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.