Illustration by Andre Carrilho
Inside every TV star is a movie star screaming to get out, and Donna Frenzel, with whom I’m guessing you’re not instantly familiar, made George Clooney a movie star once and for all in the first ten minutes of his fifth feature, 1998’s Out of Sight. For most of the previous two decades Clooney roamed prime time from the miniseries Centennial, in which he was a barely noticed village boy, to sitcoms like The Facts of Life, Roseanne, and Friends. In Out of Sight Clooney’s character, armed with nothing but persuasion of an especially Clooney sort, decides to rob a bank; flicking a cigarette lighter on and off to steady his nerves, he coolly informs the teller that his partner on the other side of the room is ready to shoot her supervisor between the eyes if she doesn’t stuff an envelope full of bills. “You’re doing great,” he assures Frenzel’s terror-stricken employee, “you’ve got a very pretty smile,” and betraying a fleeting swoon before she remembers the whole bullet-between-the-eyes thing, Frenzel distills in her reaction to Clooney everything we’ve come to know about him since: that he’s a dreamboat to take seriously. With ER’s Dr. Doug Ross behind him for good, Clooney became a new generation’s Cary Grant with a little Clark Gable thrown in, his dashing facade at odds with an unsettled soul, if you watched long enough.
In the way that Grant played off his good looks as an ironist (who was most ironic about himself), Clooney plays off his as a man conflicted. If anything, each character in each subsequent movie seems more conflicted than the last, while Clooney’s own life as an actor and director, writer, and political activist increasingly appears more perfect, marked only by conflicts of his choosing that involve presidents and beautiful girlfriends with expiration dates on them. But then, who knows? Maybe every time Clooney turns out the light at that villa of his in Italy, he has a dark night of the soul. Maybe as he goes from movie set to movie set and from world crisis to world crisis, he exorcises in his roles some demon that trails along behind, holding his coat. In earlier larks like Ocean’s Eleven, Clooney displayed a deftness for comedy, sometimes witty and sometimes broad; but lately he’s been drawn more to guys at the top of their game who are starting to unravel. Now his performances are a series of forewarnings: ghosts of Clooney Future that only Clooney Present glimpses. In Michael Clayton he’s an attorney whose commitment to the law rots from the inside out. In Syriana he’s a CIA agent who can’t decide if he’s as rogue as everyone seems to think. In the underrated The American he’s the assassin hiding from everyone but the assassin who’s with him wherever he goes. In the overrated Up in the Air, the timing of which—in the middle of the worst economy in 75 years—was either astute or disastrous, Clooney is a corporate hit man hired to scour the country firing people and jettisoning the flotsam of capitalism; it may be a measure of the times that this character is less sympathetic than the one who blows away his lover at the beginning of The American, not to mention the bank robber who threatens a teller with her boss’s execution. All these men arrive at points of revelation if not redemption, at great cost if not too late.
In his movies Clooney has come to embody the conflict that’s at the center of every story. This movie season we’ve seen two examples, of which The Ides of March is more interesting for how it fails than The Descendants is for how it succeeds. As the struggling father of The Descendants, whose adulterous wife is in a coma, Clooney gives his best performance: heartfelt, occasionally raging, less mindful than ever of a vanity that Clooney discarded back around O Brother, Where Art Thou? But while both the movie and the star have the courage of their feelings, the conflicts—emotional and ethical—end up exactly where we expect them to. Twenty minutes in we know whether there will be an absolution and whether, as the trustee of a huge real estate transaction that will deliver part of Hawaii’s past to developers, Clooney will sign the deal—though whether the decision ultimately is made for reasons more vindictive than noble is the kind of unpleasant ambivalence that director Alexander Payne has become progressively less interested in since his darker and more lethal 1999 comedy, Election. The Descendants is irresistible, but for a major Oscar contender (at the screening I attended, everyone around me was touting its chances before they had seen it) it’s awfully quiet, not in the sense of a subversive hush but rather a fear of speaking too loudly. Nonetheless Clooney drives the movie with the help of an excellent cast that includes Shailene Woodley as his oldest daughter, Robert Forster as his father-in-law, and Matthew Lillard as his rival, whose one scene is the film’s most unpredictable, Lillard refusing to play to type and bursting the psychological confines of how his character was written. The film’s only other surprise is the daughter’s goofy boyfriend played by Nick Krause, evolving from general loutishness to hard-won wisdom.
The Descendants’ Matt King is the ultimate conflicted Clooney because he’s the most normal; if he assassinates anyone, like his wife’s lover, it’s after the lights go up. No one in The Descendants notices that he’s been People’s sexiest man alive (twice) and the least plausible partner to be cuckolded since Angelina Jolie was cheated on in The Good Shepherd. The Clooney in The Ides of March, on the other hand, is closer to the real Clooney, or what we suppose is the real Clooney, than any we’ve seen yet—and turns out to be a complete shit. A governor in the middle of a presidential campaign, he says things that Clooney the political activist has said, giving speeches that Clooney almost certainly wrote himself. He’s the great liberal hope whose transgression turns out to be pretty much what you would think: tawdry and banal, and something that press secretary Ryan Gosling finds unacceptable even as his own opportunism proves at least as morally questionable, though it’s not altogether clear the movie understands this. What’s fascinating about The Ides of March, directed and coscripted by Clooney, is that having set up the candidate’s conflict, the movie then abandons the ambiguities that go with it: When a tragedy occurs in the film’s third act, a single shot of anguish on Clooney’s part would have deepened the movie; and when he finally makes the compromise that he swears to his wife he never will, a scene of him throwing up in the bathroom afterward or slamming his fist into the mirror would have complicated the audience’s judgments. Since these moments would have added all of 30 seconds to the movie, clearly it’s a thematic choice on Clooney’s part not to include them, instead reducing his character to a grim and not particularly incisive metaphor for American politics and its processes.
Clooney’s denial of either revelation or redemption for the character he most resembles may be his way of keeping himself honest, or of making sure what he has to say about politics transcends the usual cheap conservative-versus-liberal face-offs. Similarly Clooney’s last triple header as actor, writer, and director, 2005’s first-rate Good Night, and Good Luck—about newsman Edward R. Murrow’s challenge of Senator Joseph McCarthy—also meant to be bigger than ideology; if nothing else, The Ides of March surely messed with the head of any right-winger who happened to stumble into the theater. Movies are a Rorschach, trading in iconography, and in the past ten years, as Clooney continues to cash in star power for some larger, less defined social power, establishing himself as a fixture on perennial lists of the world’s most influential people, he’s made the calculated decision to pick apart his own image. It could be nothing other than a brazen demonstration of just how in charge he is: This magazine was offered an early screening of The Ides of March only on the condition that it review the picture favorably, an invitation obviously declined. Whether such a directive came from Clooney himself or an overzealous studio getting carried away, it almost could have been a piece of performance art, demonstrating the limits of trying to control the message, political or otherwise. The more perverse alternative is that some pathological bomb ticks away inside Clooney. Yet another is that inside the movie star who screamed to get out of the TV star is an artist screaming to get out of himself, which for artists is the usual destination of choice, even if what they’re fleeing is the enviable fact of being George Clooney.