By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 17, 2011 at 1:44PM
When you're as offhandedly handsome as George Clooney, you could breeze through your career, doing easy, big-budget stuff that probably takes as much concentration and actorly skill as one of those Japanese soda commercials that movie stars used to sneak off and do over a long weekend. Instead, this star, who broke out two decades ago in the TV hospital drama smash "E.R," seems to constantly challenge himself, as both an actor and a director, repeatedly engaging with the kind of risky material that other actors (much less movie stars with his kind of planetary clout) might shy away from. Clooney frequently goes out on a limb, most often partnering with creative powerhouses like Steven Soderbergh, The Coens and Wes Anderson on projects that might not get the green light without his involvement. So, yes, he’s already a megastar, and we suspect he always will be, but while that level of stardom can and has led to increasing conservatism in the career choices of some other big names we could mention, Clooney's going in the opposite direction. As he recently told Rolling Stone, about his latest and excellent directorial effort “The Ides of March,” “It’s not designed for everybody to see, but I don’t give a shit. I don’t need to be more famous and we shot it for $12 million, so anything we do is nice.”
However he’s also capable of being a crowd-pleaser, even if being burned by early experiences with vehicles like “The Peacemaker” and “Batman and Robin” means that he won’t take an easy paycheck; these days his tentpoles have names like Soderbergh or, in next year's space adventure "Gravity," Alfonso Cuaron, at the helm. Which is not to paint him as stuffy. He's an actor whose seriousness and commitment to his craft is balanced by playfulness and a sense of fun, exemplified by the fact that he appears in Alexander Payne's achy comedic drama "The Descendants" only a few weeks before he shows up in a cameo in a big family holiday movie. Simply put, we can’t think of a movie star we admire more, and in honor of the aforementioned "The Descendants," which opened in limited release yesterday, we're taking a moment to look back at a handful of the most arresting performances from the world's most handsome character actor.
"Out Of Sight" (1998)
A hugely important movie in the careers of both Clooney and his frequent partner/hetero-lifemate Steven Soderbergh, "Out of Sight" established the duo as a creative force to be reckoned with (even if, initially, it didn't connect much with audiences). Prior to the film’s release, Clooney had had a string of critical disappointments, including, a year before, headlining the universally derided “Batman and Robin.” It seemed to cause the actor -- then regarded principally as a TV star (he was still on “E.R,” which he wouldn’t leave until 1999) -- to take stock. As bank robber Jack Foley -- a man who, after escaping prison, falls in love with Karen Sisco, the Federal Marshall on his trail (Jennifer Lopez) -- he brings an old-school movie star quality without simply being Doug Ross by another name (the director helped him to break some of his head-nodding mannerisms). Foley’s got game, for sure, but he’s also a man damaged by a lifetime of being in and out of the joint, who’s choked by the idea of the office job suggested to him by prison-mate Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks, showing his range years before “Drive”), and yet knows that his current lifestyle will only end up killing him. His salvation, and his ruin, comes in his affair with Sisco, in what must surely be one of the sexiest screen romances. Clooney shares a palpable chemistry with Lopez, and one suspects the reason she was never as good after that is that she hasn't since had a dance partner of Clooney’s caliber.
Initially, Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron's take on Andrei Tarkovsky's beloved 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's novel was envisioned as a heady mixture of "2001" and "Last Tango in Paris," featuring graphic sex sequences in a dreamy sci-fi setting. Somewhere along the way this idea was dropped (the finished product features precious little sex) and it is largely remembered now as the movie that was threatened with an R-rating because you could see George Clooney's bare ass for a few fleeting moments. This does a great disservice to both Clooney's performance, as a psychologist recruited by a shadowy corporation to investigate some mysterious happenings on an orbiting space station, and the movie itself, a haunting, super-spooky, ultra-emotional sci-fi classic (or you could call it an existentialist romance picture set in space) that has gone largely unnoticed by audiences. The story unwinds after Clooney's character gets to the space station, where he's confronted by the apparition of his wife who committed suicide several years earlier; it seems the titular planet the station is orbiting has the ability to manifest dead loved ones, which has caused many of the astronauts to go bonkers (or worse). Clooney gets sucked into this pseudo-relationship with willful abandon, and one of the movie's chief virtues is that it beautifully portrays the way that memory works, particularly within relationships, and portrays a tantalizing what-if situation: what if you could have a do-over on a doomed relationship? Soderbergh's chilly photography (and the eerie score by frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez) counterpoints the movie's emotionality, embodied by Clooney as a clinical professional giving in to wild desires. The movie is a gorgeous, nuanced take on the material, deftly plotted but luxurious in its exploration of the darker sides of the human heart. One day "Solaris" will be appreciated and remembered, right alongside the original, at about the same time people stop talking about Clooney's butt.
