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March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

Brad Pitt‘s people want to make one thing perfectly clear: Their client—that blond Adonis—and TV’s favorite Friend Jennifer Aniston are so not engaged. “Ridiculous,” says one representative. Some family members profess to be in the dark (“I wouldn’t have any idea,” says Pitt’s brother Doug, 32), while a close friend of Aniston’s family’s says, “Jennifer and Brad are very serious, but the rumors about them getting married anytime soon are not even close.” Still, a leading L.A. wedding planner got a call months ago from one of the couple’s handlers and was told to be ready for an interview with the pair. (The planner is still waiting by the phone.)

Of course, these are the same people who, until recently, denied that Pitt, 35, and Aniston, 30, were even seeing each other. They must not have noticed them cooing over dinners, puckering at parties and clubs and hunkering down in hotels for romantic getaways. Or maybe they weren’t listening when Pitt said recently that “nothing is more important than love.” Or when Aniston told Rolling Stone that “marriage is wonderful.”

Lacking any on-the-job experience herself, could that be wishful thinking? Despite Pitt’s and Aniston’s aversion to premarital publicity—they go out of their way not to be photographed together—something distinctly premarital has been building since they began dating late last spring. Their caution is understandable: Both stars are coming off painful (and very public) breakups. Pitt and fiancée Gwyneth Paltrow parted in June 1997 after 2 12 years together, and Aniston broke up with actor Tate Donovan last March after they also dated for 2½ years. But the couple of the moment have lately seemed more willing to let the truth trickle out.

Things came to a head in February when their romance set off fireworks—literally. Some nine months into their relationship, as if to proclaim their own personal Interdependence Day, Pitt and the woman he calls “my girl” chartered a private jet with nine or so friends and threw themselves an Acapulco weekend beach party to celebrate both Valentine’s Day weekend and (isn’t it too perfect?) Aniston’s Feb. 11, 30th birthday—following another birthday blowout on Feb. 6 at L.A.’s trendy Barfly restaurant. As Valentine’s Day wound down that Sunday night, fireworks set off for the occasion exploded over the Pacific coast. Pitt and Aniston danced and snuggled until 5 a.m.

The setting was the spectacular 49-room Villa Alejandra residence, borrowed from Mexico’s prominent Alemán family. Three cooks kept buffet tables groaning with mountains of oysters, shrimp and tropical fruit, washed down with beer, wine, champagne and piña coladas. The secluded property, including three thatched-roof bungalows, is set against a towering cliffside and opens onto a private beach scattered with coconut shells and palm branches. During the day, Pitt and his pals played touch football in the surf, while Aniston, her hair pulled back and wearing cutoff blue jeans and a bikini top, chatted with the other women. Neither Pitt nor Aniston left the property all weekend. “Why bother? “Whatever they asked for they could get,” says gardener Enrique Martinez. “They were kissing everywhere.”

If life back home is a little less exotic, it’s no less romantic. The pair hang out with pals like Friends costar Matt LeBlanc and his fiancée, Melissa McKnight, at Aniston’s antiques-filled three-bedroom Laurel Canyon house or at Pitt’s multiterraced Craftsman home—in L.A.’s trendy Los Feliz section—where the group Radiohead often blares from the stereo. Brad does most of the cooking—and the driving. (“Jennifer’s a horrible driver,” says a pal.) “We just hang out,” Pitt said of his L.A. gang. “We barbecue. We go on road trips.”

Aniston’s free time is limited by the shooting schedule of Friends, and Pitt sometimes lurks around the Burbank set. At last fall’s party for the 100th episode, Pitt was at ease among the cast and crew and could scarcely hide his pride. “They were holding hands and very touchy-feely,” reports a guest. “They are not shy about expressing their feelings.”

Except, of course, to the media. The couple have gone to extraordinary lengths to frustrate photographers—even emerging minutes apart from the same limo in Manhattan on Nov. 2—as if to say that what Oprah last fall, Pitt coyly dodged questions about his sweetheart. When an audience member asked how he met Jennifer, he said, “Uh, we met through friends.” His favorite TV show? “Friends.” When Oprah asked if he and Aniston watched it together, a blushing Pitt went for the three-peat, mumbling, “Friends.”

Aniston, who has at least two photos of her boyfriend on display in her home, is similarly circumspect. “I’m not withholding, just preserving something that’s mine,” Aniston told Rolling Stone when asked about their romance. “To talk about a relationship trivializes something that’s nobody’s business.” Pressed to say something about Brad, Aniston added, “I’ll just tell you that this is the happiest time of my life. I’m not saying why, it’s for a lot of reasons: work, love, family, just life—all of it.”

