Brangelina: What Will Happen Next?

The silver screen's most famous divorcees lives - and careers - are going in different directions

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Can we agree to do this without recrimination or mockery? Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had been together (more or less) for 11 years in a situation where it's hard enough to be married, next to impossible for two talented actors to exist as if they don't have to be the centre of attention, and hideous if the vulture internet insists you are the most famous celebrity couple in the world — and then waits to break you up.

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So, the poor wretches can rest now; and surely they deserve it. But we deserve some peace, too. They have been living ghosts for a couple of years — how could they still be excited at being together? How could they put their legendary heads together on a pillow and not listen for the camera's click, or gossip's whisper? I wish them nothing but good fortune. I feel sympathy for all the children — do we have to look up just how many there are? But I could handle a stretch without having to think about them, let alone sit through such calamities as By the Sea (2015).

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Recalling that lush but ponderous SOS for divorce lawyers gives you a clue: Brangelina didn't click together on screen, but neither did Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I know, Mr & Mrs Smith has a reputation for scandal, because something happened there that shouldn't have. But that works once. Famous lovers hired to do it again are often a let-down. It's those sneaky first-time affairs that count, like Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in The Light Between Oceans, wondering what else there was to do on a boring job. Kissing can be best when you're doing it with people you shouldn't be kissing. The priest saying, "You may kiss the bride," can be death by permission.

I believe Burton and Taylor were in love (you feel it in his Diaries), but their movies work when they're fighting. What would you give to see Brangelina in their home-movie version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The best romantic movies are ones in which strangers look at each other and seem to say (like Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not, and they faded after two glories), "God, would I like to get my hands on him/her?" while arguing, "But wouldn't it be a crazy dream, especially when I have an agent, lawyers, drivers, secretaries, child-minders, financial advisers, personal trainers, dietitians and any casual fuck I want?"

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If you have the entourage, what room is left for a spouse? So the odds were long that Brangelina could stay hot on screen. By the Sea is truly about lovers who want escape. Why they did that hopeless film only teaches you about the desperation in hope. My curiosity over Pitt and Jolie is fixed on what they are going to do next; in turn, that asks us to consider what they've done already. Apart from being "Brangelina", who are they?

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The Jolie performance that means the most to me is in 1999's Girl, Interrupted. She won every prize for it, including supporting actress Oscar, as the bad girl in the asylum, a charismatic sociopath, both beautiful and unstable. There was no doubting her sex appeal or intelligence, but something in Jolie was unwilling to settle for sweetness or likeability. She had the swagger of a femme fatale that signalled roles like Lara Croft and Maleficent in which humanity began to cross over into comic-book extremism and a baleful need for authority. Lisa in Girl, Interrupted wanted to run others' lives and that domineering energy became more pervasive in Jolie. Her own humourlessness was ready for Lisa — but being short on irony is peril for an actor. Doing your own intense thing can go stale very fast.

In those early days, she was more versatile an actress than she would prove to be later. She was striking as the second wife in the 1997 TV biopic George Wallace, and relaxed enough to show a genuine spunky charm in the Denzel Washington film The Bone Collector, a fanciful story but a guilty pleasure for many people (OK, me). She plays a rookie cop who takes the fancy of a brilliant tetraplegic investigator (Washington) who enlists her as his plucky assistant. Her great eyes bloomed in the watchfulness required of the role. More than that, an old principle was renewed: women like being with Denzel on screen; it may go further. The tetraplegic and the kid triumph, of course, and though Washington's character can only move one finger there is the plain suggestion they are in love by the end of their adventure. I couldn't believe the real Jolie would settle for that single-finger deal, but she has rapport with Denzel and a mischievous fondness.

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By then, Jolie was known, if not exactly liked. She had regal looks but not too much warmth. Her public life was coloured by having taken Brad from Jennifer Aniston (it must surely have been as much Brad's fault), but he was notably popular, if not lovable. Jolie identified with political causes and made many public statements: reasonable and deserving issues, but a note of self-righteousness was creeping in. And when she played Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart, there was too much feeling she was the wife of a martyr, a set-piece for pathos more than a living character. That attitude to life was borne out in the six children (biological and adopted), all, apparently, speaking their own languages and beginning to be a small League of Nations. Or chaos? It felt as if Jolie was more set on a career in politics or public action than as an actress.

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I know, she became a director, and showed genuine aptitude for the job. There are action scenes in Unbroken that are very well shot and edited. Even By the Sea does the erotics of voyeurism with a creepy Hitchcockian instinct. That said, Unbroken is preoccupied with cruelty in a way that does not feel digested or understood. (I could say the same thing for some films by David Fincher.)

But the sense of violence or damage is oppressive in Jolie's work, and if I ever ended up counselling her artistic soul, I would say it was an area she needs to explore. There is some unfinished anger in this director, and I can see how it might exercise itself in films about appalling wrongs done to people. (She has a new project, about a woman suffering cruelty in Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, that sounds like evidence for a UN tribunal rather more than for our Odeons.)

That's not mockery. There's every reason now to feel we require films about enormous public issues just because we hardly trust regular entertainment any more in a world of disasters. I can easily see Angelina Jolie becoming a public voice somewhere between Mother Teresa and Joan Crawford — and the gap there may not be as great as it seems. She needs to be on her own, like a figurehead. That has always been her sense of the world and her place in it. I suspect she believes she has been wronged in life.