"Michael Clayton" (2007)
Like all the great movie stars, George Clooney has a defined persona: suave, handsome, successful, confident, the closest thing we have to Cary Grant these days. And like most great stars, Clooney knows that he can be most effective when playing against that persona. Only a few months after the ‘Ocean's’ franchise came to a close, he took on another smooth operator, but one who is the polar opposite of Danny Ocean -- the title role in "Michael Clayton," the directorial debut of 'Bourne' screenwriter Tony Gilroy. A life-long “fixer” for a high-priced law firm, who uses his connections to bail out his employer’s shady clients, Clayton is distanced from his own family, divorced and deeply in debt, principally thanks to his no-good brother; he's in desperate need of his own fixer. When his close friend and mentor Arthur Edens (an Oscar-nominated Tom Wilkinson) goes off his meds and attempts to sabotage a multi-million dollar lawsuit against an agrochemical company, he’s confronted with a moral crisis that strikes at the very core of his identity, and becomes embroiled in a life-threatening conspiracy. You can tell that Clayton was once as charming as anyone Clooney's ever played, but life has taken its toll. He's now a conflicted man disgusted at what he's become, at what he's willing to betray in himself and in his friends. Redemption, when it comes, isn't easily won -- just watch him during the brilliant closing credits, which feature a single take of Clooney in a cab. It's perhaps the actor's most soulful performance (although "The Descendants" gives it a run for its money), the palpable sense we get of a man rotting slowly from the inside is something quite extraordinary. He received his first Best Actor nomination for the part, and in any year where he wasn't pitted against Daniel Day-Lewis' titanic Daniel Plainview, would have walked away with the statue.
"Up In The Air" (2009)
For his second Best Actor Oscar nomination (he didn’t win, but looked great losing), Clooney teamed with Jason Reitman, hot off “Juno,” to play Ryan Bingham, a corporate hatchet man who does the dirty work for companies uninterested in the messy business of firing people. He flies out to Wherever, USA, and drops the axe, and because of this, he's amassed a truly ridiculous amount of frequent flyer miles, as well as a level of chilliness that prevents him from engaging in real relationships with other human beings. That is, until he falls for the similarly travel-prone Vera Farmiga. It’s arguably the most archetypal Clooney role, playing more than any other into his public persona -- the eternal bachelor, keeping all and sundry at arm’s length. Clooney can do charm in his sleep (spotted the recurring theme yet?), and while he does so here, it’s not what drives the performance -- instead it's the layers of sadness, of desperation, of cheap, soul-draining frivolity that add dimension to the role and to the whole film. His transformation from efficient, attachment-free loner to a man whose longing for something more significant in his life is almost tangible, is a subtle one, ably supported by Anna Kendrick’s turn as his wunderkind colleague. But it is a transformation so complete that by the time his love interest reveals her secret, Clooney may just break your heart. He’s one of modern cinema’s great reactors, and watching him on the phone, listening to Farmiga, is something of a masterclass in screen acting.
"The American" (2010)
Unfairly marketed as a kind of high-octane thriller (although it meant the film was something of a surprise hit), "The American" is instead a contemplative, leisurely paced European-style suspense piece about a "weapons specialist" played by Clooney, who flees to a small Italian village after a job goes horribly awry. Following swiftly on from his firmly Clooneyish performance in “Up in the Air,” this is arguably his most atypical role, playing Jack, with an internalized blank slate. He interacts with villagers and falls for a comely prostitute (in a genuinely sexy sex scene, he goes down on her – as he ducks out of view, we are left to focus on the pleasure on her face), but he only utters a handful of words and remains taciturn and resolute throughout. Director Anton Corbijn's background in still photography and music videos suits the movie well, as Clooney nimbly makes his way through picturesque backdrops and creaky alleyways, the eerie placidity conjuring up unseen threats around every corner. But as beautifully as Corbijn frames the Italian landscape, it’s always his protagonist who is at the center, and he takes on the role with a discipline and stillness that’s almost frightening. It’s the film that confirmed that Clooney isn’t just a movie star, he’s also an Actor, and suggests that, as he enters his 50s (he hit the milestone on May 6th this year), even greater things may be on the way. And as for the film, while it left the average moviegoer (and a surprising number of critics) baffled and upset, it's hard not to respect a movie for sticking to its guns the way "The American" does.
Honorable Mentions: There were more than a few additional contenders for the final five, and we’d be remiss in not mentioning them. The most obvious is Clooney's Oscar-winning turn in “Syriana,” in which he’s terrific, dignified and impassioned, but it strikes us as one of those performances that won more out of a recognition of general achivement -- and of the bulky frame the star put on for the part -- than for the merits of the performance itself. He’s always good value in his trilogy of idiots for the Coen Brothers, but the best is the first, “O Brother Where Art Thou,” where Clooney nails the tone as a dummy of a prison escapee, toeing the line between slapstick silliness and human feeling, and coming across as the great grand-pappy of Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona.” He’s never been cooler than as Danny Ocean in the first “Ocean’s Eleven,” something you only realize isn’t as effortless as it looks once you start to think about how few other actors could have played the part. And finally, while “Three Kings” might have been a tumultous shoot, the end product is a classic, and Clooney a strong center piece; dignified, heroic and conflicted.