so right after i type the article up, I forget to save it and my computer crashes. Then I go to the vanity fair website and its RIGHT THERE.
here's the article. enjoy.
Already a Classic
We visit Casa Clooney for a chat about the producer-actor-director's latest film, The Good German; his plan to cause a New York media meltdown; and what his Aunt Rosemary (the Britney Spears of her day) taught him about keeping fame on a leash.
by Rich Cohen November 2006
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; his hair glistens; his dark, soupy, saloon-singer eyes shine. He is thinking and saying just the right thing at just the right moment. He is against the war and for the people and stands up to the bullies. 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, and when he stood up, and he looked fantastic, and glittered like a jewel, he was talking for all of us. Like they say in the movies, "Someday, a hero will rise." 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 were some dogs, 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: O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Three Kings; Out of Sight; The Perfect Storm; Ocean's Eleven; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which Clooney directed; Good Night, and Good Luck—he co-wrote and directed that—and Intolerable Cruelty. 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's a kind of smoothie, with ingredients consisting of equal parts Chinatown, The Third Man, and Casablanca. It's as if Clooney took a machine back through time to make a movie with Billy Wilder.
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.
It's not just his looks, or fabulous gift for bullshit, but his political stands, evident in the movies he makes. He was at the awards for Syriana, a Stephen Gaghan picture in which Clooney played (get this) a conscience-ridden C.I.A. agent lost in a hall of mirrors, and no matter how fast or far you ride, ka-bam! And let's face it, that's America in the world today. He got fat to play the role, and acted up a storm, and cast down his eyes, and let himself be tortured. He was tied to a chair and beaten in this scene, and when, in a fit of Method, he went wild and turned over the chair, he was badly injured. For a time, when blowing his nose, he thought he was blowing snot but was really blowing spinal fluid.
Did Lee Strasberg ever expectorate spinal fluid?
He got the award for that one—best supporting. He was also there for Good Night, and Good Luck—his movies had eight nominations in all—which he co-wrote, directed, and acted in. (Clooney recently dissolved his longtime producing partnership with director Steven Soderbergh, with whom he has made, among others, Solaris, Out of Sight, and Ocean's Eleven. "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.") Good Night, and Good Luck was shot in black and white (so that old news footage could be blended with new scenes) and was righteous in an Ezekiel-in-the-desert sort of way, a retelling of the prime-time battle between Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy, which was really a thinly disguised fable about Fox News and the Bush administration—a cry in the face of barking dogs.
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 or the madness of Republicans or the madness of war. O.K., so maybe he was a little too self-satisfied. 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? Isn't that kind of like giving the woman on the syrup bottle an award for her portrayal of Aunt Jemima? But Clooney is a movie star, and was speaking his mind, and not a jokester like Jon Stewart, and not a funny man like Ben Stiller, but a pop aristocrat—Atticus Finch standing down the mob that wants to lynch that poor Negro. And so a miracle had happened: an adult had appeared in a world of children, a senior in a nation of sophomores. Handsome, gray-haired, thin-hipped, dark-eyed George Clooney, the last American man.
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, all those neighborhoods and fields glowing beneath a chemical fog. It feels as if you are ascending, higher and higher, up to a Shangri-la, where the master, who sits cross-legged and drinks herbal tea, will answer just three questions: What's up with you and Soderbergh? Do celebrities feel pain and die like the rest of us? Who are you dating? You press the button on the security box and identify yourself, then follow the driveway through the overhanging trees, past a potbellied pig crossing sign, past a casa de clooney sign, to the sort of stolid English Tudor you expect to find in Connecticut horse country.
Did you know the Tudor was the McMansion of its day?
The star is waiting in front, in a black T-shirt and jeans, white shoes without socks. He is not tall and not short—just the perfect movie-star height, his head a notch too big for his body, which is so slender it shimmers like a hologram, as if only his dark, intelligent face were real. It's one of his great skills on-screen: you can actually see him thinking, doing the math. The foyer is massive, a tremendous chandelier creaking overhead, a broad staircase leading God knows where. It feels less like a real house than like the idea of a house, a dream of adulthood. There is a picture of Clooney with Jimmy Carter in the downstairs bathroom, another of the star on the set of Three Kings, in fatigues, staring, Don Knotts–like, into the barrel of his own M16.
