Every awards season has its darling. An actor whose modesty, wit and earnest embrace of the Oscar race charms both punters and peers. Last year, it was Richard E Grant, whose 30-year career – and longstanding friendship with numerous A-listers – was successfully redacted for a new narrative: he was a wide-eyed starlet gasping at the sight of Lady Gaga.
This year’s homecoming king is 56-year-old Brad Pitt: an evergreen A-lister who has managed a third-act reinvention as, simultaneously, a veteran, an unknown (thanks to a strategic decision to wear his name tag at the Oscar nominees’ lunch), a frontrunner, an underdog, a footloose bachelor and half of Hollywood’s best-loved power couple.
Most surprising, perhaps, has been Pitt’s sudden emergence as a public speaker of rare zip and self-awareness. The actor’s acceptance speeches at the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, where his performance as a zen stuntman in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood won him best supporting actor, made headlines for their well-crafted wisecracks.
In the former, after a nod to Leonardo DiCaprio’s fate in Titanic (“I would have shared the raft”), he explained he’d hoped to bring his mother as his plus-one, “but any woman I stand next to they say I’m dating and it’d just be awkward”. At the SAGs, he began by saying he’d have to update his Tinder profile, teased his director about his foot fetish (“Quentin has separated more women from their shoes than the TSA”), then indulged in superlative self-satire. His part in the film, he said, was “a big stretch: a guy who gets high, takes his shirt off and doesn’t get on with his wife.”
“The idea that Pitt has a speechwriter is not news,” says Anne Thompson, Indiewire’s editor-at-large. “They all use them. Carrie Fisher used to do it. This one is good, whoever they are.”
“Every one of the competing films has a PR team that brainstorm, write, manage, promote and do everything possible to control every single moment and decision of the campaign,” adds Steven Gaydos, editor-in-chief of Variety. The financial and artistic stakes are too high for anything other than micro-management. The script for such a key lobbying platform would never be left in the hands of an amateur.
Or, even, a film-maker: it’s rumoured a Netflix insider has drafted all the potential acceptance speeches for Marriage Story, while names mooted to be behind Pitt’s bon mots include Saturday Night Live stars Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. “Everything is very carefully curated,” says Thompson. “The awards teams behind each of these films have talking points, things they want to get across.”
In the case of Pitt, these include his emergence from domestic and addiction woes (“We know pain, we know loneliness,” he said at the SAGs) and his newfound singleton status. This is balanced by an amplification of his “good-old-boy qualities … leaning into jokes that men will laugh at,” says Thompson. Phrases such as “holy moly” have made an appearance. He refers to his colleagues as brothers and sisters, to DiCaprio as “an all-star, a gent”.
Also key is the dovetailing of Pitt’s podium persona with his character in the film: macho yet laconic, tough yet up for concluding a speech with a shoutout for kindness. This ensures he acts as a goodwill conduit for a film many voters might not feel is quite worthy of a top prize (just, says Thompson, as Laura Dern is likely to become “the win” for Marriage Story).
Another of Pitt’s strengths is his willingness to play the game. While his chief rival in the supporting actor category – The Irishman’s Joe Pesci – does no press and rarely attends awards ceremonies, Pitt is the opposite. “He has an incredibly engaging, warm and open acceptance of the rigours of campaigning,” says Gaydos. “Night after night, day after day, he’s attending an endless stream of events and when called upon to collect another award, he’s shown a side of himself that is sincere, witty and appreciative.”
Hollywood’s renewed crush on its longtime darling is also self-protection, thinks Gaydos. At a time when the bona fide movie star is under threat, Pitt acts as the ultimate poster boy.
The ace up Pitt’s sleeve, however, remains the real-life drama in which so many still invest: whether he and ex-wife Jennifer Aniston – now both divorced from their second spouses – could reconnect. His marital-discord crack at the SAGs was warmly applauded by Aniston in the audience, and photos of the pair congratulating one other backstage have proved an irresistible crumb to millions hoping for a reunion.
“Hollywood is a small town. And they genuinely still like each other,” says Thompson. “But Brad and Jen knew they were being photographed. Movie stars are calculating everything all the time. They make clever calculations that become viral moments. That’s how they stay movie stars.”
Whether or not a reconciliation occurs, the warmth such a prospect engenders will likely help buoy the belle of this year’s ball to his first on-screen Oscar. “Oh yeah,” says Thompson. “There’s no way it’s not gonna be Brad.”