It could have been a different couple entirely. Before Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were cast in 2005’s sexy action flick Mr. & Mrs. Smith, director Doug Liman contemplated a number of devastatingly attractive pairings: Will Smith and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett. Briefly, Liman contemplated casting Brad Pitt opposite his ex-fiancee Gwyneth Paltrow, but decided it would be unfair to put Pitt in “a situation where he’s going to have to relive the demons of a relationship.” Little did Liman know what kinds of demons he’d be summoning when he cast Hollywood’s wild child Angelina Jolie (his second pick, after Nicole Kidman dropped out) opposite Tinseltown golden boy Brad Pitt. An already-troubled production was soon swarmed by paparazzi, with the movie itself dwarfed by the scandal of a rumored love affair. And yet, Mr. & Mrs. Smith proved to be a huge hit — it grossed nearly $200 million in the U.S. alone — and the combustible pairing of Pitt and Jolie settled into a stable, long-term relationship. Upon the announcement of Brad and Angelina’s long-awaited marriage, let us look back on the film that created Brangelina, Mr. and Mrs Smith.
Screenwriter Simon Kinberg once described Mr. & Mrs. Smith as “a romantic comedy pretending to be an action film.” Films that defy easy genre classification can be a tough sell, and the fact that this one was made owes some credit to Pitt himself. It was Nicole Kidman who sent it to Pitt, and Pitt who sent it to Liman. The film was greenlit with those two stars and director in place, but Kidman dropped out when her film Stepford Wives went over schedule. Pitt followed, leaving Liman to frantically brainstorm other couples. When Jolie was cast, his original leading man returned.
Both Pitt and Jolie were big stars —an Oscar nominee and an Oscar winner, respectively. But Jolie was not the glamorous, humanitarian Earth mother she’s perceived as today. She was known for giving deliberately shocking interviews about her bisexuality and love of knives; for kissing her brother on the lips at the Academy Awards; for wearing a vial of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck; and for impulsively (as the press would have it) adopting a Cambodian child in 2002. Her previous roles had included dark dramas (Girl, Interrupted), dark thrillers (The Bone Collector) and a darker-than-the-norm action franchise (the Lara Croft films). Mr. & Mrs. Smith was the closest she’d come to being cast in a normal romantic comedy.
Pitt, on the other hand, was as idealized as a Ken doll. A Midwestern boy who worked his way up the Hollywood ladder (unlike second-generation star Jolie), he was a reliable box office draw, a heartthrob with enough raw talent to sell odd movies like Fight Club and Twelve Monkeys, and the husband of America’s sweetheart. He and Jennifer Aniston were the world’s most popular celebrity couple; at the time Mr. and Mrs. Smith began shooting, Friends had just wrapped, and magazine readers eagerly awaited the perfect Brad-and-Jen offspring. The scandalous narrative of Pitt and Jolie’s romance, which would come to define Mr. & Mrs. Smith, was already falling into place.
But that wasn’t the biggest challenge on the Mr. and Mrs. Smith set – at least, not at first. Doug Liman, having followed his indie hits Swingers and Go with the blockbuster The Bourne Identity, was already gaining a reputation as a difficult, mercurial director. The production was plagued with his expensive do-overs. Liman shot four days on location in the mountains before deciding to move one scene to the desert; he made first-time screenwriter Kinberg pen 40 or 50 different endings before reverting to the original; he destroyed the set with a hand grenade, didn’t like the explosion, and rebuilt the whole thing from scratch in order to blow it up again. Liman also clashed with Jolie and faced blowback from Pitt over some of his directorial decisions. “It’s always a tricky dance with those two,” Liman told EW in 2005. Ultimately, the movie went over both schedule and budget, taking a three-month hiatus so that Pitt could film Ocean’s Twelve, and pushing the film’s costs to more than $100 million.
That “tricky dance” between the stars and directors didn’t prepare them for the even trickier obstacle to come: the media. During filming, rumors emerged that Pitt’s marriage to Aniston was on the rocks, while he and Jolie were reportedly becoming awfully close. Photos of Brad and Angelina holding hands on set during a romantic scene added fuel to the fire. Soon, “armies of paparazzi” were barricading the set, according to producer Akiva Goldsman. Helicopters followed Pitt to work. Photographers spying on the production from hotel windows had to be digitally removed from the final film, at great expense. Meanwhile, the rumors of Jolie’s on-set seductions became so absurd that Liman, while publicizing the film, was forced to make clarifications such as this one (to the New York Post): “I was there that day, and I can assure you that she categorically, unequivocally, was wearing panties.”
Jolie would later say that she and Pitt fell in love during Mr. and Mrs. Smith, though both swear they were chaste during production. What happened on that set, honestly, is probably less titillating than the scenes that appear in the final film. Pitt and Jolie play married assassins John and Jane Smith, whose chilly relationship is built on lies; each is masquerading as a perfectly normal suburbanite. When they’re assigned to kill each other, the jig is up, and the heat returns to their marriage as the taunts and bullets fly.
In their best scene together, the couple dances a tango at the restaurant where John first proposed. Jane, at this point, is intent on killing her husband, and he knows it, but she’s not about to do it in the middle of a crowded dance floor. So they grope each other searching for weapons, push one another against walls, and argue – in urgent whispers – about which parts of their marriage are real.
The chemistry is palpable, but the appeal of Jolie and Pitt in this movie is about more than chemistry: it’s about tension. Every one of their scenes is an electrically charged negotiation between fighting and sex. It’s easy to watch with a smile, because Angelina’s smirks and Brad winks convey the sense that it’s all a game. At the same time, neither of these people wants to lose, and that intensity drives the film.
That version of Jolie and Pitt’s relationship – transgressive, erotic — is what played out in the tabloids. But their subsequent marriage and family tells a different story, one that may have begun in these scenes from the Mr. and Mrs. Smith blooper reel. It’s just a collection of quick, bad takes, but what is immediately clear about Brad and Angelina is how much fun they’re having together. All that famous smoldering turns to laughter when the cameras stopped rolling, and the onscreen tension melts into something easy and comfortable. Is it because they each saw themselves reflected in the other’s character?
“She, in the movie, is playing the way Brad is in real life, and vice versa. I mean, he really is a homemaker,” Liman told EW. “He’s into fabrics and art and architecture and what color is on the wall, is it eggshell or ecru? But for Angie, bringing her into that suburban home… I might as well have asked her to simulate being on a spacecraft.”
Mr. & Mrs. Smith was a critical and commercial hit. To date, it is Liman’s most successful movie, and was only recently surpassed on Jolie and Pitt’s rankings by Maleficent and World War Z, respectively. The now-married couple will attempt to re-create that success by starring together in Jolie’s next directorial effort By the Sea. But the perfect storm of Mr. & Mrs. Smith is unlikely to happen again. Ostensibly, the film is about a couple who learns to ditch the tedious fantasy of perfection and embrace the messy thing that they are. For audiences, it became the reverse: a film about how Hollywood fantasies can play out in real life. Jane Smith says that happy endings don’t exist, but in reality, Jolie and Pitt seem to have gotten one after all.