In 1995, Gene Siskel asked Brad Pitt if he always knew he would become famous. “Yes, there was that feeling as a kid that something… something bigger—again, you’re being prepared for something big, but the funny thing is now I don’t even feel like I’ve found it yet.” In the same interview, featured in a special episode of Siskel & Ebert featuring stars familiar and fresh: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, and Pitt. At 32, he was the youngest, and the easiest bet of his generation—I’m sure it was obvious to all at the time that this guy would be a star for the rest of his life. But unlike on-screen double Leonardo DiCaprio, Pitt started relatively late: Cutting Class, his first theatrically released film, came out in 1988.
In Cutting Class, Pitt plays a high school senior. At 25. But here, that’s beside the point—he’s already fully-formed, a blindingly bright star with all of the androgynous stoicism, wily moves, and sly violence that characterize his performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Pitt even enters his first film just as he spent most of Quentin Tarantino’s grand masterpiece in 2019: driving fast, recklessly, but perfectly executed along snaking Southern California suburban roads. He pulls off as many astonishing stunts in Cutting Class as Tarantino’s film, stopping inches short of T-boning his girlfriend’s severely injured father.
Besides featuring Pitt’s first performance, Cutting Class is a remarkably well-executed slasher from the end of that genre’s golden age in America. So much of the second half of the 1980s is sterile in American cinema, a conformism and self-censorship that even sank down into the few exploitation films left, like Reform School Girls. The best the 1980s has to offer is Heathers, released the same year as Cutting Class. Heathers is one of the greatest films ever made, one with a perfect script and a brilliant score; more than its iconic performances, the greatness of Heathers is in its tone, macabre in a way like nothing else I’ve ever seen.
Cutting Class is the only film I’ve seen that strongly suggests Heathers. It wasn’t just the year: this movie has an even more jaundiced view of high school, provocative and leering more than satirical. Roddy McDowall plays the perv principal, spying the panties and pussies of his students; the janitor’s also a creep, an inert Freddy Kreuger, and they survive the film despite these “crimes.” The familiar morality of the slasher is twisted here back to the exploitation films of the early- and mid-1970s, when the audience was allowed to be as licentious as McDowall’s character in Cutting Class.
This isn’t a particularly ambitious film, just a slasher—but it doesn’t shirk its responsibility to surprise the audience. A tall order by 1988, when horror was already receding, not revived until Scream in 1996. Pitt was mildly embarrassed by Cutting Class in that 1995 interview, and I doubt he would’ve changed his mind a year later. But the clip Siskel & Ebert pulled for the show—when Pitt discovers the body of his Vice Principal bludgeoned against a Xerox machine, screaming for “HELP!” Who knows if the crew watched the whole movie, but that’s one of the only “cheesy” moments in his entire performance. I couldn’t believe how already magnetic Pitt was in 1988, just as I couldn’t believe he was in his 30s when he became a superstar. Good lord, he played Tyler Durden shirtless in Fight Club at 36—and Cliff Booth, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, at 56.
As long as people like Pitt are born, the movie star will not die. In Cutting Class, he’s there. The only noticeable difference? A bit of acne scars. Who knew?
—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter and Instagram: @nickyotissmith