Casting Call: George Clooney

Welcome to Casting Call. In this series I’ll be taking a look at the people who, arguably, most profoundly and most visibly effect our response to cinema; the actors. Each week I’ll profile and look at the career of an actor from one of the week’s cinema, blu ray or dvd releases, and discuss several of their films and performances.

Name: George Timothy Clooney
Date of Birth: May 6th, 1961
Family: Mother Nina, Father Nick (a TV newscaster), Sister Adelia, Aunt Rosemeary Clooney
First Film: Return to Horror High (1987)
Most Recent Film: The Descendants (2012)
Next Film: Gravity

George Clooney’s career is probably one of those you think of as the archetypal true Hollywood story: a hell of a lot of work and a little well placed luck. He made a small start as an extra in a mini-series called Centennial, which was shot in his home town in Kentucky, then plugged away for years auditioning, taking guest roles in tiny TV shows (and a larger role in prophetically titled TV comedy E/R), and small parts in films that now largely survive because he took small parts in them (Combat Academy, Return of the Killer Tomatoes).

1994 was the year that Clooney was finally noticed (it might have been 1992, but despite auditioning multiple times for Ridley Scott he missed out on the role of JD in Thelma and Louise), when his prominent part in NBC’s hit drama ER catapulted him to fame. He played Dr Doug Ross, an idealistic and often irresponsible pediatrician, on the show for five years, and cemented both a fanbase and the lovably roughish persona that has become something of a trademark since. ER didn’t lead on to bigger things for all of its cast, but it did help the charismatic Clooney launch a film career, and right from the off he seemed willing to mix the commercial with the riskier projects.

In 1996, Clooney took his first post ER steps in cinema with an odd pair of films. First came the Tarantino penned, Rodriguez directed, ultra violent crime/horror hybrid From Dusk Till Dawn. He’s perfetly cast here; a total bastard, but one you simply can’t hate, and he chomps on Tarantino’s dialogue as well as anyone (and sports one of the movies cooler tattoos). Then there was One Fine Day; an utterly formulaic rom-com opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, which did well, but neither star’s nuclear powered charm could overcome an uninspired screenplay. The less said about 1997 the better. Clooney made a solidly uninspired actioner called The Peacemaker with prolific ER director Mimi Leder and, aside from voicing a gay dog in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, that would count as the high point of his cinematic year.

This appears to have been the tipping point, and since then Clooney has used his more commercial films to allow him to do passion projects, first for other filmmakers and latterly as a writer and director himself. Out of Sight wasn’t a commercial juggernaut, but it gave both Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh the careers they have now (as well as being a highly entertaining and extremely well made crime movie) and the subsequent Oceans series meant Clooney had the freedom to carve out a directorial career built largely on more esoteric fare like political dramas Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March (his one attempt at a crowdpleaser; screwball throwback Leatherheads was recieved derisively by critics and punters alike).

While Clooney’s Cary Grant like qualities have been much observed, they haven’t pigeonholed him as they did Grant, and he’s developed into an actor of considerable subtlety and distinction. Yes he sometimes coasts on charm (and even smarm… see the Oceans films), but he’s also shown great willingness to spoof his image (particularly in his work with the Coen brothers) and to dent it (playing rather less sypmathetic characters in the likes of Up in the Air and The Ides of March).

Outside of his acting, Clooney manages to strike a good balance; he largely stays out of the tabloids and keeps his private life private, but he’s also used his status to talk about his liberal politics and has been a willing (and reliably witty) interviewee. He’s already won one Oscar (for Syriana, which I found deathly dull, but the fact he gained a lot of weight and grew a big grey beard seems to have swayed the Academy) and you could do worse than bet on him this year for The Descendants, which contains one of his best and most complex performances. Now approaching his 51st birthday, Clooney is moving into what should be a very rewarding period for a strong character actor.

Best Film: Michael Clayton (2007)

Much is wrong with the current version of the Hollywood star system (see the inexplicable career of Katherine Heigl, the world’s least charming actress), but Clooney has used it to his advantage and without the Oceans films it’s tough to imagine that this intelligent, adult, throwback of a thriller would have been made.

Michael Clayton sees Clooney as a fixer for a law firm, who has a particularly difficult week when the litigator (Tom Wilkinson) defending a big company against a huge class action suit has a meltdown in a deposition. As well as dealing with this, Clayton has a loan shark breathing down his neck for $75,000. There are a couple of explosions, but this thriller largely gets its tension and its release from dialogue scenes.