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Brad Pitt is so much more gregarious and relaxed, even if that mob of kids sometimes threatened his calm. He is a movie star, no doubt about it, but he has hardly pushed himself forward. He would probably have done more Ocean's films if those guys were up for it. He has been available as a very useful, encouraging producer behind the scenes: a short list of films he has enabled includes A Mighty Heart, The Tree of Life, Moneyball, World War Z, 12 Years a Slave, Fury, Selma, Moonlight and The Lost City of Z. That's a considerable record and I have never heard a word to say that he has been intrusive, unreliable or difficult on any venture — not that difficult is any more out of line in a producer than it can be in an actress.

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So many of his movies as an actor draw on that team spirit. Fury is an oddly apocalyptic World War II film in which Pitt is the commander of an ill-assorted US tank crew. In a way, his role is a stock figure, not so far from a John Wayne stereotype, but Pitt inhabits the part and takes it into areas of unexpected depth. When he and the crew's rookie eat a meal with two German women, Pitt is flat-out brilliant as a sergeant no longer quite in charge, deeply troubled by the unholy war, but trying to do his best for the young people. Fury didn't get too much attention but it was made with care to the point of love, and Pitt was the bankable element that got it made — and made a hit out of it. He is the kind of actor easily taken for granted when he's doing more profound work than some Oscar-winners.

He works steadily enough to have accumulated his share of duds. I never want to go near The Curious Case of Benjamin Button again, though he works so earnestly in it that you feel tired, more than just old. I think his Achilles in Troy is a strenuous bore, and Moneyball is an overrated film. The Billy Beane it portrays was far from a baseball genius at the Oakland A's, yet Pitt looked complacent and a touch smug, as if he really believed he was playing a mastermind.

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On the other hand, his work in Fight Club, Se7en and Inglourious Basterds is the kind of male genre acting that is easily overlooked. It's plain that Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey are tours de force in Se7en, and it can seem that Pitt's young cop is the standard middle-ground holding place for them. But his zeal, his rage and his love for his wife flow together in a tragic performance. In Fight Club, he presents a boyish demon, a warped Hemingwayesque hero, yet a master of mayhem. That is the film where Pitt lives up to all the early estimates (from Thelma & Louise on) that he was James Dean-ish. No one forgets his cowboy rascal in that road film for women, or his adroit wooing of Geena Davis, and the fresh lift he gives her — before absconding with a large tip.

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But still, I have not mentioned Pitt at his most remarkable. I have problems with the aspirations or pretensions of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, but Pitt's Mr O'Brien — stern yet soft at heart — is one of the most appealing fathers in American film. It's not just that he supports the performances of the boys (his three sons). It's more he is one of them. That character leads the sympathetic mind back into some of the great American novels, to William Faulkner, Willa Cather and Flannery O'Connor. That Pitt could do much more than he has ventured yet.

Though in one instance, he has gone further and it is something still not much remarked on. His fitness instructor in the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading is a comic creation of a high order. It's as if the often gradual or leisurely Pitt (he is from rural Oklahoma) had found a different gear of pomp, pique and being empty-headed. Moreover, playing an idiot can be beyond the reach or comfort of so many actors. I don't find it easy to imagine Jolie pretending to be a fool or a dullard; she is so anxious to have our respect. But Pitt works out of a larger security: I think he could do adventurous comedy if anyone was prepared to write and direct top-class screwball for him.

Jolie did take on the role of a simple woman in Changeling, as the mother who loses a son and then has to insist that a "recovered" child is not hers. She got an Oscar nomination for the part but I find the performance hard to swallow. Director Clint Eastwood cast Jolie because he felt she had a Depression-era look; I don't see that and I don't think the actress knew how to drop her sophistication. Eastwood is not the man to explore the mind of an inarticulate woman and I have to think other actresses could have been more credible and thus more touching.

Pitt is executive producer on two upcoming television series: one about the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (to be played by Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon), and the other on the expeditions of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804–'06. As far as I can see, he acts in neither of them, though he does appear on screen (opposite Marion Cotillard — and they seem to have chemistry together) in Allied, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by the invaluable Steven Knight. Meanwhile, Jolie is monopolised by stories about wronged women in dangerous parts of the world. She's said she was never comfortable acting and has said she will not act again on screen, and is not the only actress of her age (41) to feel inclined to that decision.

Time will tell. Angelina Jolie may find a life and some sort of career on the public stage, addressing grievous wrongs. But that can prove a long and barely rewarding path for someone raised to the melodramatic conclusiveness of movies that last two hours. Is she really ready to be bored and disappointed and written off by the public? I have a feeling that by 50, say, Jolie will have become re-energised as an actress. It's hard to think her imperious bone structure will go, and her talent probably comes from deep neurotic springs that will never be resolved. Some tempting parts are going to come along, though perhaps she should let someone else direct. But don't believe she's going to fade away or stop being talked about.

By the time Jolie is 50, Pitt will be turning 61. I suspect by then his eminence will be clear and decisive. He'll have an acting Oscar to go with the one he shared for producing 12 Years a Slave. He may be as much a father-figure to the industry as Clint Eastwood has been for the last 20 years, while being funnier and more human than Clint. Is it really beyond the powers of belief that someone will come along (it might be Lena Dunham) to suggest that they reunite as George and Martha in a remake of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? They likely know the lines pretty well already. What's more, by then our notions of gender and casting will be that much more flexible so that he can play Martha with her as George.