Assassination Of Jessie James
Credit: Kimberly French

loving the art of screenwriting

Moneyball, the crackerjack true-life baseball movie starring Brad Pitt as the quirky, embattled, visionary Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (a name born to be a movie character), took a lot of people, including me, by surprise. A baseball drama with a star as big as Brad Pitt might have seemed like the perfect summer movie, so you had to wonder a bit why it wasn’t one. Then too, given the film’s late-September, quasi-no-man’s-land release date, it didn’t exactly sound like awards material either (though people have already started to talk about it in that way). Baseball movies, for whatever reason, have historically been underachievers at the box office (Moneyball‘s $20.6 million take makes it the all-time opening-weekend champ for a baseball flick), so the expectations were at a relatively low ebb when I first saw the movie a couple of weeks ago at the Toronto International Film Festival. (What was a baseball movie doing at TIFF anyway?) Yet from that moment, right up until this very moment, I have yet to meet anyone who’s seen Moneyball who doesn’t like it a lot. The picture is incredibly shrewd entertainment, lively and original and full of surprise, directed and acted with great passion and skill.

More than anything, though, the film’s not-so-secret weapon is its screenplay, written by the powerhouse team of Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network). Moneyball may be a sports movie, but what it really is is one of those happy, gabby, super-smart talkfests that take you back to the pleasures of movies made during the wisecracking days of the Hollywood studio system, when action and F/X and “visuals” hadn’t taken over everything, and talking — whether in snappy screwball comedies, ingeniously ominous film noirs, or teary romantic melodramas — was really all that actors and actresses could do. Moneyball isn’t a movie about swinging a bat and spitting tobacco. It’s a heady, digital-age story of salaries, statistics, front-office politics, and the art of the deal that lurks behind the art of the game.

At key moments, you get to see how the players are traded, and I’ve never encountered anything like these scenes in a baseball movie. At one crucial point, Billy sits down at his phone and makes an interlocking round of calls, proposing one trade and then another, pitching and sometimes bluffing, cutting off one call so that he can make another to sniff out the backstory of his rivals’ strategy, all the while keeping the names of assorted players in the air as though he were juggling rings or playing a high-stakes round of Texas Hold ’em. It’s a whizzy, exhilarating sequence, the kind you watch perched on the edge of your brain. The beauty of Pitt’s performance is that he makes it all look and sound effortless. The beauty of the script is that it puts that casual torrent of words front and center, using it to hook us as rousingly as any car chase or alien attack.

Of course, it’s not as if smart screenplays, before Moneyball, had disappeared. Movies with zingy scripts appear every awards season — and, once in a while, during the off-season. But just think back to a year ago, when The Social Network, a movie written with nimble genius by Aaron Sorkin, was released. Yes, it received the thunderous acclaim it deserved, and yes, audiences turned out for it. Yet both the movie and its success were treated, in a way, as a fabulous anomaly. Look! A brilliantly written movie with intense topical relevance like they used to make back in the ’70s! If anything, The Social Network, as marvelous as it was, was greeted as the exception that proved the rule. And the rule, of course, is this: Audiences today want to be entertained, and that means that they don’t, by and large, want to think very hard. They want diversion, spectacle, easy-to-scan characters, great escape. And that means not words but eye candy. They want their brains on IMAX.

That, of course, has been the conventional wisdom in Hollywood for years — a self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps, but one that’s borne out every time you see a visually driven, screenplay-challenged comic-book extravaganza zoom to the top of the box office. But now, as the year takes shape, I’m starting to sense a different impulse: a pendulum swing, perhaps. It’s one thing for critics to champion playfully literate screenplay-driven movies, like The Social Network or The King’s Speech, that if we’re all lucky become hits during awards season. It’s another when audiences, almost on their own, seem to display an insatiable hunger for them. And this year, I would argue that the screenplay-driven experience is notably on the rise. Bridesmaids, with its brilliantly sharp and humane and — yes — hilarious script, led the way. The Help, let’s be honest, is a movie that no one, not even the artists and executives who believed in it and got it made in the first place, probably ever expected to gross $160-$170 million. Now there’s Moneyball, a baseball movie as madly talky and analytical as a hot night on MSNBC. So far, it seems to be connecting as solidly as a big bat biting into a fastball.

