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11.24.08

How Brad Escaped

For the past four years, the fair-haired actor has emerged completely (and remarkably) unscathed from l'affaire Jolie.

Let's say Jennifer Aniston fell in love with David Schwimmer while filming Friends’ last season in 2003. As the wife of Brad Pitt, she kept the relationship as private as possible—though the cast and crew had their suspicions. The pair’s on-screen chemistry was palpable (well, for a sitcom) and, behind the scenes, they often hugged and playfully grabbed each other. They also regularly hung out on the Central Perk set after hours. A few months after the finale aired in 2004, Aniston and Pitt announce their split. Devastation. They seemed so perfect together, sniff. Then, amid this public mourning, a beaming Aniston and Schwimmer are photographed taking a romantic stroll along a secluded California beach. Hello, cheater! Schwimmiston is born—but Aniston’s career and image as America’s girl next door are D.O.A. Sounds logical, right?

“Is this the happiest you’ve ever been?” Oprah asked. Brad’s modest reply: “Dare I say?”

In reality, of course, it was Pitt who went astray by getting close to Angelina Jolie on the set of 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith. The buzz started with a February 2004 photograph showing the two holding hands in-between takes—even though, three months later, he gushed to Oprah Winfrey that his wife was “the fire we all huddle around for warmth.” Jolie recently confirmed to the New York Times that the two “ fell in love” during this time.

Yet for the past four years, the fair-haired actor has emerged completely (and remarkably) unscathed from l'affaire Jolie. His fans still worship him as if he’s an Adonis god from Troy, while the media has backed off from any uncomfortable questions. Take his November 19 Oprah appearance—his first visit since the aforementioned Aniston rave. Winfrey solely focused on his personal rebirth. “Is this the happiest you’ve ever been?” she asked. His modest reply: “Dare I say?” Cue the laughing and clapping.

Even his scorned ex is a fan club member. “He’s done some amazing things,” Aniston remarked to, yes, Winfrey on November 13. And in the now-famous cover story in December’s Vogue, she asserted that she and Pitt have exchanged “a few very kind hellos” as the two “had an amicable split.” Instead, she directed her anger at The Other Woman. Addressing a 2007 Vogue article in which Jolie confessed that she couldn’t wait to get to the Mr. & Mrs. Smith set to see her onscreen husband, Aniston fumed, “That was definitely from a time when I was unaware that it was happening… That was really uncool.”

Fine, the alluring Jolie wasn’t a nun. In the current issue of Us Weekly, set sources revealed that during one sex scene, she shunned flesh-colored underwear “and climbed in bed with him naked.” (She also has a history of getting romantic with her co-stars.) But as Mr. & Mrs. Smith so helpfully reminded us, it takes two to tango. Pitt, as set insiders note, spent his off-hours bonding with Jolie in her trailer—he was hell-bent on teaching her how to use a BlackBerry, said one source—and playing with her son, Maddox. It could have been a career-ending liaison. And given all the Team Aniston T-shirt sales—not to mention that insensitive 2005 W magazine portfolio, in which Pitt and Jolie posed as loving retro parents—it should have been.

So why was Pitt pardoned? There are six reasons: Maddox, Zahara, Shiloh, Pax, Knox and Vivienne. Just weeks before his split, the actor teared-up on Primetime Live discussing his want for children. His wife, meanwhile, was partying in London with her Derailed costars. Jolie may have played seductress, but she gave Pitt what he so desperately (and publicly) wanted. As a result, he transformed himself into a scandal-proof, sexy family man. And a do-gooding one, no less—the Jolie-Pitt clan has now become synonymous with traveling the globe to give their time and money to worthwhile causes (they even bought a home in New Orleans, for crying out loud). It’s impossibly sincere and noble, and nobody would dare undermine these endeavors by inquiring about its illicit origins.

That's just the way he likes it. Though only the coldest cynic would suggest that his newfound fatherhood and good deeds are merely a PR ploy, the savvy Pitt works hard at controlling his golden-boy persona and using it to his advantage. Only Pitt would snap a “private” photo of his lover breastfeeding one of their newborn twins and use it as a tasteful marketing tool (it ended up on a recent W cover). It’s no wonder that, according to November 21’s New York Times, he and the missus worked out a deal with People magazine in which they’d provide first-photos of their children in exchange for millions and positive editorial coverage. ( People denies this).

Surely Pitt knows that one misdirected step may lead him down the same path as Ryan Phillippe, Ethan Hawke or Jude Law—all once hot-stars whose careers imploded in the wake of damning trysts. Then again, those actors never achieved Pitt’s level of popularity (probably because they never embraced it themselves). Could a matter of the heart really destroy the career of a beloved movie star with nearly two decades of public goodwill? The answer is yes. Just ask Meg Ryan—she told October's InStyle that she was cast as a “scarlet woman” after her affair with Russell Crowe became public.

Pitt’s next movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, opens on Christmas—the same day as Aniston’s Marley & Me. Show of hands for anyone rooting for his film to fail because of his insensitive marital indiscretions? It’s a wonderful life, indeed.

Mara Reinstein is a senior writer at Us Weekly and co-author of Brad & Jen, the Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Golden Couple. She has also written essays for Glamour, Self, Teen People, The Guardian and The Huffington Post.

RELATED: My Love Affair With The Aniston by Jessi Klein.