George Clooney| Already a Classic

The perennial bachelor prankster is also Hollywood’s silver-haired statesman, making movies and speaking out for a basic American decency. Yet, open as George Clooney may seem, he remains as elusive as Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, and other classic stars he calls to mind. That’s not unintentional, learns the author, who visits Casa Clooney for a chat about the producer-actor-director’s latest film, The Good German.

America projects two kinds of power in the world: hard power, which is tanks, jets, and missiles, and soft power, which, at the moment, is George Clooney. He is dashing, and charming. He put David O. Russell in a choke hold during the filming of Three Kings because he did not like the bullying ways of the director. Years ago, while filming a TV pilot, he got in the face of a producer because the producer made a girl cry. O.K. That’s just two dots. But connect them and you begin to see the picture.

Clooney was the first winner at the Academy Awards this year. Behind him was a whole library of movies starred in, produced, and directed, a shelf surprisingly deep for a man who did not break out until he was in his 30s (he’s 45 now), with his starring role in the TV hospital drama ER. Sure, there was One Fine Day and Batman & Robin, but ever since he made that key decision—that if he was going down, he was going down swinging—the titles have been (mostly) excellent.  He’s now filming Ocean’s Thirteen—the poster of which he says should read, “Ocean’s Thirteen … better than Ocean’s Twelve.”

His new movie, directed by Steven Soderbergh and co-starring Cate Blanchett, is The Good German. “I will tell you right now—she will win the Oscar,” Clooney says. “She’s the best actor working today. Not actress, she’s an actor. Intimidating, in a way, to work with an actor that good.” Shot in black and white, it’s an homage to the wartime noirs, in which the American hero gets lost in the muck of old Europe. “Everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong,” he told me. “Everybody’s a little dirty along the way.”

It can and has been argued that Clooney is the last of the old-time movie stars, a throwback to Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck, or the master himself, Cary Grant, the only American actor who radiates a calming sense of adulthood, the only grown-up in the room. It’s this persona—the decent man in a cockeyed world gone wrong—that he carries from role to role and that makes you cheer him the way the studio audience used to cheer every time Fonzie came on the set. Maybe he’s a doctor, maybe he’s a convict, but Clooney is always Clooney the way Gable was always Gable.

Clooney recently dissolved his longtime producing partnership with director Steven Soderbergh. “Two years ago we announced we were only going to run till 2006,” he told me. “We just felt things have a beginning, a middle, an end.”

Clooney was cool and sharp in his acceptance speech, but what he said was less important than what he was doing—he was surfing, riding the crest of outrage that was pouring out of Hollywood. Here was a man who had stood up and was not scared by the power of Washington. Think of the studio head in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink talking to the screenwriter: “This is a wrestling picture. The audience wants to see action, adventure, wrestling, and plenty of it. They don’t want to see a guy wrestling with his soul—well, all right, a little bit for the critics—but you make it the carrot that wags the dog.” And maybe he spoke a little too much about the historical greatness of the movie industry. “We talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular,” he said, “and we, you know, we bring up subjects. This academy, this group of people, gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939, when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters.” Hattie McDaniel? Didn’t she play Mammy in Gone with the Wind? And so a miracle had happened: an adult had appeared in a world of children, a senior in a nation of sophomores.

George Clooney lives in Studio City, just over the ridge from Beverly Hills. To get there, you drive on big roads and small, and, for a time, hug the rocks along Mulholland, the world spread below beneath a chemical fog.

We sit in the family room, beneath a pitched roof and rafters. 
He says, “I think the big find in the past two or three years is Clive Owen. I think he’s a movie star. He’s, like, a man—there’s a sexuality and a masculinity that I think is really interesting.” He says Johnny Depp “just keeps doing really good stuff. He’s just a really, really smart and good actor. I’ve written letters to him just to say, ‘Hey man, you’re f**ing great.’”

He says he’ll direct again, “probably this time next year. You know, the secret for me is not ‘Oh, I’ve got to direct again.’ It’s sort of like, ‘Oh, I have a project I know how to do.’ After Good Night, and Good Luck, I’ve been offered everything to direct—literally. It’s really important that I have a story I can relate to. Both Confessions [of a Dangerous Mind] and Good Night, and Good Luck were plays on the responsibility of television, and I grew up with television and really clearly have an opinion about that.” (In September, Clooney signed on to direct and star in the football comedy Leatherheads.)

