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Revisiting Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s movies in divorce-enabled hindsight

‘By The Sea’
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in the 2015 film “By the Sea.”
(Universal Pictures)

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s divorce is surprising this Tuesday because the pair had seemed a picture of — and spent a lot of time talking about — marital stability.

Of course in a country where about half of marriages end in divorce, they’d hardly be the first couple to put a shiny facade on a cracking foundation. What does make them rare, even among Hollywood spouses, is that they’re a couple that actually made movies together.

In fact, they’re a couple that not only made movies together, they made a pair of movies together that seemed to define their couplehood.

In the spy romance “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” released more than a decade ago, the pair were seen falling playfully in love with an element of subterfuge, a vibe that seemed to capture their real-life coming together, which was both unabashedly romantic and risky. (Pitt was married at the time to Jennifer Aniston.) That Jolie and Pitt actually met working on said movie enhanced the art/life entwining.

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In last winter’s “By the Sea,” directed by Jolie, the pair did something else: they charted the problems of a marriage. The ordinary business of relationship maintenance is hard, the movie dramatized (to the distaste of some critics). Communication and compatibility is a struggle, and a lush setting can only highlight an emotional ugliness.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will divorce after two years of marriage

The particulars of that on-screen relationship were pretty far off in a number of ways from the couple’s real-life one — the issues were largely caused by childlessness, for starters. But the idea of two impossibly beautiful people still finding something lacking in their lives together seems, as of Tuesday, a little prescient, and has predictably sent the clue-seekers scouring.

Were Jolie and Pitt actually sending signals? Probably not; that’s not how most people work. But in the public mind, that movie now reads differently, a corollary if not a window; a way to think of their end the way “Smith” offered a visualization of their beginning.

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Nestled between “Smith” and “Sea," incidentally, was a third film that gave us a glimpse into how that marriage worked. He produced and she starred in the Daniel Pearl drama  “A Mighty Heart,” and it offered its own real-life view on the global-crises imperatives that drove them, individually and as a couple. 

As a rule, nothing is greater folly in the entertainment world than assuming that an actor’s work is informed by their personal life. Meryl Streep is not signaling her latent desire to be a government leader or opera singer, and a lovelorn Ryan Gosling is not sending coded messages abut his availability. They’re playing characters.

But a coupling, and the Jolie-Pitt coupling in particular, always struck me as a little different. Actors choose to work on movies for myriad reasons having nothing to do with their personal lives — because they like a script, or a part, or a paycheck, or a director, or their agent tells them it will be a good idea. But a couple doesn’t need to choose to work on a movie together — and certainly not the members of this couple, who individually could land pretty much any part they wanted. That Pitt and Jolie opted recently to make a movie about marital complexities seems a bit more significant.

Yet their motivations may matter less than our perceptions. Jolie and Pitt have always been a couple for whom it was, to us outsiders, difficult to separate fact from fiction. Their real-life relationship seemed like something out of a movie, so it’s been understandable and perhaps even logical to see their movies as an extension of their real-life relationship.

“By the Sea,” then, is not meaningful because it was offering portents. It’s meaningful because, as a film about the rather prosaic battles a couple fights, it reinforced how we thought about their relationship — and by extension maybe our own. If “Smith” was the fairy tale we could all vainly aspire to, “By the Sea” was our cold awakening that it was just fiction. (That there was alleged workplace infidelity involved only underscored the harsh reality.)

Already on Tuesday, tabloids have started to ask questions about the on-set vibe for “Sea”, in essence drawing the same cinematic cause-and-effect for their separation as “Smith” did for their meet-cute.

“Is this the film that caused the Hollywood golden couple to split?” the Mirror blared, going on to parse junket interviews for signs that the shoot took its toll.

The short answer to the question is, maybe, who knows, does it really matter? Work is a strain on most relationships; celebrities’ work is just higher profile.

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But that film certainly can become a way to view their marriage, and marriage generally. In the public eye, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie always seemed to be playing an idealized version of a long-term couple. We had images to attach to the honeymoon of their early days. Now they’re playing more ordinary people navigating the banal messiness of a divorce. And we have images to attach to that too.

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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