We sit in the family room, beneath a pitched roof and rafters. A door is open and you can hear water circulating in the pool and the gurgle of a hot tub. There is a wet bar in the corner. Clooney yawns, stretches. His voice is deep, his mind roams. He slips off his shoes, puts his feet on the coffee table. A muted TV set is turned to CNN, which shows a computer image of a decapitated plane spiraling into the sea. He picks dust off his pants. He says The Big Lebowski"is the funniest stoner movie—that and Dazed and Confused." He says, "Up until he went away to the army, there's nothing more amazing than Elvis Presley." He says, "Just before the Academy Awards, [Tim] Robbins came over to me and said, 'If you win, you have to say, "Impeach Bush."'?"
Clooney has a screening room where he watches at least a movie a day. He says the 60s and 70s were the golden age of American film. "I gave all my friends my pick of the hundred best films between 1964 and 1976," he told me. "It starts with Dr. Strangelove and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, and it ends with All the President's Men. And in between you got [Sidney] Lumet, who has about 10 films, and [Alan J.] Pakula's got about 5, and Hal Ashby's got Harold and Maude and The Last Detail. You've got Coppola's two Godfathers and The Conversation." He especially enjoys paranoid thrillers, movies where the loose ends don't tie together and things don't work out. His favorites include Paddy Chayefsky's Network ("I've seen that film 50 times—I'm not exaggerating, 50") and Pakula's The Parallax View.
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 fucking 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 Gawker.com 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.'" After a few months or so, a building on Sixth Avenue would detonate, sending a plume of paper into the Manhattan sky.
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: Johnny Mercer, the Gershwins, Cole Porter. He names some favorite tunes, drops his voice a register, then sings the opening of Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered":
After one whole quart of brandy
Like a daisy, I'm awake
With no Bromo-Seltzer handy
I don't even shake
He looks at the mantel, where, in the manner of an icon, like a picture of Mary and Jesus, 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. Then, as if thinking of his own place in the current moment—and, in many ways, Clooney is haunted, and can always feel the plates shifting beneath him—he lets his eyes go glassy, snaps his fingers, and sings …
Out of the tree of life
I just picked me a plum.
George Clooney was born and raised in Kentucky, in that part of the state that turns in the orbit of Cincinnati. I do not know what the area looks like, because I've never been there, but I have a sense of it from movies. There are rolling hills, and grand estates, and white-haired guys in linen, and juleps, and corncob pipes, and smart, slick, ambitious young men determined to build a new and better South. "Yessir, the South is gonna change," Clooney says in O Brother, Where Art Thou? "Everything's gonna be put on electricity and run on a payin' basis. Out with the old spiritual mumbo jumbo, the superstitions and the backward ways. We're gonna see a brave new world where they run everyone a wire and hook us all up to a grid. Yessir, a veritable age of reason—like the one they had in France—and not a moment too soon … "
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, hosting Bowling for Dollars, introducing classic films, goofing through his daytime variety show. His name was Nick Clooney. (Nick recently ran for Congress in Kentucky and lost.) 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. In the old stories, Nick comes off something like Ron Burgundy, the character Will Ferrell played in the movie Anchorman. The voice of authority, the man with the hair. Stay classy, Cincinnati. 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. Probably because he worships his father. In interviews, he mentions him constantly. 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. One more reason it had to be shot in black and white: who pictures the past of their parents in color?
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. She was Britney Spears. She had her picture on the cover of Time magazine. Fan clubs. She married the actor José Ferrer, divorced, then married José Ferrer again. She fell out of favor, got sad, turned to pills. 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.
George watched his Ferrer cousins from a distance. Their life was like something in a painting by David Hockney. The swimming pool was so blue it hurt. "I thought it was romantic, amazing," he told me. "Nobody had a house with a pool in Kentucky, a tennis court. It was magical." Did George come to covet this life? Was it the green light at the end of the dock? Now and then, he appeared on his father's variety show—sometimes in costume. After high school he went on to Northern Kentucky University to study broadcast journalism—the pull of his father. But one day he got a call from a Ferrer cousin. (Just then, George was working part-time as a tobacco cutter.) Uncle José 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.
