Supporting actor contender

Will 2007 mark the second year in a row that the supporting actor winner is also a past recipient of People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive prize?  Like his pal and frequent collaborator George Clooney, who won last year for “Syriana,” Brad Pitt finds himself firmly in contention in this year’s race after traveling beyond his usual comfort zone.

In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel,” Pitt plays Richard Brown, an American tourist who travels with his wife Susan (Cate Blanchett) to Morocco in the hopes of recovering emotionally from the death of their youngest child. In an instant, however, the vacation turns into a fight for survival when Susan is shot on a bus ride in the middle of the desert. Over the next few hours, Brown must fight against the perils of Third World medical care, poor communication, uncooperative tourists and the intense Moroccan heat.

While Pitt has taken on his share of serious material in the past (he received a nom for “Twelve Monkeys”), never before has he been required to jettison all of the qualities that helped make him one of biggest movie stars on the planet. With crows’ feet around his eyes and hints of gray peppering his usually blond locks, this was Pitt’s most mature role to date.

“This role was the ultimate challenge for Brad,” says “Babel” producer John Kilik. “Up this point in his career, he’s done everything and has nothing to prove. He took this on to push himself.”

In a highly focused performance that’s executed entirely in a state of extreme emotional distress, Pitt’s character tries to overcome one obstacle after another, whether it’s carrying his wife from the bus to a stone hut in a remote village, or pleading with the bus driver to stay until help arrives.

“The emotional and psychological trauma of that character was so intense, and when it was combined with the physical challenges of carrying out the scene, it resulted in an astonishing performance,” says Kilik. “Obviously Brad has the physical tools, but he also brought a real psychological complexity to the part. He had to take on all of these layers — a father, a husband in a difficult marriage and a person trying to solve this life-threatening emergency in a place where communication is nearly impossible.

“I don’t know how he prepared, but he did day in and day out, take after take.”

Next project: Warner Bros. sequel “Ocean’s Thirteen,” with George Clooney and Matt Damon; and David Fincher-directed “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” co-starring Cate Blanchett

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