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Brad Pitt's transformation

In ”A River Runs Through It,” the heartthrob graduates from sex symbol to real actor

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This is as big as it gets in Bozeman, Mont., on a Saturday night. The occasion is the U.S. premiere of Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It. Most of the movie, which is based on Norman Maclean’s autobiographical 1976 novella about two fly-fishing brothers in early 20th century Montana, was shot in the vicinity; local participation was high. At a postpremiere gala held at a converted hotel called The Baxter, Redford — arguably the biggest blond male star to hit the area since George Armstrong Custer — stands amid a mob of Bozemanites who have abandoned any pretense of high-plains cool. Still, a few yards away, the other blond star in the room — Brad Pitt, who plays the doomed, charming wastrel and ace fisherman Paul Maclean — isn’t doing too badly himself. The difference between Redford’s crowd and Pitt’s is that the younger man’s is almost exclusively female.

Beaming and patting their hair like crazy, the women line up for a few words with the young actor. ”Hi, I’m Betsy,” says a woman of a certain age. ”I know you don’t remember us — we were on the set.” ”We were hanging around like a bad smell,” her friend says, grinning. Another presses an autograph pad on Pitt. ”I just turned 40 today,” she tells the 28-year-old actor. ”Would you write something to make me feel better?”

He has this power. Pitt’s J.D., the drifter he played in Thelma & Louise, was the stuff of female fantasy: polite, devilishly cute, mildly dangerous, and sexually skillful to a fare-thee-well. And then there were those blue eyes, those abs, and, of course, those glutes. (”I love to watch him go,” purred Thelma, whom he seduced.)

Pitt’s total screen time in that movie was about 14 minutes, but those were 14 very big minutes. The epitome of white-trash soul, he emanated a sly mystery, a superbly modulated disingenuousness, that seemed to signal — long past the graying of Newman and Redford and just when we thought the genus was extinct — the advent of Hollywood’s next Golden Boy.

River pays off on the promise. Pitt’s Paul Maclean is bigger and fresher-faced than J.D., with a straight-backed, clean-jawed raffishness that harks back to — alley oop — none other than Redford himself. Much has already been made of the likeness. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin even went so far as to claim Pitt dyed his hair blond for the role. Pitt denies it. And both director and star are at pains to assert that any resemblance is coincidental.

”The only thing I was conscious of,” Pitt says, ”was that I grew up watching the guy’s movies. Everything I’ve done, they said I look like somebody.” He widens his eyes. ”Once some writer said I reminded him of John Davidson.”

Right now he doesn’t even look much like Brad Pitt. While publicizing River, he hasn’t been quick to lose the goatee and greasy mane he grew for his next project, the recently completed Kalifornia, in which he plays a serial killer named Early Grayce. Perhaps disguises are in order. Pitt and housemate Juliette Lewis (Husbands and Wives), who costars in Kalifornia as his girlfriend, are currently, to the delight of neither, the hottest young couple in Hollywood. ”The National Enquirer goes through our trash,” Pitt says, shaking his head.