Brad Pitt Is This Summer’s Reigning King of the Shirtless Movie Scene
The 55-year-old (!) actor is the king of Hollywood’s hot-guy summer with his iconic TV-antenna scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
The practice of thirsting for hot, shirtless men captured on moving film predates the term “movie” itself: Bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, then known as “the modern Hercules,” flexed and stretched in a tiny pair of posing shorts for three silent, seconds-long short films before the dawn of the 20th century. Rudolph Valentino’s career as a romantic male idol post-The Sheik involved sultry, bare-chested appearances, too, first in a magazine and then in 1924’s Monsieur Beaucaire. Shirtless icons have since been minted every decade—Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke—each in individual expressions of masculinity, reversals of the gaze, or at the very least, moments destined to be played and replayed on infinite loop. (Even in Sandow’s day, long before GIFs, Kinetoscope parlors did the job. Thomas Edison: a visionary indeed.)
In more recent years, superheroes, sex symbols, and everymen alike have flexed onscreen in their post-workout best, vying for inclusion in the canon. The Marvel movies typically overperform in this regard, lavishing the camera on their heroes’ (or better yet, villains’) sculpted bodies once per movie, give or take. The Magic Mike movies, Ryan Gosling, Denzel Washington, and the Fool’s Gold-era years of the Matthew McConaughey industrial complex have all thirst-trapped their way into ab-shredding immortality, too. But is there a single more accomplished contributor to the pantheon working today than a certain William Bradley Pitt? A man with close to 30 years of shirtless scenes in more than a dozen movies, genre or premise be damned? An icon who, at 55 (!), can still send an audience into heat-induced shivers? Reader, of course not. There is only Brad.
Quentin Tarantino’s ’60s-set vision Once Upon a Time in Hollywood reasserts Pitt’s reign over the shirtless scene with a gem that’s inspired reports of spontaneous applause at both the film’s Cannes premiere and among everyday audiences. Pitt’s character in the movie, stuntman Cliff Booth, is the cool, laconic, working-class foil to Leo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a self-pitying former Western TV star wracked with rage and insecurity. They’re best friends, sort of; Rick is also his employer, though there’s little work these days apart from chauffeuring Rick around, house-sitting in the Hollywood Hills, and, in this scene, fixing Rick’s broken TV antenna.
We’re not supposed to fall in love with Cliff—a disturbing rumor colors how we see the character for much of the film. Yet when he leaps from wall to wall onto Rick’s roof with a lethal, feline grace, it’s like a seduction. With aviators on and a beer can in his tool belt, he takes off two shirts at once, exposing scars, fine lines, and abs alike to the California heat. Tarantino lingers on Pitt’s body, keeping it in frame as the camera turns to the home where Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is dancing to a Paul Revere & the Raiders record, as if daring you to tear your eyes from the man running his fingers through his hair. With the groovy “Good Thing” soundtracking the moment, Cliff slips his work gloves on and lights a cigarette—every bit a symbol of the kind of old-school masculinity Rick’s so anxious about recapturing onscreen. The entire sequence is like staring directly into the sun.
That Pitt’s looks have only subtly changed at 55 from his first shirtless scene in 1991’s Thelma & Louise is, if not some kind of magic, at least a public service. He’s performed it under the barest of pretenses over the years, most famously in movies like Fight Club and Snatch. But he’s also done it as a character who will literally die if exposed to the sun, yet remains inexplicably toned and tan anyway. He’s shed his shirt for cinema’s sake—for us, the people—even in a truly deranged pompadour; he’s a real one, in other words. Pitt is a deceptively versatile actor, as adept at playing stoners and losers as he is at dramatic leads. (He’s also a generous producer, known for helping shepherd stories from underserved communities to the screen, including Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Moonlight, The OA, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco.) Shirtless scenes are but one of his many talents, but certainly one to celebrate.
If not for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this summer’s movies would offer little more in the way of male eye candy. The Rock, at least, does his part: he bares his tattooed mountain range of a chest in the Samoa-set climax of Hobbs & Shaw. The sequence lovingly incorporates the actor’s heritage, weaving in fire-lit war dances and Polynesian clubs and spears. But, while chasing down Idris Elba and his crew of baddies in what becomes a daisy chain of cars versus a helicopter, Agent Hobbs takes a moment to throw his shirt back on—just before holding said helicopter down with the brute force of his biceps! He strains, he flexes, abs perfectly obscured. Even Baywatch didn’t do us this dirty.
On Netflix meanwhile, Chris Evans (another soldier in the war between biceps and helicopters) and Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman lounge in beachwear and watch each other walk away in short shorts and red Speedos. It’s one of few bright spots in the otherwise abysmal Red Sea Diving Resort, along with the superfluous push-ups and pull-ups Evans spontaneously performs on random furniture. Ditto the sight of a mustachioed Huisman tanning with matches wedged between his fingers, the better to “spread the tan evenly.” Even Chris Hemsworth, a reliable all-star of the genre, has but one brief shirtless scene in Men in Black: International, albeit mostly covered by bed sheets (and tentacles—it’s a weird movie).
For the high school set, Tom Holland and Zendaya share a mini-Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh moment in Spider-Man: Far From Home, when Peter Parker changes into his Spider-Man suit and MJ stares, then turns, then sneaks a peek. But there’s just one movie scene this summer that rivals the white-hot shirtless intensity of A Streetcar Named Desire and belongs with the greats. For that, Brad Pitt, we thank you for your service.