Sunday Times, September 16, 2007 by Jeff Dawson
George Clooney is Mr Congeniality
Just what is it about George Clooney that people find so irresistible? After seeing him in action, we get the picture
Does the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow seriously fancy himself a claimant to the title Gorgeous George? To judge by the way any mention of my impending rendezvous with the American actor thus nicknamed has induced in several women the sort of hysteria they last experienced when the Osmonds appeared on Ask Aspel, George Galloway would seem to be a rather limp pretender. In the bijou Normandy resort of Deauville, where George Clooney has breezed in for the American Film Festival, even the French have been going ga-ga. Outside his hotel, pressed against the barriers, usually aloof Gallic beauties loiter with lobotomised grins; at the back, mesdemoiselles with mobile phones wave them in the air like lighters during a Johnny Hallyday slow number.
The most sober departments of the news media are not immune. Bulletins from the preceding Venice jamboree – which premiered Clooney’s latest film, Michael Clayton – have spoken not of a smart legal thriller nor of a sterling lead performance, but of the fact that, in it, poor George, Gorgeous George, looks uncharacteristically “haggard”, “tired” and, heaven forbid, “worn out”.
For a grey-haired man of 46, whose prime playboy days were in the Reagan era, and who has spent much of the current century doing decidedly unstarry work, is it not irritating that it still comes down to this? “Well, I get to make those movies, so it never really gets in the way, it just becomes a selling tool,” he purrs. “My feeling is, if they’re being nice to you, I don’t care.” It can’t be all bad, though, this ability to send the fairer sex into delirium? “Until they meet me and go, ‘Oh, shit’,” he quips, a statement that is meant to imply disappointment, but just might be a lucky housewife’s final words before exploding in ecstasy. He spins a yarn about the “feeding frenzy” of his first visit to Cannes, with bodies piled on his limo 10 deep, fists pounding away. “It was really sort of nerve-racking, and I remember this one person’s face, screaming like a madman, ‘ Who are you?!’ And you realise it has nothing to do with you. It was simply the event.”
For the record, Clooney is indeed a handsome devil. Despite several days’ worth of beard, he shows no signs of being haggard, tired or, Lord have mercy, worn out. Tanned and sinewy after months of playing American football on a film he has just directed, Leatherheads, he’s made a full recovery from his onset accident on Syriana, in which he cracked his head and did enough damage for spinal fluid to drip out of his nose. On the final day of Leatherheads – and this is very Clooney – he won a $1,000 basketball shoot-out, taking on, in front of the whole crew, the actor John Krasinski, a 27-year-old, 6ft 3in former college player who had threatened for four months to “kick your ass”. “I’m telling you, it was one of the great days of my life,” Clooney crows. “It’s up there: Oscar, beating him at basketball.”
In a black short-sleeved shirt and black trousers, and with a contractually obligatory Rolex strapped to his wrist, Clooney is not big physically. His most immediately impressive feature is his voice. American men, apparently, speak a semitone lower than we British males do, an allegedly attractive proposition for womenfolk. Clooney is possessed of a foghorn. Draw your own conclusions.
The face rug is for his next film, the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading. It co-stars his big buddy Brad Pitt, sometime habitué of Clooney’s “guy” hangout, his palatial villa on Lake Como. Some years ago, when Clooney was a jobbing television actor, he and Pitt were the last two contenders for the role of the cowboy hitchhiker in Thelma & Louise, the part that set up Pitt’s career. “I remember when he got it. I didn’t know who he was. I was like, ‘F*** that guy,’” Clooney growls. Things were different then. “I went in and read one line on Guarding Tess, underneath Nic Cage,” he recalls. “One line.”
Since then, Clooney has both attained and eschewed traditional film stardom, preferring instead such independently minded flicks as Out of Sight, Solaris, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana and The Good German, which have all involved, in some capacity, Steven Soderbergh, the director responsible for wheeling him out for the Ocean’s films – their little nod to Tinseltown for indulging their esoteric diversions. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy (who penned the Bourne films), Michael Clayton, too, has Soderbergh’s fingerprints on it, as executive producer. It’s essentially the tale of a crumpled lawyer, a Mr Fix-it: first on the scene when a public figure is caught in a midnight hit-and-run, but a man with enough baggage (gambling, debts) to prevent him from making partner. Jumping in to defend an agrochemical company in a lawsuit, Clayton reaches a moment of epiphany.
In describing it, Clooney mentions films of the 1970s such as The Candidate and The Parallax View. The implication seems to be that he’s rather disillusioned with modern American cinema. “Not just modern American cinema – I think, modern cinema,”he counters. “I gave as a gift to my friends for Christmas last year 100 DVDs of my favourite films from 1964 to 1976. It was going to be 1965 to 1975, but that meant leaving out Strangelove and Fail-Safe. And Network and All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory. But you look at these films – you could find 10 films a year that are masterpieces. And the people who were making them were studios. They don’t make those films any more; you couldn’t come near making those films. This film was taken to a studio. They wouldn’t make it.”