‘I remember the first day I got here. Miguel [Ferrer] took me for a drive up Sunset Boulevard, and we stopped right in front of the old sag building, which was on Genesee and Sunset. And there used to be just tons of hookers there—like 15 on that night in particular. I'd never seen a hooker in my life, coming from Kentucky. And we pull up to the stoplight, and all these girls came up to the car and were like, 'Baby, want to party? You want to party with me?' And I was like, 'Girls love me, man! I'm on fire in this town! I should have come here a long time ago! Chicks dig me!' And Miguel goes, 'They're hookers, you idiot.'"
Now and then he landed a job: Return to Horror High, Return of the Killer Tomatoes! But mostly 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 jerk-off cousin, in the last seasons of Happy Days and materialized again on Married with Children. Clooney did so many shows in those years—Riptide, Street Hawk, Combat High—that he came to have the stink of failure. Of almost. The little engine who thought he could. 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 (he put a bumper sticker on Brad Pitt's Prius that said, i'm gay and i vote!); rode antique motorcycles; 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. The feds could do little with such a profile. 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, as the industry people say, Clooney opened big. This was Wolfgang Petersen's version of the Sebastian Junger book, not Clooney's best performance—"He's likable and versatile," David Thomson writes in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, "but not for one minute … did he make me think of a Massachusetts fisherman"—but that was not the point. The yokels stood in line—that was the point. Money poured in. The newsman's handsome son had become a movie star.
Now, about this Clooney-being-a-man, the-last-American-man stuff: there is something interesting about it, because, while I stand by everything I said up top, it comes with a kind of twist. Clooney does radiate 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. If you're a movie fan, you sense this, 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, most of whom were already famous, 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. It's as old as old Huck Finn, but, in our age, it has migrated from the fringes to the center. (When you get to the adult table, you realize everyone is acting.) 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 and Ocean's Twelve; 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." "You are so confident working with them," Clooney says of the Coens. "Because you know what their product is … you know it's going to be out there."
In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Clooney's character, even while fleeing the law, remains obsessed with his appearance. When he finds out that a merchant does not stock Dapper Dan, his favored pomade ("I am a Dapper Dan man," he says), he loses his temper. "Hold on now! I don't want Fop!" he yells. His character had been sent to prison for practicing law without a license. Bullshitting, in other words, assuming false authority, pretending. In Intolerable Cruelty, the other movie he made with the Coens, he plays a divorce lawyer, certified and legal, but essentially the same guy—dazzling and empty and obsessed with surfaces. "Joel just wanted me to play the same sort of idiot," said Clooney. In his first appearance, the character is having his teeth whitened as he talks on the cell phone.
"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—the way I want to go out. I think there is a message to Clooney hidden in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Even if this was not the intention of the Coens, I think it's there. It's a message to Clooney the activist, Clooney the would-be journalist, Clooney the director of Good Night, and Good Luck, from the casters of Clooney the buffoonish fellow with the gift of gab. Here's the first thing you need to know to hear the message: O Brother, Where Art Thou? is really an extended riff on the great Preston Sturges film Sullivan's Travels, itself the story of a Hollywood director (not unlike Clooney) whose commercial hits have been light comedies: Hey Hey in the Hayloft, Ants in Your Plants of 1939. But Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea, 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 … garbage cans … hard luck? Effectively chastened, Sullivan has wardrobe outfit him as a hobo, and goes off a-wandering. Through a series of mishaps, he ends up in a prison, his identity unknown. One night, when he is at his lowest, the chain gang is taken to a Negro church (the only company considered lowly enough to sit with the outcast men) to see a film—this scene is carefully copied by the Coens. The prisoners shuffle to the pews. You hear their heavy chains drag on the rough floor. The men sit. The picture starts. It's a Disney cartoon, Mickey Mouse and that goofy dog. As the camera lingers on the faces of the convicts, we see the dead stares melt into smiles, then hear great guffaws of hiccuping laughter. Sullivan looks around, amazed, then loses himself in the movie. 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 wind was moving in the trees 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, the body of Bogart but the soul of tomorrow. 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.