The quiet evolution of Brad Pitt – will Ad Astra earn him a fourth Oscar nomination?

After a few quiet years away from the headlines, Brad Pitt returned to our screens in style this summer, reminding us all of the difference between an actor and a star. He emerged with great credit from Tarantino’s 60s saga Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, playing a jovial stuntman. And he dominates James Gray’s new sci-fi epic Ad Astra with a performance of commendable stillness and depth.

The movie is set some years in the future, when the mechanics of space travel have greatly improved. Pitt is Major Roy McBride, a US armed forces astronaut whose obsession with space has come at the expense of his personal life. He comes from a proud lineage: his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was the most decorated US astronaut of all, a fearless pioneer who went missing on a daring mission to Neptune.

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That was years ago, and Clifford is now presumed dead, but after a series of mysterious cosmic shocks cause chaos on Earth, Roy is summoned by his superiors who tell him that his father may still be alive. The shocks are emanating from Neptune, so Roy heads for the blue planet to find out what’s really going on.

In Ad Astra, only a flicker of an eye or the odd grimace give any clue of what Ray is thinking, and Brad’s always been best when he plays men of few words who hide their emotions. Maybe that’s not a coincidence, because Pitt does not seem like the effusive type himself.

He gives few interviews, but recently broke his silence to tell the New York Times what’s been happening since his very public split with Angelina Jolie. He told writer Kyle Buchanan how he’d curtailed his “drinking privileges”, spent over a year in AA, and found catharsis in group therapy sessions. Living life in the spotlight for almost three decades had clearly taken a heavy toll, and Pitt hinted that he’ll be spending less time in front of the cameras from now on. That would be a pity, because as he proves in Ad Astra, when Brad is cast properly, he brings something special to a film.

One thing I’ve always admired about Brad Pitt is that he’s one of those people who arrived in Hollywood owning nothing and knowing no one, and worked his way steadily to the top. He’s paid his dues, and never comes across as a man who takes his good fortune for granted.

He was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on December 18, 1963, and raised in Springfield, Missouri, which he has called “the heart of the Bible belt”. After school, he briefly studied journalism before setting out for Hollywood.

He struggled through the late 1980s, taking acting lessons, queuing for auditions and supplementing his meagre income by moving furniture, driving a limo, even dressing up as a giant fast-food chicken.

His first roles were on television, in shows like Dallas and Another World, but as he approached 30, Pitt was still struggling to make his name. It was Thelma & Louise that changed everything.

Ridley Scott’s hit road movie starred Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as two desperate women fleeing unpleasant lives, and Pitt played a charming conman called JD. He stole every scene he was in, and after Thelma & Louise, better roles started coming his way.

When Robert Redford cast Brad in his elegiac 1992 period drama A River Runs Through It, critics compared his looks and acting style to that of a young Redford. But Pitt himself was more pleased with his work on Kalifornia, in which he played a baby-faced psycho.

In 1994, Pitt established himself as a major star thanks to starring roles in two big-budget movies, Interview with the Vampire and Legends of the Fall. Neither was all that good, but it didn’t matter, because Brad had become a sex symbol, and an increasingly bankable actor.

He earned his first Oscar nomination playing a gabbling, shaven-headed psychiatric patient in Terry Gilliam’s nightmarish fantasy 12 Monkeys. And in Seven, he began his fruitful ongoing partnership with director David Fincher in some style. A stylish and brutal crime thriller, it starred Pitt and Morgan Freeman as police detectives hunting a serial killer obsessed with the seven deadly sins. It was a huge hit, and suddenly everyone wanted Pitt for everything.

He has since admitted that he did not initially cope with the pressures of stardom especially well. “In the 90s, all that attention really threw me,” he told the New York Times in that recent interview. “It was really uncomfortable for me… I really became a bit of a hermit and just bonged myself into oblivion.”

Hiding from the spotlight’s glare became even harder after he married Friends star Jennifer Aniston. Their relationship, and messy break-up, made headlines across the world, and it was a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire when he met Angelina Jolie. They would bear three children together, and adopt three more, but during the early part of their relationship at least, Brad seemed to recover his professional ambition and focus.

The first sign of this was his remarkably intense performance in Andrew Dominik’s superb 2007 anti-western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Pitt played James as an unstable, paranoid man tormented by his violent past.

He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his work on Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). But he was much better (and funnier) playing a Jewish-American lieutenant who embarks on a Nazi-killing spree in Tarantino’s 2009 hit Inglourious Basterds.

A third Oscar nod came in 2011 for Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, in which Pitt played Billy Beane, a laconic baseball manager. And very good in it he was, too, but he was nominated for the wrong film. Because in the same year he’d played an overbearing Southern father in Terrence Malick’s superb semi-autobiographical drama The Tree of Life, Pitt’s best performance ever in my opinion – until now, perhaps.

Brad Pitt once said he was “too damn affable” to reach the depths that he wanted to in his acting. But he seems to have overcome that obstacle, and his mesmerising performance in Ad Astra might even win him a fourth Oscar nomination – he may not care.

Meanwhile, he’s busy with his prolific production company, Plan B, which backed films like Moonlight and Selma. “I have other things I want to do now,” Brad said recently, hinting he’ll be acting less from now on. That would be a pity, because he really seems to have finally figured it out.

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