Brad Pitt understands the celebrity of Jesse James

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TORONTO -- The tabloid culture was alive and well in Jesse James' day, complete with sensationalism and fabrications.

"It was curious to me to see that not much has changed, beside quantity," Brad Pitt said, as a modern-day celebrity who has been the subject of much breathless coverage and invention.

In fact, it was a draw between Pitt and George Clooney over who drew more reporters and photographers during back-to-back news conferences at the Toronto International Film Festival. Organizers anticipated, correctly, that the normal location would be far too small, so both gatherings were moved to the swanky Four Seasons Hotel, where the press line still snaked down the hall hours early.

Now, Pitt is on screen in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," but he still doesn't know what happened to the legendary outlaw in his final moments. However, he was familiar with the dueling theories about James and the Ford brothers, Robert and Charley, and he tapped into them both.

The first, he said, suggests James "had full knowledge of what Robert Ford or the Ford brothers were capable of and were after and was taunting them and was going to take them out at a later time, and it was a bad gamble and a gamble he lost.

"The other argument is that he was unhinged, he was weary of this life on the run and that it was actually a puppeteered suicide, unconscious or conscious. It remains ambiguous, and I couldn't pretend to know. I kind of played with both and trusted Andrew [Dominik] to shape it."

Director Dominik is a New Zealand native who also adapted the Ron Hansen historical novel of the same name and cast Casey Affleck to play Robert Ford to Pitt's James.

Until now, Dominik has been known for making "Chopper," a 2001 fictionalized account of a real Aussie criminal named Mark "Chopper" Read, played by Eric Bana.

In fact, Pitt gave the movie a shout out, saying, "If you haven't seen 'Chopper,' well, you haven't seen 'Chopper.' You should see it. It is 'Mean Streets' good in my book."

Also good, Pitt made sure to say, is co-star Affleck, emerging from the long shadow of older brother Ben.

"Listen, a lot of us have known Casey for many years and been big fans of him and known him to be much more than the parts he's been able to play, so we were really happy to see him win this opportunity, because it was a coveted role. ... To see him score like this is really rewarding for all of us. It's going to be nice to see what else he does."

While the inclination may be to slap the Western label on "Jesse James," Pitt considers it closer to a psychological drama and said Dominik even called it a gangster film at some point.

The film picks up James in the last year of his life, and he was "certainly coming from a place of great paranoia, most of it justified, and I would argue that paranoia consumed him and certainly was responsible for a lot of his erratic actions." Pitt said.

"It's also true to say while there is a Robin Hood myth to him, which was based in truth and he did help perpetuate, it's also true to say that he was a ruthless killer much before the film starts."

Dominik's decision to use a narrator, Hugh Ross, is a carryover from the novel.

"The narration was obviously going to be there, that's the way the book was, and you know it's a tragedy, we all know how it's going to end. ... I liked the narration from the point of view of providing a sense of 'it is written' or a sense of fatalism, and I also liked the fairytale-ish quality it gives to the story."

Except there is no happily ever-after, unless you count the enduring legend.


Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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