Back in 2005, two months after Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt announced their separation, Pitt and his new costar Angelina Jolie appeared on stage together at the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas to promote their summer blockbuster Mr. & Mrs. Smith. All eyes were on the gorgeous pair to see if their body language confirmed the rumors that a burgeoning romance destroyed Pitt’s marriage. The duo revealed little as they glided across the stage, never touching each other, smiling for the adoring crowd of theater owners. It worked. Their June release opened to $50.3 million — a career high at the time for both actors.
Fast-forward 11 years and Pitt is back with another sexy spy drama set to bow amid an even more explosive personal controversy — on Sept. 19 Jolie filed for divorce, and Pitt faces scrutiny over allegations that, during a family argument, he got physical with one of their children. Allied, due Nov. 23, costars Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, and the internet hummed with whispers that Pitt had engaged in another on-set romance, which was promptly denied. Will the swirl of gossip derail the pic, or can Paramount duplicate the success of Mr. & Mrs. Smith?
“Whenever there is a rumor that two hot movie-star types met on set and are having an affair, it’s not a bad thing,” says one veteran Hollywood publicist. “No one at the studio should go out of their way to squash it, whether it’s true or not.”
The tabloid reports nudged Cotillard to speak out, posting on Instagram that she is in a loving relationship with actor Guillaume Canet, thank you, and expecting their second child. Yet coincidentally, Allied‘s latest TV spot debuted the same day the Jolie-Pitt news broke — evoking the same spy-versus-spy tension that drove Mr. & Mrs. Smith — and there’s no doubt that director Robert Zemeckis’ World War II drama received an awareness boost thanks to the scandal.
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Paramount declined to comment on its marketing plans for the movie, but insiders at the studio expect Pitt, who usually doesn’t participate in traditional press junkets, to support the film with TV appearances. Will he risk awkward late-night questions in order to rehab his image, which is currently being tarnished in the PR battle against Jolie? Veteran late-night producer Robert Morton thinks he has little to lose: “There is so much competition out there for booking, some show — or even all the shows — will give in to his publicist’s demands and not touch the subject.”
There are millions at stake for the studio. For every Mr. & Mrs. Smith, there’s a Proof of Life, the 2000 action romance that died at the box office after Meg Ryan’s affair with Russell Crowe sullied her America’s-sweetheart image and marked the end of her marriage to Dennis Quaid.
In the case of Allied, D-Day is still two months away. If anything, sources think notoriety will help the film, which Paramount is counting on to be a big commercial release this Thanksgiving. “People may go to see if [Brad and Marion] really do have chemistry,” says one marketing veteran.
Stoking moviegoer curiosity — it just might prove to be Allied‘s secret weapon.
—With reporting by Lynette Rice
A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1434, on newsstands now.