TOP OF THE TREE
Two of Hollywood’s hottest talents share top billing in an ambitious epic that has already wowed critics at Cannes, writes Paul Harris
Brad Pitt and Sean Penn combine their star power.
AS FILMS go, the ambition of The Tree of Life is hardly small. This epic from enigmatic auteur director Terrence Malick ( The Thin Red Line ) aims to explore the very meaning of existence in two hours and 18 minutes.
But it’s not just Malick’s artistic directorial style and the fact The Tree of Life won top honours ( Palme d’Or) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that have people excited. It is the identity of the male leads: Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.
The Tree of Life showcases the acting skills of two of modern Hollywood’s biggest stars, appearing in a movie together for the first time.
On the face of it, the film’s leading men appear dissimilar. Pitt, 48, ( top) retains much of the boyish good looks that made him a classic matinee idol.
The 51-year-old Penn ( left), meanwhile, with his craggier looks and outspoken opinions, appears more to epitomise the tortured artist. Yet both are masters of their game.
Here Pitt and Penn play men of different generations and temperaments. Pitt plays Penn’s father as a classic male of the 1950s: stern and masculine. Penn’s character, meanwhile, struggles with that paternal legacy decades later, seeking to resolve his adult angst by searching for meaning in their troubled relationship.
In reality, their journeys towards Hollywood celebrity have largely paralleled each other. Both actors began with bit parts on television.
Pitt started in 1987 with an appearance on the sitcom Growing Pains and a short role in Dallas, before the sight of his sensational six-pack in Thelma and Louise sparked global Pitt-mania.
Penn’s first role was as an extra in The Little House on the Prairie. He then played a young recruit at a military school in Taps in 1981 before hitting it big in the 1982 teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Theoretically, such a role should not have paved the way to a serious career. But Penn, like Pitt, just needed an audience and rapidly progressed to critically acclaimed work in projects such as Bad Boys and The Falcon and the Snowman.
Both men have been careful to cultivate as wide a fan base as possible.
Penn, despite a reputation for his serious thespian roles, has not been shy about doing mainstream thrillers and action movies.
Pitt became a movie star on the back of manly roles in big-budget films such as A River Runs Through It, Interview with a Vampire, Troy and Mr & Mrs Smith.
Yet both avoided the classic pitfall: typecasting.
Pitt and Penn have been careful from the start to stretch their skills in smaller, more difficult roles.
Pitt, especially, could have just relaxed into being a sex symbol. But he agreed to play Death in Meet Joe Black, the Irish boxer Mickey in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, a famous outlaw in art-house western The Assassination of Jesse James and the title role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Penn, meanwhile, won numerous awards and acclaim for tough roles as a murderer in Dead Man Walking, a mentally disabled man in I AmSam, and a gay rights activist in Milk.
Both perfected the art of keeping mainstream crowds streaming into the multiplexes while also indulging their artistic passions. There are parallels in their personal lives, too.
Both found themselves in celebrity relationships: Penn married Madonna, while Pitt wed Jennifer Aniston. Pitt is now partner to Angelina Jolie, while Penn was recently reported to have started living with Scarlett Johansson.
The final box to tick in the magic ‘‘ Penn-Pitt’’ formula for conquering Tinseltown is to get behind the camera as well as in front of it. Pitt has been executive producer on some great films, including the masterful The Assassination of Jesse James.
Penn, meanwhile, has long honed his directing skills, particularly on 2007’ s Into the Wild.
Similarities aside, Penn and Pitt have quite different acting styles. Some critics see Pitt as more of a ‘‘ personality’’ actor in the style of Cary Grant, while Penn is more of a character actor who inhabits the roles he plays.
Another large difference between the two is their attitude to politics.
Pitt has spoken out in favour of gay marriage and taken an active interest in helping to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But much of his work is under the radar.
The famously fiery Penn is renowned as an outspoken Hollywood liberal who is unafraid to make political points.
It is hard to imagine Pitt abandoning Jolie to spend a year running a Haitian refugee camp, as Penn has done.
There is one more thing that both have in spades: ambition and drive. As Pitt’s character says in The Tree of Life : ‘‘ It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.’’