Clooney fuses 21st- century stardom with old-style dealmaking

When George Clooney accepts the 21st annual American Cinematheque Award onstage at the Beverly Hilton tonight, it will be ostensibly for his role as “an extraordinary artist … committed to making a significant contribution to the art of the motion picture.” But that’s only part of it.

Because as every magazine profile, Oscar pool and “50 Sexiest Hotties Alive” list should make abundantly clear, Clooney has the best job in the world. In a profession where virtually everyone in his position — past and future — plays the hero, it’s the rare movie star who can carry the role over into real life.

“I do have the best job in the world,” says Clooney from a Warner soundstage where he is finishing up “Ocean’s Thirteen,” the last and biggest offering from Section Eight, the production shingle he ran for six years with director Steven Soderbergh out of Jack Warner’s old office on the Warner lot.

“It can be restrictive at times,” he adds, “but it also allows you to be whatever it is you actually want to be. If you’re secretly a schmuck, you don’t have to secretly be a schmuck anymore — you can just be a schmuck. People still say no, but you win most of the battles when most of the people in the world can’t.

“I can pitch a movie about four episodes of television in 1954, and they’re going to make it — if you counterbalance it with some commercial films and take your own salary out of the equation.

“Actors, in general, come from a place of worry, because you’re mostly unemployed. So I think what happens at times is that people tend to load up as much as they can on things that make them feel safe. And the problem with that, of course, is that those audiences go away.

“But as you and I both know, five years from now you won’t be doing this interview with me — you’ll be saying, ‘No, I’d like to talk to the other cat,’ and I’ll be on ‘Hollywood Squares.’ To me, I’m more afraid of not doing the things I believe in.”

Like Jack Nicholson, another late-blooming actor loyal to his friends with more credits to his name than he probably cares to admit, Clooney has managed to mask a fierce intensity and fiery rage with an insouciant Irish charm that allowed him to emerge, long past his sell-by date, as the leading actor of his generation.

From his Oscar nominations last year for “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Syriana” (for which he won supporting actor); drawing world attention to the plight of Darfur or going mano a mano with conservative blovi-ators; lending his star power to once-indie stalwarts Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, the Coen brothers and, most notably, Soderbergh; auctioning off his Oscar gift bag for Hurricane Katrina victims; getting a hapless yachtsman released from drug prison with a phone call to the king of Morocco; or magnanimously praising fellow actors Steve Zahn, Don Cheadle, Viola Davis (whom he loaned his Italian villa to for her honeymoon) and Michelle Monaghan (star of a fifth storyline excised from “Syriana”), Clooney seems to go out of his way to beat the perquisites of stardom into providence.

In the past few years, with a summer home on the shores of Italy’s Lake Como, fact-finding trips to the Sudan and the G8 Summit in Scotland and his upcoming starring vehicle “The Good German” (which he calls one of Soderbergh’s best films) set in Berlin and at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, Clooney now threatens to become a de facto ambassador of U.S. Enlightenment ideals.

Not that it has curbed his storied sense of humor. Possibly channeling Danny Ocean, his Sinatra-styled character in the “Ocean’s” trilogy, when asked whether being abroad so much informs his perspective on America, Clooney replies, “Did you just call me a broad?”

Confusion reigns

“I think people are confused about us at times,” he says of the mood overseas. “It’s cyclical. People were awfully confused during the civil rights era when they looked at America and saw Bull Connor. And then they were tremendously happy with us when we landed a man on the moon a few years later. In general, we’re pretty good at fixing our own mistakes without having a revolution. … What you learn is that we’re such a young country, we’re up on our toes still; we haven’t laid back and relaxed really. We’re still trying to prove ourselves, relatively speaking.”

Reminded that Chuck Barris, the subject of Clooney’s directorial debut and putative biopic “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” retired to St. Tropez in the south of France for more than 20 years, Clooney comes clean.

“I am actually now working for the CIA,” he admits. “The beauty of saying you work for the CIA is: Who’s going to check?”

Meanwhile, like Sinatra, who probably gave everyone he ever met $100, Clooney is careful not to take his recent success too much for granted.

“We’re doing ‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ now,” he says, “and we have a really good script, which is important, because with ‘Twelve’ there were obviously some problems.

“Steven had an idea for the poster for this one: ‘”Ocean’s Thirteen”: The one we should have made last time.’”

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