Brad Pitt is the most underrated actor in the world, and he has only his looks to blame. After all, how can someone known to millions of movie fans for his, well, face, excel in acting? But that’s what he does, in movies after movies (Babel, to name just one), and yet the Academy of Motion Pictures looks the other way when Pitt delivers. It’s the same reason why Tom Cruise was denied the “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” Oscar in 2000 for for his performance in Magnolia. Cruise displayed skills far more subtle and poignant than Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules, yet it was the veteran actor who won. Caine was honest about his award: "I'm a survivor, that's what they gave it to me for."
But this year, Pitt has been nominated for the Best Actor award for his role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (In 1995, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Twelve Monkeys but the Oscar went rightly to Kevin Spacey for his performance in The Usual Suspects). And the odds are against him this year too for getting the nod from the high priests of the Academy. The favorite to win is Mickey Rourke for his gritty performance in The Wrestler.
The case for Rourke is compelling. First, his acting in Wrestler was brilliant, no question about it. Second, the story also reflects Rourke’s personal odyssey, a gifted actor with self-destructive tendencies who almost lost it but managed to stage a stirring comeback. Who cannot identify with that? Who can resist such redemption?
Yet, if we separate the personal from the public, we have to conclude that Pitt’s performance in Button is superior to Rourke’s in Wrestler. Pitt’s material, based on the short story by Scott Fitzgerald about a man who ages backwards, is more difficult. Very few actors could have pulled it off without reducing the role to a caricature. Whether it is feeling the first pangs of love, fidelity or loss, or roaming Siddharta-like in India to find himself, or staring kismet in the face, or coming to terms with life's cruelty and grace, Pitt transcends acting and transports us to a wondrous realm. For the first time, I realized in my guts what “willing suspension of disbelief” meant watching Pitt portray his magic on the screen.
I hope Brad Pitt wins the Best Actor Oscar this year. If that happens, years from now, we will fondly remember the 81st Annual Academy Awards for its own rare performance of justice.