It took decades for Hollywood to understand Brad Pitt. Not that he didn’t get plenty of opportunities. When the Oklahoma-born Pitt left Missouri for Los Angeles in the late ‘80s, he struggled like anyone, though he was an anyone with piercing blue eyes and the cheekbones of a Greek statue. He slowly began racking up appearances on TV shows like the undercover cop teen drama 21 Jump Street (the 1980s were an interesting time) and soapy dramas like Dallas. In a workmanlike fashion, he graduated to TV movies (including one with his future Kalifornia co-star/Yellowjackets star Juliette Lewis) and small parts in films.
Brad Pitt’s first breakthrough came with the 1991 Susan Sarandon/Geena Davis classic Thelma & Louise, in which he had a small part as a handsome drifter who robs the pair, stealing America’s heart as a subsequent crime. He began being cast in lead roles. Long story short, it was all leading up to Fight Club, the movie that would define him. Incidentally, Fight Club is now streaming for free here.
For the majority of the 1990s, Brad Pitt was cast either in roles that highlighted his angelic looks or ones that made him look like a squirrelly weirdo. The former is evidenced in films like A River Runs Through It, Seven Years in Tibet, and Meet Joe Black. All decently received films, all well constructed, all prominently featuring the beauty of ‘90s Pitt. All of them pretty forgettable.
On the other hand, the latter films were primarily supporting roles in offbeat movies like 12 Monkeys, True Romance, and Cool World. Pitt was consistently noted for the intensity of his performances in these roles. But what makes Fight Club his best movie is that it was the first film to fuse the two aspects of Pitt into one character: Tyler Durden.
Fight Club had a rocky production from the start. Chuck Palahniuk’s cult novel was given to Fox Pictures prior to publication to be reviewed for film options. At pretty much every step of the process from studio readers to executives, it was not seen as a good project to support. It is hard to fault them. In book form, divorced of Brad Pitt’s charisma, it’s a very weird story. Young men dissatisfied with society beat the heck out of each other in dirty basements. Human fat gets turned into soap. Support groups are treated like addictive substances, a terrorist group is formed, and oh yeah, the big twist: the narrator is also his own best friend/nemesis.
Originally envisioned as a low-budget art film, the budget grew when director David Fincher came on board. Then it grew, even more, when Brad Pitt and Edward Norton were cast. Then the construction of dozens of sets and Fincher’s exacting style exploded it. A budget of $23 million ultimately became something in the region of $69 million.
Upon release, Fight Club premiered as a number one film in the US. However, the budget and expectations on the film made its worldwide gross ultimately disappointing to Fox, and critics were divided. Even now, its Rotten Tomatoes score sits at 79%. Good, but not great. But when the DVD was released, it sold massively. Fight Club had become something like a cult film, albeit one starring Brad Pitt, then and now one of the biggest film actors in the world.
And as much as Ed Norton is ostensibly the narrator and central character of Fight Club, it is useless to deny that the movie is centered around Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden. That is by design. It is outright stated in the movie that Tyler is not a person. He is an idea defined by being what the Narrator is not, a handsome, charismatic person who also exudes sleazy sex appeal and weirdness.
And in that, Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher, and Brad Pitt all found their perfect vessel. At the time, Pitt was maybe the only actor who was willing to be as off-putting and gross as a slum-dwelling crypto-fascist who also happened to be the most beautiful man in the world. Fight Club finally gave Pitt the chance to be both the things he excelled at on screen.
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Although he has come close with movies like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt has never really found another role that fitted him so well. He’s played action heroes, historical characters, Nazi-hunters, and romantic leads, but the perfect synthesis of his gifts was really just found the one time. So get streaming it.