I was in Sarajevo when the big news story of the week broke. I am not referring to #Buttongate. Kezia Dugdale’s failure to vote on the SNP’s council tax reforms, which allowed the government to avoid defeat was, alternatively, a gripping tale about the limitations of technology or a exposé of personal ditziness, but I doubt it made global headlines.
No, I am, talking about the toxic break-up of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie: a couple so glitzy they made Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman seem pale and uninteresting; a couple so media-savvy they turned their union into a commodity. “Brangelina”, the portmanteau nickname meant to capture the fusion of their identities, was coined by journalists, but it was a brand they endorsed and promoted, until the crustiest High Court judge in the land would have been hard-pressed to claim ignorance of its existence.
So, even though I don’t rate either of them and was engaged in something more important when the announcement came, I still sat, open-mouthed – my fork suspended in mid-air – and thought deep thoughts, such as, “oh no” and “ it’s the end of an era” and “well, I suppose it was only a matter of time”. All five stages of grief had been successfully navigated before the TV presenter finished his sentence.
By the time I got home, the tabloids had thrown off any residual post-Leveson inhibitions and were getting stuck into an orgy of speculation. With Pitt and Jolie waging a propaganda war, and fans metaphorically donning Team Brad and Team Angelina T- shirts, there was enough salacious gossip to keep everyone happy. The Sun – a paper so un-PC it gives renowned woman-hater Rod Liddle a berth – predictably sided with Pitt. “I still love Ange, but she’s crazy,” it said in a front page more resonant of Dirty Den serving his wife divorce papers in the Queen Vic than the demise of Hollywood’s First Couple. Meanwhile, other more Jolie-minded newspapers focused on Pitt’s alleged stoner tendencies and a blazing row said to have taken place on a private plane.
Of course, as everyone who has followed this saga knows, there were three people in the Brangelina relationship, though not in the Charles/Diana/Camilla Parker Bowles sense of actual infidelity. In truth, Pitt’s first wife, Jennifer Aniston, seems to have got over her ex-husband’s betrayal and moved on, wedding Justin Theroux. But the love triangle is the Holy Grail of celebrity sleaze, so Jolie continued to be portrayed as the “groom raider” and Aniston as the spectre at the feast. Last week, memes of the actor’s alter ego, Rachel from Friends, smiling smugly, circulated online and she became an icon for all betrayed women who have ever bided their time and got their revenge.
There is a school of thought that says our fixation with celebrity romances is a reflection of uniquely shallow times; a consequence of reality TV, which – with its Made In Chelseas and its Keeping Up With The Kardashians – has created an appetite for true-life soap operas. But the fascination with movie stars’ sex lives is as old as cinema itself. Their tumultuous affairs offer us relief from our own more humdrum relationships.
In any case, the union between Pitt and Jolie has more in common with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (or “Liz and Dick”) than Kanye and Kim. Jolie, in particular, oozes old-school glamour. If Aniston is the girl-next-door, then Jolie is the sultry vamp; beautiful, yet slightly unhinged, with a tendency towards extremes. Sexually outré as a young woman, she evolved into a dedicated human rights campaigner. After she hooked up with Pitt, she cast herself as an earth mother, orchestrating photo-shoots of their rapidly expanding family out enjoying burgers or ice cream. So very ordinary and yet so very not.
Even as we hanker after movie stars’ heightened existence, there is a part of us that longs for the veneer of perfection to be stripped away. There is an ignoble pleasure to be derived from former nannies’ claims that life in the Brangelina household was chaotic; that the kids ran riot, drinking, swearing and playing with knives.
But there’s the rub. Caught up in this sensational split are six vulnerable children, three of whom – Maddox, Zahara and Pax – were adopted from orphanages in Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam respectively.
Pitt and Jolie have thought a lot about the importance of maintaining their children’s cultural heritage, but rather less about the importance of protecting their privacy. Instead, all six have been paraded through airport lobbies and along red carpets. Maddox’s first kiss and Shiloh’s preference for boys’ clothes have been deemed appropriate tidbits for news-hungry fans.
Now – with a custody battle looming – the children have been placed at the heart of the rift; not only have they had to cope with allegations that their father is having an affair with pregnant Marion Cotillard (a suggestion she categorically denies), but also that he is guilty of abuse. The FBI is investigating allegations that – during the row on the plane – he lashed out verbally and physically at 15-year-old Maddox.
Who knows the truth? Perhaps Pitt has anger management issues; perhaps Jolie is an arch-manipulator. Both parties have hired top Hollywood attorneys who will, doubtless, take no prisoners in their attempt to ensure their client wins the PR war, even if victory comes at the children’s expense.
Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow were mocked for their “conscious uncoupling”, but their efforts at mediation mean they have successfully created an environment where they can come together for family occasions without animosity. Unless Brad and Angelina get their act together, it seems their children will suffer the same fate as so many of their non-celeb counterparts and become pawns in a very adult game.