No doubt: it's been a very good year for both these stars.
And much as I admire Jean Dujardin's sublime performance in The Artist, my hunch is that the industry will favor one of its own on Oscar night.
So who will it be -- George or Brad?
I'm saving my prediction for a later Oscar piece, but for now simply want to consider these actors' respective contributions, leading up to and including 2011.
And you'll note I say "actors," because one thing this past year confirmed was that both these handsome, movie-idol type personalities can, in fact, really act.
Some will claim they've always known it, but for me this was a pretty striking discovery. Too often Pitt and Clooney have been constrained by their leading man status to playing cool, heroic protagonists who save the day and get the girl. And they appear to be playing themselves. (Sometimes even on the same screen, as in Ocean's 11.)
Of course, this approach tends to work well at the box office, but does not leave more critical viewers with a true appreciation of the stars' actual acting range.
Still, as their respective careers progressed, both men used their clout (and advancing ages) to insist on more offbeat roles that would stretch their talents on-screen.
Prior to 2011, I think Pitt was somewhat more successful in registering his versatile acting chops in his films. I've always sensed a certain sameness to Clooney -- a slick, cocky quality that was hard for him to leave behind. And when he did, it felt forced.
Example: I felt he was miscast in as producer Fred Friendly in the over-stylized Good Night and Good Luck from 2005. I'd met the real Friendly, and trust me, he was nowhere to be seen in Clooney's performance.
That's why his work in The Descendants is such a revelation. Almost for the first time, George brings off the role of a vulnerable, imperfect, struggling, suffering human being. I liked this man, and more important, I cared about him.
Whatever one may think of the film overall (I loved it), I find it harder to understand those who don't recognize this as Clooney's best work to-date.
As for Brad, personally I think he's being nominated for the wrong movie -- the one that shows him playing the movie star (the overrated Moneyball) rather than the actor (The Tree Of Life).
True, stars often win Oscars for past roles or their body of work rather than for the performance they're actually nominated for. Think Elizabeth Taylor for 1960's Butterfield 8, or nearly a decade later, John Wayne for True Grit.
Coincidentally, Clooney and Pitt are each up for two Oscars this year: in addition to their acting nods, Clooney is nominated for screenplay (The Ides Of March) and Pitt for picture (as producer of Moneyball).
Clooney has been nominated a total of seven times (four acting, one directing, two screenplay nods) and won once for his role in Syriana (2005). Pitt has received four nods, all for acting, besides this year's producer's credit. He has yet to take home an Oscar.
So which way will it go? I'll reveal my own hunch in a week's time. Meanwhile, I'd love to hear what you think.
As we all debate and wonder, here are just a few of my own favorite Pitt and Clooney titles, available on DVD.
Seven (1995)- A week before his retirement from the homicide division in an urban police department, world-weary Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) finds himself on the tail of an ingenious serial killer whose grisly murders are inspired by the seven deadly sins. Adding to his stress is cocksure newbie David Mills (Pitt), who's joined the unit as Somerset's replacement after persuading his reluctant young wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) to move back to the city. At first, neither lawman realizes how madly brilliant the sermonizing psycho is, or how much pursuing this case to the end will ultimately cost them. Crackling with suspense and an almost unbearably persistent tension, David Fincher's Seven plunges us into the murky underside of a nightmarish, rainy, unnamed city, where two detectives at opposite ends of their respective careers are drawn into the darkest corners of their own consciousness. Pitt and Freeman, representing modes of innocence and experience, arrogance and wisdom, are perfectly matched, and Fincher's neo-noir style further builds the film's psychological intensity. Edgy, bleak, and unforgettable, Seven ranks with Silence of the Lambs as one of the most harrowing policiers of the '90s.
Out Of Sight (1998)- Handsome, suave career bank robber Jack Foley (Clooney) escapes from a Florida prison, only to be nabbed by gorgeous federal marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). Foley's partner Buddy (Ving Rhames) intervenes, however, and the crafty convict squirms away, but not before he and Sisco have a long, overheated ride in the trunk of a car. While both fantasize about their mutual attraction, priorities prevail: Jack plans a major diamond heist, and Sisco checks up on his former associates and kooky ex-wife (Catherine Keener) hoping to smoke him out. Mining the risqué wit and edgy, intricate plotting of Elmore Leonard's novel, this cool, stylish crime-caper romance by Steven Soderbergh is designed solely for one purpose: to entertain. Clooney, trying to escape bush-league fame on TV's ER, projects all the bad-boy self-confidence and irresistible charm that would soon make him a movie star. Lopez is tough but alluring too, a sultry match for Clooney's charismatic, calculating Foley. Strong support from Keener, Rhames, Dennis Farina, Albert Brooks, Luis Guzman, and especially Don Cheadle (as a psychotic inmate) keep things rolling. Don't let this funky heist flick Out of Sight.