Based on just a handful of upcoming films I’ve seen, Moneyball is going to prove far from an anomaly. George Clooney’s hot-button political drama, The Ides of March (opening on October 7), is driven by a terrific, razor-sharp script, and so is Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and David Cronenberg’s when-Freud-met-Jung drama A Dangerous Method, which presents the fascinating spectacle of Cronenberg, after decades of trippy, often horrific freakouts, making what is, in effect, his version of a Merchant-Ivory film (though it’s also every inch a Cronenberg film). Could it be that in desperate and maybe more honest times, American moviegoers have already begun to seek out something new and essential that is also very old? The months ahead will tell. For right now, it seems as if more and more, from coast to coast, audiences, for the first time in a long time, may finally be standing up to say: All hail the word!

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Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

More than any actor of his era, Brad Pitt spent years living down being the Sexiest Man Alive. He was introduced to audiences, in Thelma & Louise (1991), as a sultry disheveled wedge of boy-toy heat, and though, from the roles he chose, he did everything he could not to allow himself to get pigeonholed that way, he looked so good — and was used, so often, for the iconic swooniness of his looks, whether in a wholesome trifle of Americana like A River Runs Through It (1992) or a moody weeper like Meet Joe Black (1998) — that it was difficult for him to be taken very seriously as an actor. Audiences, and the media too, gazed at him and didn’t necessarily see raw talent. They saw a copper-haired demigod who had just enough talent, perhaps, to squeak by in the acting department.

But if you looked closer, what you saw is that Brad Pitt, though he did spend a while finding his way, was often a terrific actor. He had that instinctive, old-movie-star thing that people today, when they look as beautiful as he does, aren’t supposed to have: You could call it, quite simply, an actor’s intelligence — but I would call it the ability to wrap the drama of a scene around his quality of mind. (It’s the thing that Robert Redford, whom Pitt hates to be compared to, had in movies like The Candidate and Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men and The Natural.) People like to say, with bitchy inaccuracy, that Pitt now looks “old” (we should all look like that at 47), but the truth is that age has only been kind to him. It’s toughened his beauty, made him keener and rougher, lent a gravitas to his flashing-eyed allure.

He exuded a smooth command in Se7en (1995), but I first really saw how audacious Pitt could be as an actor in Fight Club (1999), where he played Tyler Durden as a warped ringleader of cool (his priceless reading of the line “How’s that workin’ out for you?” singlehandedly made it a catch phrase), and where he articulated — and triumphed over — a generation of male fears. In Fight Club, he was a magnetic contradiction: loose as a goose and coiled as a cobra. Eight years later, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), he was even better. The movie, at least to me, was a painfully inert and indulgent art Western, but every time Pitt came on screen as Jesse James, the film vibrated with his threat. It wasn’t just Jesse’s promise of violence; it was the sense Pitt imparted that he was plugged into the physical world on a brutally incisive sociopath’s crimimal-animal level. He could scare you because he saw everything inside you. That’s not a quality you can really write into a script. It’s one that the actor has to bring. And that’s Brad Pitt’s truly sexiest quality, and also his single most enduring feature as an actor: his awareness.

He had it in Inglourious Basterds too. Those who missed the inspired level of what Pitt brought off in Quentin Tarantino’s devilishly gripping World War II saga just looked at his Lieutenant Aldo Raine and saw a weather-beaten mug, a hickory-chewin’ Ozarks accent, and a don’t f— with me attitude. It was, in a way, a comic turn, but its down-home magic came from the mischievous dead seriousness of what Pitt didn’t say: that Aldo had become a soldier because he was really a hunter, and that meant he could sniff you out and skin you alive. In The Tree of Life, Pitt combined that hunter’s instinct with the religious imperiousness of a tough-love ’50s dad. He played a man who could see right into the souls of his sons, which is why he locked himself, tragically, into a power struggle with them.

In Moneyball, Pitt, playing fast-talk baseball politics, gives a completely different kind of performance — a performance of pure, gliding-grace movie-star ease — yet what holds the movie together, once again, is the sense that he’s glimpsing things in a room, in a negotiation, that other people don’t. Pitt gives Billy Beane more than instinct; he gives him antennae. And in doing so, he lets the audience feel that they, too, can see something that no one else can. What few will fail to see, at this point, is that Brad Pitt, the former Sexiest Man Alive, has become a great actor.

So do you agree with me that mainstream audiences now seem hungry for screenplay-driven movies in a way that they haven’t in quite a while? And what do you think of Brad Pitt as an actor? What do you find compelling (or not) about him, and what’s your all-time favorite Pitt performance?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

loving the art of screenwriting
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