One of my all-time favorite film reviews is Lucas Stensland’s review of “Closer,” where he provides the following scathing term: “‘Art’ films for shopping mall cineplexes.”

These films are usually poor translations of the novels on which they are based (their source material being far better suited for literature than film), and are generally forgettable, as though to ensure that the actors will no doubt be the best thing in them.  After all, for what possible reason did we need the films “The Hours” or “Possession,” other than for Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow to provide “brilliantly restrained performances”?

So here is my question: if Kate Winslet is such a terrific actress, why doesn’t she ever act in films that are otherwise worth watching?  And while there is an air of dislike surrounding Paltrow, Kidman, Annette Bening, and the other top actresses who relentlessly – and solely –  finance this drivel, why has Winslet escaped unscathed?

Perhaps because unlike Paltrow, Kidman and Bening, Winslet… just seems like a really cool person.

That might be all it takes.

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