In the annals of Brad and Jen, there have been millions of photographs and then there have been The Photographs, the shots that—if you’re the sort of person who clicked on this piece—you can probably conjure with your eyes closed.
There’s the first picture, the original hard evidence that they were dating, a slightly blurry image of the pair nestling on a balcony at a concert, impossibly young and goofily ’90s looking. There’s the wedding shot in black and white that graced the cover of People, them beaming and bashful. There’s the two of them walking down the beach, arms wrapped around one another, days before their separation announcement, his T-shirt message to the paparazzi—“Trash”—captured in the haze of a telephoto lens. And then there’s the photo that doesn’t strictly feature both of them, the one of Pitt playing on a beach with Angelina Jolie and his future child, Aniston hovering over the whole thing as subtext.
These images are in the Brad and Jen Hall of fame and they were joined last night by one more, taken backstage at the Screen Actors Guild awards, where Aniston and Pitt both won awards. When I downloaded the picture onto my desktop (to tweet it, of course) I titled the file “Longing.” In the light of day I can see its proper title: The Grasp.
Despite it being 15 years since Pitt and Aniston divorced—and married other people, and divorced them too—interest in any and all interactions between the pair was at a fever pitch all night. Aniston was asked about Pitt on the SAG red carpet. When Pitt won for his role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the cameras cut to her. After her victory for her role on The Morning Show, a metacommentary on what it’s like to be Jennifer Aniston, she was informed on camera that Pitt had watched her victory speech backstage, an act recorded and shared by no fewer than three civilians who knew viral and historic Braniston content when they saw it.
All of this turned out to be preamble to the photographs, which captured, from multiple angles, Pitt and Aniston encountering one another in the backstage hullabaloo, where—when I just type it out it doesn’t sound like much—they greeted one another with joy and enthusiasm. Pitt beams. Aniston looks at him, with a mix of “Can you believe it?” and “I’m so happy to see you!” They smile, they smize, they almost hug, they lean in to exchange some words. Aniston’s hands are on his arms, and then somehow one is on his chest. (If you were his ex-wife, wouldn’t you?) As she walks away, her hand still splayed against his tuxedo jacket, he circles her wrist with his fingers. Her arm is extended, but she doesn’t look back. He’s holding on, giving one last squeeze.
It’s a picture to re-launch ten thousand ’ships, to closely study (please notice the woman with the gold bag, playing the part of All of Us), to inspire millions of tweets. Whatever your interpretation, the image is a feel-good one. (Well, almost whatever your interpretation: The morning after, Angelina was, like clockwork, trending on Twitter.) For people wishing Brad and Jen might give it another try, here they were, older, but in keeping with Pitt’s dating tic of resembling his paramours, already with matching honey-colored manes. Having been the subject of intense tabloid speculation about the status of their relationship for decades, who could begrudge them a clinch in a corner, if that’s what they felt like—and didn’t it look like that’s what they felt like?
For people less ensorcelled by Brad–Jen repetition compulsion, the picture at least punctured the myth of Sad Jen. This sequence could almost be interpreted as one in which Aniston greets Pitt with obvious delight and he gamely, but more laconically, smiles through it, not quite able to match her energy. Until the grasp. The Grasp, like Pitt stopping to watch her speech backstage, says it’s mutual. The Grasp says, “I may not be as obviously keyed up to see you, but this is meaningful.” The Grasp, if you’re looking for it, maybe even says: Don’t go. At the very least, it is the grasp of reciprocity. But it just might be the grasp of desire, bestowed on a woman who is walking away because she has her own things to do, her own life to lead, because touching Brad Pitt’s pectoral area is, like, a small moment in her evening. The pictures ensure years of future tabloid headlines, but The Grasp ensures that they are more likely to say “Brad and Jen’s secret affair!” and maybe even “Brad longs for Jen” than just “Jen still pining for Brad!” These headlines may all be lies, but two of the three are less sexist.
The cynical among us (though no one seems to want to be cynical!) might note that this interaction between two of the most studied people in the world took place in public, with sanctioned photographers milling about. You think Pitt and Aniston were not aware of where they were? That everyone was watching? But the beauty of the picture, the power of it, is that is insulates itself from a certain degree of cynicism, because even the cynicism corroborates the story that it tells: They’re cool. So what if they planned it. Isn’t it nice they—or their respective press teams—can plan things together after all these years?
To me, that’s actually what this picture is about: all these years. All these years later, after a hard and public breakup, in a crowded room where everyone is watching you, you can see someone with whom you were once close and be glad. It’s okay, after everything. It’s okay. You smile. You almost hug. You exchange well-meaning and heartfelt pleasantries. She touches your chest, because she’s allowed. He grabs your wrist, because he’s allowed. Isn’t it funny how you still know so much about each other? You say goodbye but he holds on a little too long. He’s trying to say he meant it. That it’s good. He’s not quite ready to let go.
Whatever else it is, the grasp is also an absurdly neat visual metaphor for the public’s long relationship with them as a couple: holding on a little too long, because it’s bittersweet to let go. Pitt and Aniston might have dropped hands, but the picture should be enough to keep everyone else hanging on.