There are movie stars and then there is George Clooney. The man is the epitome of old style charm and charisma and he has been compared to Cary Grant on so many occasions that it would be superfluous to do so here. I’m going to take a look at his (sometimes controversial) career in order to have an overview of his work as a director, producer and Oscar-winning actor.
This isn’t going to be a totally biographical piece. It’s not going to analyze his life or critique his early work, as few readers would be interested in the likes of failed television pilots such as Sunset Beat (a show that featured a young and mullet-sporting Clooney as a cop by day and a rocker by night.) Instead we’re going to look at Clooney as he took his first tentative steps from ER to movie stardom. Clooney is an actor who is unafraid to take risks. He’s used his star power to bring non-commercial and controversial pieces of cinema to the screen. Not since the 1970s has an A-list actor put his weight into producing such a varied portfolio of work.
However, in 1996 things started off so differently. At the time Clooney had become a huge star as Doug Ross on the hugely successful Medical drama ER. Like most actors the opportunity of big screen success came knocking and Clooney was offered roles in the Michelle Pfeiffer romantic comedy One Fine Day and the Robert Rodriguez-directed and Quentin Tarantino-penned horror/thriller From Dusk Till Dawn. While neither film set the box office alight, they were both successful in their own way and they showed that Clooney was an actor who could appeal to both men and women. Then it was announced that Clooney would be replacing Val Kilmer as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Batman & Robin – the fourth instalment in the Warner Bros. hugely successful Batman franchise. Clooney would share the screen with box office titan Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone and the returning boy wonder Chris O’Donnell. It looked like Clooney was about to do what the likes of Don Johnson, Tom Selleck and David Caruso had failed to do – have a viable cinematic career.
Batman & Robin opened in the summer of 1997 to dismal reviews and lackluster box office (it barely crossed $100 million in the US). The poor performance of the film mothballed the Batman franchise until 2005 when it was resuscitated by Christopher Nolan – it also cooled some of Clooney’s heat and made some entertainment watchers believe that Clooney’s charisma wouldn’t transcend the limitations of the living room. In the Fall of ’97 the trend continued when Clooney starred alongside Nicole Kidman in the action thriller The Peacemaker, the first live action film from the then-fledgling DreamWorks. Again, The Peacemaker opened to less than stellar reviews and mediocre box office, again calling into question Clooney’s potential star power.
In the summer of 1998, Clooney teamed with director Steven Soderbergh for the first time in Out of Sight. The film was a big screen adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel and it co-starred Jennifer Lopez in a role that led to her joining the ranks of the A-List. Out of Sight was a huge critical hit, but it failed to connect with audiences, grossing less than $40 million. Again it looked that Clooney wouldn’t be able to make the jump to movie stardom as financial success continued to elude him. It was around this time that the actor starred in and produced a live television performance of Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe. The production, directed by Stephen Frears, was a throwback to live action television of the 1950s – something that Clooney would also attempt with an episode of ER.
2000 was the year that saw Clooney break his stalemate on movie stardom and launch his career as an A-list personality. The Perfect Storm was seen as make or break, or more aptly sink or swim for Clooney. The big budget drama was a Warner Bros. tent pole summer film and it was set to open opposite Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. Both Clooney and Gibson shared a core fan base and the films would test their drawing power – although at the time Gibson was the more established star with unbreakable box office appeal. The Perfect Storm was the box office winner on its opening weekend and it went on to gross more than $180 million, finally providing Clooney with an elusive box office hit and proving to the press and Hollywood that Clooney was indeed a movie star.
A few months later, Clooney followed up this success with another commercial and critical hit, Three Kings. In many ways Three Kings proved to be the archetypal Clooney starring vehicle – daring, unflinching and owing a debt to 1970s cinema. The Gulf War drama led to some controversy when it was released with rumors that real cadavers were used for some sequences and with reports that Clooney and director David O. Russell came to blows over treatment of extras on the film. The $60 million gross of the film again proved that Clooney could carry a film, although Clint Eastwood and Nicholas Cage were originally the studio’s top choices to lead the film.
It was around this time that Clooney made a conscious decision to build a filmography of quality work, rather than box office hits. Stung from the failure of Batman & Robin, Clooney has stated that he met with his financial advisers and decided that he was wealthy enough to select work based on the script and not just the paycheck. He also said that he wanted to be proud of his films and not have to talk around their quality when doing the publicity rounds. Throughout the 2000s, Clooney continued his relationship with Steven Soderbergh by starring in the successful Ocean’s trilogy as well as the Casablanca-esque The Good German and the James Cameron produced science fiction drama Solaris. The duo also formed the production company Section Eight, which led to films like Todd Hayne’s Far From Heaven and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. The box office success of the Ocean’s trilogy meant that Clooney and Soderbergh (with a little help from Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) were able to deliver a “one for me, and one for you” philosophy with studios, showing that they weren’t willing to lose sight of the financial aspect of movie making.
During this time Clooney also formed a close working relationship with the Coen brothers, starring in a trio of comedies: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. Again, these films were a throwback to film history, with O Brother riffing on the work of director Preston Sturges, Cruelty being inspired by the screwball comedies of the 1930s and Burn owing a heavy debt to the paranoia political dramas of the 1970s – a period which appears to have inspired a cast amount of Clooney’s cinematic output. In fact, if there is one actor who Clooney could be compared to it’s Warren Beatty. Both stars have used their success in Hollywood to produce films that have more of a political bent, as well as pushing the boundaries of their commerciality to the extreme. At the height of his success, Beatty pushed the likes of The Parallax View, Shampoo and Reds through production, cementing his reputation as one as one of Hollywood’s leading politicos. Likewise, Clooney has used his weight in Hollywood to help films like Three Kings and the Oscar winning Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck reach screens.