I can confess what I know about Brangelina

Actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie attend the premiere of "The Normal Heart" in New York (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)
Actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie attend the premiere of "The Normal Heart" in New York (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

Powerful people, I’ve discovered, do not like to be caught off guard. The essence of true influence, as we all know, lies in never being surprised.

I knew a big-time talent agent once who absolutely refused to admit that he was hearing anything for the first time. His usual response, when learning about some unexpected and astonishing development, was: “Oh, is that out?” Meaning: “So that’s public knowledge now? I, of course, knew about this months ago.”

His reaction was so reflexive and thoughtless that his colleagues would bait him with crazy and outlandish pieces of fake news – this or that movie star was killed in a hot-air balloon incident; a major movie studio had suddenly declared bankruptcy; George Clooney was giving it all up to become a Roman Catholic priest. That sort of thing. And to each piece of information he’d barely lift an eyebrow. He’d say, with a tiny flicker of boredom: “Oh, is that out?”

I don’t have that kind of bravado. For instance, when I heard the news that perhaps the most famous married couple in the world, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, were getting a divorce, my first instinct was to express surprise, which as we know suggests that I am not attentive enough to the dynamics of appearing powerful and in-the-know.

I should have shrugged a world-weary shrug and acted as if, at my most recent dinner party with the superstar couple, I had noticed a chill in the air. I should have turned to whoever was on my left or right and murmured: “I’m just glad I don’t have to keep pretending for them anymore.”

Instead, I blurted out a “Whoa!” And then added, without thinking: “That is going to be one expensive divorce.”

I was sitting in a small coffee shop on a large movie studio lot, where I had arrived early for a meeting. (Another indication that I’m not good at playing the game: arriving early is a sign of diminished status.) On the television affixed to the wall, the cable news giant CNN was covering the breaking story of the Pitt-Jolie divorce with breathless focus. I’m not certain why the developments required such serious and thorough coverage – there are a lot of things happening in the world these days like wars and financial crises – but the executives at CNN apparently had decided that we all needed to hear about Jolie and Pitt as urgently as possible.

I’m not sure why, because judging from the reaction from the people in the coffee shop, this was all very old news. As the patrons collected their coffees, I watched several of them turn to a colleague, gesture in the direction of the television, and say a fairly close version of: “Oh, is that out?”

But what happened next was revealing. When the CNN reporter was done with the lurid speculation about who and what was responsible for the turn of events – and let me say, for the record, that I don’t know either of the parties at all, but that everyone I know who has worked with, or been friendly with, either of them reports that both Jolie and Pitt are intelligent, warm and generous people – the rep ort turned from the emotional and personal details to the only one that really matters, which is how much money we’re talking about, exactly.

It is, as I predicted, an expensive divorce. Pitt and Jolie are two very seriously rich people.

The CNN reporter mentioned a figure so large – somewhere around US$500 million (Dh1.8bn) – that all conversation in the coffee shop stopped. The quiet was so sudden I could still hear the sharp intake of breath from about half of those gathered for their morning coffees. The dollar amount was so enormous that the jaded, posing, status-conscious employees of a large Hollywood movie studio didn’t have time to pretend that they already knew the size and breadth of the Pitt-Jolie estate, all they could do was stare, mouths agape, at the TV screen. The knowing crowd knew that they were rich, but they never anticipated that they were this rich.

People who work in the entertainment business – movie studios in particular – have been facing cutbacks and layoffs for the past few years. The 2016 box office revenues have been uniformly lacklustre, and the competition from streaming video and other internet-based entertainment options have made a lasting dent in studio earnings and, by extension, the job security of your average studio employee. With a more competitive entertainment landscape, most studios have spent the past few years paying big-name actors astronomical sums – including generous slices of a picture’s profits – just to entice audiences into the cinema.

Everyone knows this, of course, especially people who work at movie studios. But what they didn’t know, apparently, was just how much two actors could amass in an environment where everyone else in the business was getting paid less, especially movie studio employees in a queue at a coffee shop. It may be a sign of power and importance to know things, but judging from the deflated and unhappy looks on the faces of the people getting coffee that morning, there are some things it’s worth never finding out.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Los Angeles

On Twitter: @rcbl

Published: September 22, 2016 04:00 AM


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