Snatch (2000)- Seedy British boxing promoters Turkish (Jason Statham) and Tommy (Stephen Graham) team up with Irish Gypsy pugilist Mickey (Pitt) to throw a fight organized by crazed mobster Brick Top (Alan Ford). Their paths eventually cross with Franky Four Fingers (Benicio del Toro), a Jewish gangster who's transporting a stolen 84-carat diamond to New York, and dangerous Russian hoodlum Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedgia), for whom Franky's placed a bet on the fixed fight. Guy Ritchie's kinetic, ultra-stylish heist film is an amalgam of all the best caper films, rolled out with a punk attitude and bristling Cockney accent. The plot is outrageous but loads of fun (wait until a certain dog swallows a squeaky toy), and the ensemble cast -- Statham, Graham, Del Toro, Ford, and Sherbedgia -- may not all be household names, but their fiercely funny performances will stay etched in your mind. Nearly stealing the show is Pitt, playing a crooked bruiser whose Gaelic brogue is hilariously incomprehensible to everyone. Snatch this punchy, black-humored romp through London's criminal underbelly-before someone else does.
O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)- In Depression-era Mississippi, three convicts -- smooth-talking con man Everett (Clooney), anxious nutcase Pete (John Turturro), and dim-witted rube Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) -- manage to escape a chain gang, then go on a soul-running, picaresque quest for $1.2 million in hidden cash. Keeping ahead of the law, they encounter bible salesmen and Klansmen, prophets and river sirens, and even manage to record a hit song, all while Everett tries to win back his soon-to-be-remarried wife (Holly Hunter). A wacky cross between "Ulysses" and "Sullivan's Travels," the Coens' stylized slapstick adventure is packed with loopy dialogue, smart visual gags, and plenty of sly cultural references (legendary gangster Baby Face Nelson and sold-his-soul-to-the-devil blues musician Robert Johnson are among the colorful Southern characters the fugitives meet on the road). O Brother is a comic caricature of 1930s Mississippi and its milieu seen through a mythic lens. Terrific support from John Goodman, Charles Durning (as a Southern politico), and Hunter round out a superbly offbeat cast, while Alison Kraus and T-Bone Burnett provide the grace note with their old-timey soundtrack.
Michael Clayton (2007)- New York City lawyer Michael Clayton (Clooney) is a "fixer" for a big firm, cleaning up the dirty messes his high-paying clients leave behind, but lately he's been feeling burned out and disillusioned. Things come to a head for Clayton when his guilt-ridden friend, ace lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), decides to blow the whistle on a corporate client's massive wrongdoing, thereby threatening his career, his sanity, even his life. One of the thorniest and most celebrated legal thrillers in years, Clayton marks the directorial debut of Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy, whose film is distinguished by intelligent dialogue, meticulous pacing, and plenty of riveting tension. A-lister Clooney adopts a quieter, less showy pose as a troubled lawyer torn between his loyalty to firm honcho Sydney Pollack and his pal Wilkinson, who gives an astounding performance as an erratic, manic-depressive lawyer at the breaking point. As you'd expect, the no-nonsense Swinton is superb as the offending Client's top lawyer (she won an Oscar for this). Director Gilroy handles all the intrigue -- a cover-up, then a murder -- with cold efficiency, but catharsis does arrive in the final scene.
The Tree Of Life (2011)- Terence Malick's latest film is an enigmatic, often profound meditation on nature, innocence, love and faith, experienced largely through the lens of one American family. In a 1950s Texas suburb, Mr. O'Brien (Pitt) and Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) raise three sons, teaching them to be good, honorable Christian men. But the family has problems: Mr. O'Brien is a moody, rigid disciplinarian, burdening his sons with his fixation on ambition and masculine ideals. In particular, the eldest boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken), struggles with conflicting feelings about his powerful Dad, and finds various ways to act out and rebel. Later, the grown-up Jack (Sean Penn) embarks on a spiritual quest to understand his painful childhood, the sudden death of his younger brother, and his fractured adulthood. Book-ending the family narrative are sequences portraying both the origin of the universe, and the afterlife. Epic, ambitious, and highly unconventional, some viewers struggled with this autobiographical, long-gestating magnum opus from Malick. Though the director perhaps falls short in making his more abstract, existential sequences cohere with the central story, this barely detracts from the film's blinding impact. Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Tree is at once visually astonishing and emotionally resonant: its uncanny sense of place and stunning, sun-drenched cinematography evoke those achingly familiar, elusive small moments that give texture and flavor to our daily lives. The lovely Jessica Chastain's career was launched here, but both she and Penn feel slightly underused. Rather, it's Pitt (in the performance of his career) and the young McCracken who make this daring work of genius soar. Branch out and experience this controversial film for yourself.
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