Clayton is ostensibly the hero of the film, and he eventually does the right thing, but he’s hardly a particularly sympathetic character; we know he’s got 17 years of shady deals behind him, and for a long time he doesn’t care about the ethics of the defence of this class action suit, nor is he much of a parent. Clooney, though, makes him totally compelling, without ever asking for sympathy for they character he does create a degree of empathy for him as he goes on what, to be fair, is a rather small moral journey. Clooney’s unshakable charisma is brilliantly exploited; you buy him as a man who is used to talking his and other people’s way out of anything under the sun, and that’s what makes the thriller element of Michael Clayton tick, what gives it traction, because if he can’t talk his way out of them then these must be very serious situations indeed.

There are only a handful of recognisable faces in the film, but even the small roles are extremely well played, and the supporting cast is exceptional. Tilda Swinton won an Oscar for her performance as the head lawyer for the company being sued. It’s a small part, but right from the first moment we see her, practising her lines for an interview, we know exactly who this woman is; we see her success, but also her terror of getting things wrong, which increases the deeper she gets into using extreme methods to right this dangerous situation for the company. If anything Tom Wilkinson is better, and for a long time you’re as unable to tell as Clayton is whether his meltdown is due to a newfound conviction or going off his manic depression meds.

Michael Clayton is a terrific throwback to the 70’s in in tone, genre and style. I’m not certain it’s Clooney’s best performance (that may be in The Descendants), but it’s definitely his best overall film to date.
See Also: The Descendants; O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Hidden Gem: Three Kings (1999)

Clooney doesn’t really have a typical kind of hidden gem. There’s not a secret classic lurking in his pre-fame CV, nor an unwarranted flop that needs rehabilitating (I can see a few of you arguing for The Men Who Stare At Goats, but… no), and most of his successes have been well known. Three Kings, however, still doesn’t seem to have gone truly mainstream. It has a cult following – a large one indeed – but it’s still an oddball movie that I’d love to see acknowledged as the minor modern classic it is.

If anything, David O’Russell’s comedy/heist/war movie is even more interesting than it was when released in 1999, as we can now look at it, as well as through the spectrum of the first Gulf War, in which it is set, through the second. However, the film’s mind isn’t entirely on the loftier ideas present (though they are an integral part of the film) as O’Russell mixes action and comedy (often in the same moment – the cow) to fine genre bending effect.

The cast is eclectic; Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze and Said Taghmaoui all excel and while Clooney always holds the attention when he’s on screen it is probably Taghmaoui who emerges as the most complex character, and is most interesting in terms of the film’s politics. The reason Three Kings really succeeds for me is that though David O’Russell essentially made 3 movies here they are all individually excellent and entertaining, and they meld into a convincing whole. It may have been a nightmare to make (Clooney says it was the worst experience of his life) but it’s fantastic to watch.

One to Miss: Batman and Robin (1997)

It’s not like Clooney hasn’t made other crappy films, and I know this is the expected choice. But DEAR HOLY GOD is it bad. The really annoying thing is that casting Clooney as Batman isn’t a bad idea (though it’s not the first superhero you’d think of him for, that’s Mr Fantastic), and if he’d had a director and a screenwriter who understood the character then he and the film might have been really great. Unfortunately, Batman and Robin was a bloated neon mess, shorn of even the few moments of darkness that Batman Forever had, with the traditionally dark Gotham City decked out in neon and a screenplay composed entirely of the worst puns in the history of the world.

Batman always played second fiddle to his villains in the films, but the terrible threesome of Mr Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s single worst performance), Poison Ivy(Uma Thurman’s own wooden spoon) and an hilariously botched Bane ate up most of the running time between them and were laughably unthreatening. And then there’s the small matter of the Bat Credit Card… but I think that’s been covered elsewhere.

Batman and Robin is an apocalyptically terrible film, it destroyed its parent franchise (one of Warner Brothers’ most lucrative, even then, contrary to popular belief this was no flop) for the best part of a decade, and it could easily have killed Clooney’s burgeoning film career, were it not for Out of Sight.
See Also: One Fine Day, The Peacemaker, Leatherheads

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2 Responses

  1. m0nd0

    What is the “Bat credit card’? That was one I missed, literally and figuratively

  2. Sam.Inglis

    There’s a moment in Batman and Robin where Batman produces a Bat Credit Card. It was thoroughly dealt with by The Nostalgia critic, so I left it basically alone here.


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