'ER' launched Clooney, but 'Sight' set bigscreen bar

Let’s put this on the table immediately, just so there’s no confusion: Nobody in his generation in Hollywood has crafted a more brilliant career — and life — for himself in a shorter amount of time than George Clooney.

Proof?

Consider that as recently as 10 years ago, Clooney was filming his role in the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino vampire Western “From Dusk Till Dawn,” his first starring movie role of any real worth.

This quickly earned him great hipster credit with legions of reservoir dogs and other fanboys while thrusting him into a completely different universe from his Dr. Doug Ross role on “ER,” whose massive and overwhelming success may have threatened to permanently embalm Clooney as a TV actor.

Already well into his 30s, he had been around the block long enough to know that he wasn’t about to let that happen.

He then starred as Batman in arguably the worst entry in the franchise, earning such dubious distinctions as a Razzie nom for “worst screen couple” (with Chris O’Donnell’s Robin), yet it didn’t phase him. Everyone forgot his turn in “The Peacemaker” when he made the second great move of his career by matching up with Stephen Soderbergh for “Out of Sight.”

Clooney found a role in Jack Foley that allowed him to marry his innate intelligence with the sheer dash and glamour that’s second nature to him — and the core reason that he’s an undying object of envy.

This changed everything. Terrence Malick assigned him to pack the gear in “The Thin Red Line,” a job that — no matter how little screen time it totaled — any self-respecting actor in Hollywood would have sacrificed his or her agent for.

Clooney could switch from doing a voice for Trey Parker and Matt Stone on “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” to David O. Russell’s “Three Kings,” where his Major Archie Gates in Iraq War I personalizes the jaded voice of a generation, making it clear that something important was going on.

Unlike past TV guys who had moved to the bigscreen, such as Bruce Willis or Tom Hanks, Clooney was not about to follow a safe path to stardom; for all that, it wasn’t even clear that Clooney wanted to be a big star. What was clear was that he wanted to make movies that mattered.

“Three Kings” also began a pattern that gradually emerged and became starkly clear in 2005. Consider this: In six brief years, Clooney made no less than two highly sophisticated films addressing U.S. policy in the Mideast (“Three Kings” and Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” on which Clooney produced) and three films on the Cold War (the live made-for-tube remake of “Fail Safe,” and his two films as director, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “Good Night, and Good Luck”).

Rather than use his now-shuttered Section Eight production shingle with Soderbergh as a vanity project, Clooney often spearheaded politically savvy efforts in which he was strictly behind the scenes, such as the woefully underseen HBO series “K Street.”

As Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman has astutely concluded, “Like Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, George Clooney is a politically aware movie star who has taken the American political spectacle as his subject.”

As the films above indicate — along with his upcoming role in Soderbergh’s “The Good German,” set in liberated Germany at the end of World War II — Clooney, as much as or more than Beatty, is interested in the American political spectacle in the context of the world.

Major Gates represented a new kind of Pax Americana, where the same get-rich-quick schemes that fueled a million American dreams were sidelined into a sudden burst of American goodness.

“Confessions” is certainly one of the most cinematically electric debuts by any recent U.S. director, with Clooney using Charlie Kaufman’s script to visually explore and explode the sense of reality and myth that fueled America’s Cold War/CIA skullduggery abroad, and how this was exactly echoed by the television medium. This same synergy operates in the black-and-white of “Good Night,” which already makes Clooney something of an auteur.

Even in the films he doesn’t direct, Clooney has made sure that he’s operating in the world at large, such as “Syriana” and “The Good German.” Is it an accident that, for the follow-up to their “Ocean’s Eleven,” Clooney and Soderbergh made sure that the cadre of cads were world travelers?

This identification with global involvement in his movies is perhaps why Clooney can also be taken seriously as a spokesperson and activist for global causes.

He was a key organizer of post 9/11 fund-raising, led the effort to send express relief to victims of the 2005 tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia and is currently the most visible American voice calling for immediate action and relief in Darfur, having just addressed the United Nations’ Security Council on the crisis on Sept. 14.

He is on the United Way’s board of directors and now has to fend off half-serious comments and prompts by some to run for office. (Already, there’s a Web site: Clooney2008.com.)

But because Clooney lives the life of Riley — starting with his palatial estate on the shores of Lake Como, continuing with his investment in the planned Rat Pack-style Vegas resort of Las Ramblas, and ending with his undisputed hold on World’s Most Eligible Bachelor — and because he’s self-deprecating and witty, he also knows that he can continue to, on one hand, play in comedies such as those by the Coen brothers and, on the other, fend off the barbs of jealous right-wingers and self-righteous left-wingers like Michael Moore.

The right ideologues labeling him a traitor for his early opposition to Iraq War II and Moore, with his dreary chiding tone, fail to grasp what Clooney already has: Within moments of joking in a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone that the well-reported lack of bipartisan congressional fellowship might be solved with some hearty sessions of drinking, Clooney chides the Democrats for being “the party of ‘I disagree.’ We have to be the party of ‘here’s the way out.’ ”

Soften ‘em up, then sock it to ‘em.

Imagine: Superb filmmaking, brave acting, fabulous good looks, upfront citizenship and intellectual clarity, all in one. The rarity of this in Hollywood can’t be overstated.

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