He laughs about rumors of his romantic life. He says being famous is being followed. He says hassles should be dealt with creatively. Earlier this year, he tried to flood with phony celebrity sightings. “It’s one of those things that in real time they’ll tell people where a celebrity is. You can call on your cell phone and go, ‘I’m at the movie theater right now and Lindsay Lohan is sitting right next to me.’ So there’s a bunch of actors who wanted to hold a press conference and say, ‘This has got to stop.’ You can’t do that. That is actually trying to censor freedom of speech. You can’t do it. So I said, ‘Look, let me handle this.’ So I put together a letter to my publicist’s staff knowing they would send it around to 20 other publicists, and I wrote it knowing that it would be leaked because it’s 20 publicists. And the letter just says, ‘Each of you should go to your clients and get 10 of your friends to send in false locations of where each of the actors are.’ And suddenly, rather than trying to get them to stop, they’re just useless.”

Now he has another plan. “Here is my theory on debunking photographs in magazines, you know, the paparazzi photographs,” he says. “I want to spend every single night for three months going out with a different famous actress. You know, Halle Berry one night, Salma Hayek the next, and then walk on the beach holding hands with Leonardo DiCaprio. People would still buy the magazines, they’d still buy the pictures, but they would always go, ‘I don’t know if these guys were putting us on or not.’”

When he talks about fame, he talks about his Aunt Rosemary, the singer, which makes him think of the great singers and songwriters of the past.

He looks at the mantel, where he has set a framed P.R. shot from the original Ocean’s Eleven. Frank, Dino, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, the Rat Pack, radiating cool on the Strip. There was nobody like Frankie—he took all those songs and made them his property, wore them like a suit.  Clooney is haunted, and can always feel the plates shifting beneath him.

George Clooney was born and raised in Kentucky, in that part of the state that turns in the orbit of Cincinnati. Were you to turn up in one of these towns in 1974, say, you would see one of the best of these young men on TV, reading the news, introducing classic films, goofing through his daytime variety show. His name was Nick Clooney. He had a wife and a daughter and a reputation—as big in the area, his son has said, as Johnny Carson’s—and a boy named George. Young George worked at the station, tore copy, watched the old man type up leads and polish kickers. Such jobs would later give George the confidence to speak of the news knowledgeably. He understands it—he’s seen it all before. To this day, he believes there is something romantic about the life of the broadcast journalist. When George went on a newsgathering tour of Darfur, Nick tagged along. Good Night, and Good Luck, the movie that won all the nominations, was really a tribute to the old man: Edward R. Murrow was Nick’s hero. In a sense, the movie is less about Murrow than it is about Nick.

Nick Clooney was (mostly) about news, but Nick had a sister Rosemary, and she was (mostly) about entertainment. For a time in the 1950s, Rosemary Clooney was the most popular singer in America. Near the end, she had a recurring role on ER. She played an old lady fading into dementia. One of her functions in this world was to serve as an object lesson for her nephew. From her, he learned the fickle nature of fame, to prepare for the worst, sock it away, save, take none of it personally, stay off the sauce. “She wouldn’t tell you, ‘Don’t do it,’” Clooney said, “but you could see it, you could read it on her body. You know? Don’t smoke three packs a day. Do a little exercising along the way. And don’t believe everybody when they tell you how great you are when you’re 21. And don’t believe everybody when they tell you how lousy you are when you’re 27.” When Clooney bought his vacation house in Lake Como, Italy, he did it with cash. That way, even if the grosses tank, they can never kick him out.

After high school George went on to Northern Kentucky University to study broadcast journalism. But one day he got a call from a cousin. Uncle José (Rosemary’s husband) and his boys were in Lexington shooting a horse-racing movie called And They’re Off. George went for a visit and stayed, hung around the set for three months, was cast as an extra, even got a few lines. It was the end of Kentucky. He moved to L.A., lived with his aunt, ran her errands, drove for her, painted a fence, all the while auditioning for movies and TV shows.

It was a decade-long trip through a wilderness of failed pilots and sitcoms. He was one of those actors forever on the cusp, forever about to break. He was a regular in the last season of Facts of Life, in which he played a neighbor, and was the factory boss on Roseanne.

It’s a decent path to stardom but can cut either way: you can be Leonardo DiCaprio, who was the homeless kid in the last season of Growing Pains, or you can be Ted McGinley, who appeared as Roger, the cousin, in the last seasons of Happy Days. Clooney did so many shows in those years that he came to have the stink of failure. Of almost. But the moment he gave up on stardom was the moment he became an actor. Making the point, he mentions a discussion he had with his aunt in her dressing room after a show. She was old and could not hit the notes, but she was better than ever.
George asked, Why?

Because, she told him, she did not have to prove she could sing anymore.
“It’s a really good lesson,” said Clooney. “Try not to get caught acting.”

