Exemplifying straight-backed American masculinity, George Clooney has thrived by never moving too far outside his charismatic comfort zone; self-confidence and preening serve his parts. This isn’t a knock on him: rather than Method-izing his way into character, he lets roles drape themselves around him like a well-tailored suit; you’ll never see him in old man makeup a la Leonardo Di Caprio in J. Edgar. Clooney is at his best when recognizably himself, placing him (alongside contemporaries like Owen Wilson and comeback-era Robert Downey Jr.) in the tradition of classic Hollywood stars like Cary Grant, John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, where the actor’s resourceful use of his limited range yields iconic stature.
Square-jawed and athletic-framed, Clooney inherited his slightly anachronistic ’50s leading man looks from his fashion model mother and news anchor father. His introductory shot as divorce lawyer Miles Massey in 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty is a handy indicator for his looks-driven persona: all you see are his teeth in the left rear-view mirror, isolated from his face, with the actor rigorously checking every gum and molar. Part of this is vanity: he’s admiring his immaculately white teeth. But it’s also professional pragmatism: looking good is what allows Miles Massey (a name suggesting a lifetime of smiling whenever introducing himself) to cruise through a messy job unscathed, with sufficient charisma to shut up potential adversaries.
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After years of TV servitude in prime time hospital rooms, Clooney leaped into film in the quickly forgotten rom-com One Fine Day, fended off vampires with workaday grit in From Dusk Till Dawn, held his own as a serviceable action hero in The Peacemaker and famously bombed as Batman in the ill-conceived Batman and Robin. Only in 1998’s Out of Sight did his image come into full focus as a bad boy charmer so cocky he didn’t even need a gun to rob a bank. The winning formula? Don’t have Clooney try too hard. Director Steven Soderbergh is a specialist at turning the limitations of actors into dramatic strengths, most notably in The Girlfriend Experience, where he turned dead-eyed porn star Sasha Grey into an appropriately dead-eyed materialist. Similarly, Soderbergh doesn’t push Clooney so much as play around him: in Out Of Sight and the Ocean’s trilogy, Clooney’s the stoic anchor, unflappable whatever the odds: a charmingly unkillable matinee idol.
Other directors skillfully play against Clooney’s aura of superiority. In Wes Anderson’s animated delight Fantastic Mr. Fox, he’s nothing but a rapid-patter voice of self-assurance, and his constant scheming and brazen mobility land his animal friends and neighbors into deep trouble. After his theft of farmers’ stocks reaps a massive retaliation, “fantastic” or no, he has to take responsibility. Ditto Michael Clayton, where he’s memorably outraged to find out that, for all his immaculate suiting and legal savvy, he’s not immune from attempts on his life. “I’m not the guy you kill,” he explodes. “I’m the guy you buy! Are you so fucking blind that you don’t even see what I am?” But his enemies do get it: he’s so blinded by his cockiness he can’t see that he’s wide open, a guy who never built up defenses against the venality he’s enabled.
Then there’s Clooney as Unlikely Ordinary Man. In Up In the Air, Clooney is convincingly mediocre as a dude who fires people for a living instead of giving show biz a shot. The gap between what he looks like (movie star) and what he does (a job requiring residency in Omaha and no opportunities for advancement) underlines his character’s sad-sackness. The problem is the film: director Jason Reitman’s an overrated hack who demands that Clooney’s character Learn Some Lessons about maturity in a rote scenario. He’s better served by The Descendants: Alexander Payne offers not just a better film, but one that has fun with the unlikely scenario of Clooney as a victim of infidelity. “That’s the guy?” his eldest daughter gasps when they track down his romantic rival, as if to acknowledge Clooney’s alpha maleness.
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Politically, his top dog stature lets him get away with a lot, especially as a director. Conservative websites love to rag on Clooney (“While Clooney has and is doing some noble work in the Sudan, most Americans haven’t forgotten Clooney’s raw arrogance and cruelty, a combination common to most liberals,” fumed Big Hollywood columnist AWR Hopkins recently). But Clooney has fared much better critic- and audience-wise directing political dramas than comedies, admirably bucking general trends. While Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Leatherheads each made roughly half their budgets, Good Night and Good Luck (for which he earned his sole Oscar directing nomination) cost $7.5 million and earned $31.5 million in the US. He’s done even better with The Ides of March with a $12.5 million budget and a worldwide return of $42 million and counting.
As Governor-turned-presidential candidate Mike Morris, Clooney riffs on his own hubris and conflates it with the average politician’s: even before the big third act revelation (think Clinton), background posters with Morris’ mug are modeled on Shepherd Fairey’s “Hope” Obama poster. Here it says “Believe,” foreshadowing that he’ll eventually disappoint: the same belief that makes him an effectively charismatic politician translates into private hubris.
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The film knowingly riffs on Clooney’s reputation as eternal bachelor: he’s stated that he can’t run for office because of his roguish past (and present), and The Ides of March nicely dramatizes the liabilities he’d bring to the campaign trail. Vanity empowers and destroys; at the same time, it’s made Clooney the only profitable mainstream American liberal director. Maybe he really is as good as he thinks.
Vadim Rizov is a freelance film writer based in Brooklyn. His work regularly appears in Sight & Sound, the LA Weekly and the AV Club, among others.