Leading Man
by Scott Foundas
Sep 01, 2011 | 1252 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It’s not every Sexiest Man Alive who name-drops Jean-Luc Godard and D.A. Pennebaker and manages to do so without sounding highfalutin’ about it.

Then again, George Clooney is no ordinary sex symbol. In person, he’s as urbane and self-effacing as Danny Ocean. “He’s such a nice guy! And so handsome!” I remember overhearing a local television journalist exclaim to her cameraman as I waited to meet Clooney for an L.A. Weekly cover profile in the fall of 2005.“Too nice,” the cameraman replied—a throwaway line perhaps, but one with more than an ounce of truth about it.

Clooney is too nice, or too something, like that one kid in high school who was friends with the jocks and the geeks and made it all look so effortless that you never doubted his sincerity. He may be the most enigmatic movie star since Warren Beatty, and also the one most suspicious of glamour, industriously chipping away at his pretty-boy facade in movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the Oscar-winning Syriana (2005), for which he gained a reported 35 pounds, and now in The Descendants (2011), where he is a most imperfect husband and father trying to hold his family together in a time of crisis.

Then there are the films Clooney has directed himself: Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), in which he cast himself not as the heroic newscaster Edward R. Murrow, but rather in the smaller role of Murrow’s producer and confident Fred Friendly, a paunchy, bespectacled figure almost always filmed from a distance or at an oblique angle; and The Ides of March (2011), in which Clooney is a seemingly picture-perfect presidential candidate who serves as a reminder not to put our trust in appearances.

In Clooney’s own words, “If you look at the guys who actually survive over the years, they find a way to get out of that box. The Sexiest Man Alive? It’s embarrassing, but it’s still a compliment. It’s one of those things that there’s no right way to answer. It’s also sort of a backhanded slap, because it usually means you’re an idiot. But the guys who survive those things—the master of it all was Paul Newman—become character actors along the way, because you can’t sustain the other thing.”

“Sean Connery can, but most of us can’t. And I don’t have any interest in it. I don’t want to be 60 years old and doing love scenes with 35-year-old actresses. I have an interest in being 65 years old and doing the kinds of roles I watched Newman do at 65,” he said. “There’d be nothing better than to be able to do a film like The Verdict and be a guy who’s all washed up. I think the only way to survive as an actor is to continually grow and change. But that’s why you direct too. You want to have some fallbacks. To me, directing’s where I’m going to go. I enjoy it. I like being the boss.”

It’s about more than fallbacks, however. Clooney is well aware that clout like his comes around only rarely in the picture business and doesn’t last for very long when it does. He’s determined to make the most of it, which from 1999 until 2006 meant a production company called Section Eight, from which Clooney and his partner, director Steven Soderbergh, balanced Ocean’s Eleven-style blockbusters with edgier fare like Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, and Michael Clayton (2007). With another close collaborator, the writer and producer Grant Heslov, Clooney now oversees Smokehouse Pictures, through which he produced The Ides of March. “When they do that retrospective about your life,” Clooney told me, “no one’s going to give a shit that you had 15 films that opened No. 1 at the box office. What they care about is what you had to say and where you stood. As long as I’m able to say to the studio, ‘We’re going to do Ocean’s Twelve, but I want to be able to do Syriana and some other films you guys aren’t going to want to do.’ I feel as if that’s OK. I want to be able, at 70 years old, to look back and think, ‘These were the projects I was working on that were close to me, when no one was encouraging me to do them and many people were discouraging me to do them.’”

Clooney is uncompromising, and it’s not hard to see where he gets it. “When I was a boy, we used to have a saying: ‘That guy’s as game as Dick Tracy,’” says Clooney’s father, Nick, himself a former TV news anchorman and one-time congressional candidate. “George was always that guy. He was willing to try anything. He really doesn’t believe that he’s better than anyone else. He really believes that all of this—the pictures on the magazines—is ephemeral. It’s going to be gone. He’s very grounded that way. Both our daughter and our son figured out that character was important. They’re supposed to keep their word. They’re supposed to do things for other people. They’re supposed to help those who have less power than them.”

“There’s about 10 percent you can do with a child, and it’s an important 10 percent,” seconds Clooney’s mother, Nina, a former beauty queen who’s still trim and striking in her 70s. “But that other 90 percent, they build themselves. I think that long period George had of not being successful—he grew gradually into his success—was very good for him. I think if he had been a huge overnight success when he first went out there, it would have taken him a longer time to get beyond that and to get to where he is now.”

Spend a little time in Clooney’s company and he leaves you with an impression very few superstars do—that while he enjoys being the center of attention, he could pretty much walk away from it all and never look back. He may have fought hard to get where he is today—that story, of the kid from Louisville who struck out as a baseball prospect, headed for L.A. in a clunker Chevy with $300 to his name, and slept in a friend’s closet until he could afford a place of his own, has been told often over the years. But that hard-earned success hasn’t made Clooney timid in his choice of projects, or inclined to rest on the laurels of celebrity. Quite the opposite.

If there’s one thing you learn after a few days spent drifting in and out of Clooney’s universe, it’s that he’s a guy who isn’t happy unless he’s making things difficult for himself. He even mortgaged his Los Angeles home to help scrape together Good Night and Good Luck’s modest $7 million budget, and he was hardly about to let a thing like a nasty spinal injury he suffered on the Syriana set sideline that dream project, no matter the chronic headaches and short-term memory loss that plagued him throughout the production. And he’d gladly do it all over again.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Clooney asks rhetorically. “I’ve already made more money and been more successful than I ever thought I’d be. I’m not stupid with my money. I’ve got it saved up. And it’s enough to get me through. If everything went to hell today, I’ve got a house in Italy that I can sell if I have to, and I can live off of that for the rest of my life. And I don’t panic about that. I lived in a closet for three years. I can live in a one-bedroom apartment. I really can. I don’t travel with an entourage. I don’t feel that need. I’m afraid that if you do that, if you put that bubble around you, then you lose touch with everything else that’s going on. I want to feel like I’m gettin’ into trouble.”

FILMOGRAPHY

George Clooney

b. May 6, 1961, Lexington, Kentucky

Actor

Ides of March (2011)

The Descendants (2011)

The American (2010)

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

Up in the Air (2009)

Burn After Reading (2008)

Leatherheads (2008)

Michael Clayton (2007)

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

The Good German (2006)

Syriana (2005)

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Solaris (2002)

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Welcome to Collinwood (2002)

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Spy Kids (2001)

The Perfect Storm (2000)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

ER (1994-1999) (TV series)

Three Kings (1999)

South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Out of Sight (1998)

The Peacemaker (1997)

Batman & Robin (1997)

One Fine Day (1996)

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Friends (1995) (TV series)

Sisters (1993-1994) (TV series)

Bodies of Evidence (1992-1993) (TV series)

The Harvest (1992)

Roseanne (1988-1991 ) (TV series)

Red Surf (1990)

Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988)

The Facts of Life (1985-1987) (TV series)

Return to Horror High (1987)

Director

Ides of March (2011)

Leatherheads (2008)

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Unscripted (2005) (TV series)

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
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