In 1994, Clooney was cast in a pilot for an emergency-room show. Within a month of its debut, ER was a hit. Just like that, Clooney was famous. The same details appeared in story after story: how he had married and divorced; had a 200-pound pet pig; dated starlets but never seriously; liked to play practical jokes; lived in the Hollywood Hills, then Studio City, and later bought a house in Como, across the lake from Villa d’Este—facts that, placed side by side, amount to nada. Clooney has, in fact, shown a rare ability to maintain a zone of privacy. You think you know him, then realize you don’t. It’s one of the things that make him seem like a figure from the old days, when movie stars were protected by the studio. Back then, the police report that chronicled Mel Gibson’s rant would never have made it past Harry Cohn’s desk. It would instead have been saved for use at contract time.

After a few seasons on ER, Clooney began to choreograph his next step in the two-step dance. Step one: Appear in hit TV show. Step two: Move, in a credible way, from hit TV show to film. (At that moment, the belly flop of David Caruso was on everyone’s mind.) Clooney did this by taking small parts in big movies (The Thin Red Line), bigger parts in smaller movies (Three Kings), and big parts in bigger movies (Out of Sight). The breakthrough came with The Perfect Storm, the first movie that Clooney opened big. The newsman’s handsome son had become a movie star.

Clooney radiates adulthood, but it’s very much the adulthood of this era. He’s an adult in the post-adult age. Gray hair, reason, authority—it happens to be what he’s selling. He is the sort of actor Hitchcock would cast were the maestro still making films. Which is why people associate Clooney with Hitchcock’s most famous leading men: Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck. But Hitchcock did not look merely for the biggest star or best actor—he looked for performers who personified a quality of the age. It was often a quality that had been overlooked by other directors—not because it was buried, but because it was so apparent that a less sensitive man might miss it. In Jimmy Stewart, he found a loneliness and an insecurity that had never been noticed. In Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much, the actor radiates the unease of the American caught in a new age, an atomic age, a pawn in a game where the dealer is hidden. His previous appearances as the idealistic American in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington only heightened the effect.

With George Clooney, the distinctive quality is a unique kind of American phoniness—charming because it’s aware of itself as phony. No matter what he says, George Clooney is winking. It’s no accident that he so often plays charming ne’er-do-wells: escaped cons in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Out of Sight; a master criminal in Ocean’s Eleven; a rogue army officer in Three Kings. “Crooks are more fun to play,” he told me. What’s more, Clooney gets beat up more in film than any other leading man in Hollywood, which he says he likes because “there is always something that you just aren’t going to win.”

The filmmakers who have made the best use of him—who have seen his essence as it might’ve been seen by Hitchcock—are the Coen brothers. “(George) gets the stylistic requirements of the buffoon,” the brothers told an interviewer. “I don’t know if he knows he has that ability, but he does.” 

In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Clooney’s character, even while fleeing the law, remains obsessed with his appearance. His character had been sent to prison for practicing law without a license. Bullsh*ng, in other words, assuming false authority. 

“I’m doing another film with them, beginning of next year,” Clooney tells me. “It’s called Burn After Reading. It’s about a C.I.A. guy who’s writing a book and he loses the disc. I’m not the C.I.A. guy, but I’m a guy that goes around killing people. It looks really fun. This will be my third idiot—[the Coens] call it my trilogy of idiots.”

But here, as Nick Clooney would say, is the kicker. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is really an extended riff on the great Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels. Sullivan can no longer close his eyes to human suffering and so wants to make a film about suffering called O Brother, Where Art Thou? The studio bosses try to dissuade him. When he insists, one of them says, Well, what do you know about trouble or hard luck? Effectively chastened, Sullivan has wardrobe outfit him as a hobo, and goes off a-wandering. In the end, after the director has been magically restored and is back with the studio bosses, one of the men says, O.K., now you know about suffering—now you can make O Brother, Where Art Thou? But Sullivan refuses. “There is a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he tells them. “Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

Clooney stood and stretched and led me back through the house, and we stood in the driveway and the sun was shining and the world was beyond the gates but you wouldn’t know it. He pointed to his garage, where two cars were parked: A small, black, domino-shaped electric car, like a souped-up golf cart. It only fits two people, and the driver has to stick his elbows out the windows, but he said it does 130 on straightaways. “I can’t be saying what I’m saying and out driving a Bronco,” he told me. And a Jaguar. A classic. But he’s had it remade, tearing out the last-century engine and rebuilding it as a hybrid. Like a symbol of the star himself, a mix of old and new. That’s what I want to say, but don’t. I just get into my old-fashioned gas-guzzler instead, and drive down into the polluted valley.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Vanity Fair Nov.2006.

November 24, 2006 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links