"I don't get Brad Pitt, do you?" Pauline Kael asks her interviewer in the book Afterglow, as she rattles off her likes and dislikes among actors. Jeez, lady, what's not to get? He's a rare Hollywood superstar who (relatively speaking) doesn't seem to take himself too seriously, who is aging gracefully into his 40s, who comes across happiest and strongest as a performer when cast in spry support. He was sexy and jaunty in Thelma & Louise, ingratiatingly manic in Twelve Monkeys, energetically dim-witted in Burn After Reading, wry and self-mocking in Inglourious Basterds. How many other A-list celebs would have agreed to what is essentially a background character in Raine, would have willingly played most of his part in the tavern scene as an offscreen voice, would have sported a ridiculous Italian accent? ("Bawn-jerno!") Pitt's best roles take advantage of the fact that he's a scene-stealing bit player trapped in a leading man's body. His worst put his handsome mug front and center and ask him to do nothing but pose like a pinup boy.
Which brings us to Legends of the Fall. Anybody recall this film? It was released in 1994, as Pitt's star was rising and filmmakers were still figuring out what to do with him. Neil Jordan botched the job in Interview with the Vampire (though, in fairness, he had an equally miscast Tom Cruise to contend with). Yet Robert Redford had directed him well in A River Runs Through It, preserving Pitt's smartassiness while bringing out a hitherto untapped sensitivity. Legends of the Fall is A River Runs Through It run amuck. It adds one extra brother, replaces Tom Skerritt's flawed but caring patriarch with Anthony Hopkins' more overbearing version, ramps up the familial angst, and bloats itself into (so it believes) a tragic American epic.
I caught about 20 minutes of Legends this week while flipping past Oxygen, and it's even more horrendous than I remembered. (If ever there was a movie for the Oxygen Channel, this is it.) I had forgotten that Pitt's character was named Tristan, and that he is the type of turn-of-the-century Harlequin stud with flowing golden locks that was mocked at the start of Romancing the Stone. I had forgotten that Pitt along with his two sibling, older Aidan Quinn and younger Henry Thomas, all fall in love with the same woman (Julia Ormond, whose appealing and natural flintiness was airbrushed during this period in a misguided attempt to make her an ingenue). All also go to war -- the First WW -- where their wounds are distributed with dour predictability: Quinn's are physical; Pitt's psychic; and Thomas's lead to his untimely death. Legends of the Fall is the kind of movie where the baby brother with the doe-eyed fiance back home isn't just shot; he's ground into mincemeat by a German machine-gun. Any illusions left over from Glory that Edward Zwick was a competent director were quickly dispelled by this unintentionally hilarious, tone-deaf scene, only one among many.
But wait, there's more. After Henry Thomas becomes machine-gun fodder, Pitt isn't happy. No siree. He feels responsible, but more than that he feels that the Jerries are responsible, and he's primed for vengeance. Heroic Man Of Nature that he is, he slips into the tent of a Native American compatriot, apparently confiscates a knife, puts on war-paint and ambushes the pair of Germans. (Note: I wasn't paying complete attention during the tent scene, so please correct any errors of assumption.) Then, after slitting the poor bastards' throats, Pitt scalps them. It's unclear precisely what he does with the scalps but Ormond is undoubtedly drawn to his psychotic machismo so they must have done the guy some good. (There's a later scene where he waked from a nightmare and puts a knife to her throat. If that's not a turn-on, I don't know what is.) Pitt and Quinn return home for the interminable second half of the picture, and I changed the channel.
Pitt would work with Hopkins again in the somnambulant Meet Joe Black. (Directed by self-deluded auteur Martin Brest -- never has a director demanded so many takes for such meager results.) And he recently appeared with Ormond in Benjamin Button, though they share no scenes. I'm tempted to deem Legends of the Fall his worst film, yet the scalping scene gives me pause. What do you think: Is Legends a forgotten favorite of Tarantino's? Are we overlooking the Zwickian influence on his work?