Michael Clayton, naturally, has certain sympathies. “It ends up playing very well in times that are, politically, about corporate corruption,” he says. “You could take this group of characters and put them into healthcare or into government.” Before getting Clooney started on politics (you suspect that once that button’s pushed, that will be it), I have to ask whether Michael Clayton might actually be a metaphor for his own career – the hack performer who, belatedly, sees the light. He laughs. “The hack part, I understand. The moment of clarity, then, would have been a while ago – Batman & Robin – because at that point I realised I’d better start picking better.” His trashing of Batman & Robin – in which, in 1997, amid considerable hullabaloo, he replaced Val Kilmer as the Caped Crusader – is habitual. I bet he still banked the cheque. He concedes the point.
Clooney’s personal history is broadly known. The son of the television presenter and newsman Nick Clooney, he grew up on the set of his father’s talk show in Cincinnati. Failing to make a career in baseball, he headed for Beverly Hills and a route into showbiz via his aunt, the singer Rosemary Clooney, and his actor cousin Miguel Ferrer. A good-looking journeyman, Clooney was better known for his off-screen dalliances (still is: too many to list here) and his love of practical jokes. Roseanne Barr, on whose show he made a guest appearance, is said to keep a Polaroid of George’s manhood on her fridge, the result of a prank involving some penile puppetry and a pair of Groucho Marx spectacles. His breakthrough, at 32, came with ER – his Dr Doug Ross is still the diagnostic cause of Clooneymania. By the time he left, in 1999, ungallantly leaving Nurse Hathaway alone to have his twins, he was a household name.
Does he ever watch ER these days? No. “But my office is right next to the sound stage I spent so much time on, so I see ’em all the time. It’s a different set now – it’s a business,” he says. “When we were there, it was really exciting. People keep forgetting. They talk about American Idol, which is the big hit in America – 22m people watch it. Our reruns were getting 35m. We had 44m people an episode watching.” It was completely unexpected. “We got on this rocket and we didn’t know how to ride it,” he says. “We were hanging on.” Still regarded as a “TV guy”, Clooney found letting go for the movies tough at first. It was not until The Perfect Storm (2000) that he became a bankable screen actor, even though, he says with a grin, "It's a movie about a wave. it's got nothing to do with me."
You suspect he realised, long ago, his limitations in the thespian department – hence his devotion to good material. Even the Oscar for best supporting actor, as a lumpy, overweight CIA agent in Syriana, seemed less about Clooney’s performance than about the Academy’s love of rewarding pretty people who ugly up in the line of duty (see also Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron et al). That said, his acceptance speech, a rant about being “proud to be out of touch”, was a corker, drawing howls of indignation from the right. Clooney’s superb armchair-theatre piece Good Night, and Good Luck, which he wrote and directed, was ostensibly about Ed Murrow taking on Senator McCarthy, but could be read as a tilt at Fox News and the like, which had branded Clooney a “liberal” and a “traitor”.
Clooney has form as a politico, from antiwar protester through to supporter of Barack Obama. No disrespect, George, but at the end of the day, do we really care what an actor thinks? “No, no, no. Listen, I agree,” he insists. “There was a period in the 1960s and 1970s when actors were leading the charge in the civil-rights movement, the women’s-rights movement, the Vietnam-war movement. Then it got to this place where it probably wasn’t a good idea.” He couldn’t campaign for his father when he ran for Congress in northern Kentucky in 2004, because it became about “Hollywood versus the heartland”, he explains. “Kerry tried to get me to ride on his train after he won the presidential nomination,” he adds, “and I wrote him a note and said, ‘I’d hurt you. I’d harm you.’”
Wanting to put something back is part of his Irish-Catholic guilt, he says. A couple of years ago, while shooting Michael Clayton, he was also mounting twin Oscar campaigns. “You’re kissing babies, literally,” he says. “I’m tired as hell, and I feel really unclean, because artists are now somehow in competition. And I didn’t like it. I was like, ‘You know, f*** it – let me go somewhere and do something that makes me feel better.’” He ended up in Darfur, about which he has spoken at the UN.
His father came with him, as a journalist. “He once went to Honduras to try to get a story. It was a big story. He couldn’t get any airplay because it wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t interesting,” Clooney says. “I said, ‘Well, if you’d got Elizabeth Taylor with you, you’d have gotten play, right? I’ll be Elizabeth Taylor.’”
It’s hard to imagine Liz being so indulgent. Interview over, I’m permitted to tag along while he works the rooms. He talks about riding his motorbike down Sunset Boulevard, and about his dinner with Matt Damon the night before; I hear him publicly air his belief that France will win the Rugby World Cup (even though he admits that he knows nothing about the game). But, more than that, it’s the way this smoothest of operators presses the flesh, signs autographs and poses for photos, always (for the ladies) with a swoon-guaranteeing “So how do you want me?”. The old rascal.
“Yeah, I’m lucky,” he says. “My aunt Rosemary was a star, then she wasn’t a star, and it wasn’t because she was any less of a singer. Things change. And so, once you understand that so little of this has to do with you ...” If ER had gone out on a Friday night instead of the prime US slot of Thursday, he reminds me, he wouldn’t be here today.
“That’s luck, not my own genius.” He smiles. “Though I like to think it was.”