There are also a lot of reasons to stay circumspect. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Pitt was proclaiming his eternal love for Paltrow, 26 (“my angel”). And for her part, Aniston was gushing that Donovan, 35, was “one perfect guy.” Returning the compliment in August 1997, Donovan told PEOPLE, “I definitely want to get married; she definitely wants to get married.” Now that those words have the ring of prematurity about them, Aniston apparently has vowed not to repeat the mistake.

Pitt also learned that lesson the hard way. After his split with Paltrow, the star “was in real pain,” says Meet Joe Black costar Anthony Hopkins. “He was very sad about his breakup.” Pitt was also angered by nude snaps of him and Paltrow that appeared that summer in Play-girl and on the Internet. (Pitt sued, and Flay girl was ordered to recall the issue.)

The latest intrusion came on Jan. 7, when a starstruck 19-year-old woman was arrested in his L.A. compound (Pitt wasn’t home) while wearing his clothes. (The woman pleaded no contest to trespassing and was sentenced to probation.) Someone who has spent time with Pitt sums it up: “If you’ve broken up with your girlfriend, had a couple of movie bombs and your penis has been on the Web, how happy are you going to be?”

It’s a good thing he has a Friend to lean on. On the surface, at least, Aniston seems a natural successor to Paltrow. Besides having two of the most envied heads of hair in Hollywood, both actresses were born into showbiz. (Paltrow’s parents are director Bruce Paltrow and actress Blythe Danner; Aniston’s mom, Nancy, 62, was once an actress-model, while dad John, 65, spent 12 years on Days of Our Lives.) Both were also born in California but moved to New York as kids, where they attended elite schools. (Spence for Paltrow; Aniston went to the Rudolf Steiner School and Fiorello H. LaGuardia High—the Fame-d performing arts school.)

But unlike Paltrow, Aniston had a difficult childhood. When Jennifer was 9 (half-brother John Melick, now an assistant director, is nine years older), her father left her mother for another woman, his current wife, Sherry. “Jennifer is the anti-Gwyneth,” says a Friends insider. “Gwyneth was into going out and being glamorous. Jennifer is not. She’s very nonglam.”

Whether she’s wedding-picture perfect for Pitt is something neither star has discussed publicly. And neither has revealed who asked for the first date, although their respective managers brokered it. By last May, the lovebirds were nesting in Austin, Texas, while she was filming the comedy Office Space, which opened to mixed reviews and eighth place at the box office on Feb. 19. Though the couple seldom ventured out of their hotel room—sharing both bar and barbells, sipping cocktails and working out at the hotel gym—their moony grins were hard to miss. Says one eyewitness: “They looked like kids in love.”

The following month, the pair got cozy at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, D.C., and after-ward, when Pitt locked himself out of his $430-a-night room at the Four Seasons Hotel, they “stood waiting and cuddling in the hall,” says a fellow guest. “They weren’t impatient. It was kind of a romantic moment.”

They would just as soon stay home anyway—especially Pitt, an architecture buff, who has been painstakingly restoring his house. “With other Hollywood people, either they’re not there at all or they’ll talk through their business manager,” says a designer who worked with him. “With Brad, he’s there in the room, asking questions, being hands-on. He has an intuitive feeling about what he’s looking for.”

Even if his career intuition seems to have failed him of late. After the disappointing Seven Years in Tibet and The Devil’s Own (both 1997), he played Death as a peanut butter-craving doofus in last year’s Joe Black—earning $17 million for the role. Still, says L.A. casting director Linda Phillips-Palo, “Brad’s at the top. He’s one of the first people you’d go to if you were making a movie.” Next up for Pitt is July’s Fight Club, in which he plays a waiter who runs an underground slugging joint for yuppies and for which he temporarily had caps pried off his front teeth and replaced with snaggles. “My girl likes them,” he said of the result.

She also likes his family, by all accounts, and he hers. A couple of weeks ago Aniston brought Pitt to a get-acquainted dinner with her father, who calls Brad “very charming and down to earth,” and his wife, Sherry. Pitt had already brought Aniston home to Springfield, Mo., to meet his relatives—he is especially close to his grandmother Clara Hillhouse, 88, whom he still calls Munner from the days when he couldn’t pronounce “grandmother.” Aniston and the Pitt crew enjoyed a holiday feast almost two years to the day after Paltrow made the same pilgrimage. And it was at a hometown press conference that Pitt allowed the tiniest peek into his feelings.

“Has Jennifer taken you off the market?” a reporter asked him.

Pitt blushed. “We’ll see,” he replied.

Anne-Marie O’Neill and Kyle Smith

Reported by: Elizabeth Leonard, Irene Zutell, Steven Cojocaru, Lorenzo Benet and Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles; Julie Jordan in Acapuico; Natasha Stoynoff, Sue Miller and Ward Morehouse III in New York City; Kate Klise and Lisa Kay Greissinger in Springfield; Kate McKenna in Washington, D.C.; and Peter McKillop in Tokyo

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