Even with a critical dud like The Monuments Men, the silver fox remains unsinkable. Clooney's passion for film, politics, and old-fashioned fun makes him Hollywood's best player.
The charm is simple, natural, free-flowing. And yes, he is as good-looking in real life. If he wasn't so damned nice, so damned hot, engaging and intelligent, it would be easy to resent, envy and wish hailstorms of frogs on George Clooney. But there's no point. The frogs would rain down on him, land with a plop, gaze up at his smile and become princes.
When I interviewed him in 2012 for The London Times, it was on the eve of that year's Oscars. Clooney was up for Best Actor for his role in The Descendants as a harried father, struggling to cope with his children as his wife lay in a coma. But it was to be the year of Jean Dujardin and The Artist. Two years on, Dujardin is starring in Clooney's latest film, The Monuments Men, which Clooney directed, co-wrote and co-produced, and starred in and which is turning out to be that rare thing: a Clooney dud, a misstep.
Clooney has said that he wanted to make something "nice" after the cynical and hard politics of The Ides of March and tense hostage picture, Argo. The story of a group of art curators, restorers and archivists who reclaim cultural treasures from looting Nazis is, at best, said The New York Times, an amiable entertainment. "Mr. Clooney doesn’t just simplify the characters; he also turns them into pleasantly innocuous caricatures that at times edge into cartoons."
The San Francisco Chronicle called it "choppy and flawed," CNN "a bizarre failure." Clooney has said he wanted to replicate the war films of old, focusing on the gallantry of a few, like Kelly's Heroes and The Great Escape. However, the movie isn't emerging as a total turkey. The Washington Post exultantly placed The Monuments Men alongside the others Clooney has directed (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck, Leatherheads, The Ides of March) and starred in, which "evince a fealty to the classical, even old-fashioned kind of film that, we’re so often depressingly reminded, Hollywood doesn’t make anymore."
Even with mixed reviews, the film still drew impressive audiences over the weekend and whatever its mixed-to-negative critical response, don't expect it to dent Clooney's reputation. The 52-year-old actor and director is Hollywood Teflon, liked and respected by all. He's a guy's guy, mates with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, happiest on his motorbike, free to star in and direct projects which he is truly galvanized by. He is political and principled, and also a prankster.
His other big part of this year was playing a flirty, ill-fated spaceman in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, opposite Sandra Bullock, Clooney's voice offering her reassurance and wisecracks more apparent than his bodily presence. Unsurprisingly, given her physically grueling center-stage performance, she is up for Best Actress, he is absent from the nomination lists. But on the patron of silver foxes sails, unruffled. Cuarón, he says, was a "gentle soul," who "has not made a bad film."
It was a surprise when meeting Clooney to find his and longtime collaborator Grant Heslov's production company, Smokehouse Pictures, in an unprepossessing building overlooking a gas station in Studio City, Los Angeles. Clooney was tanned, toned, in grey T-shirt, the only visible imperfection a scar on his right arm after elbow surgery following a motorbike accident.
There were pictures of France and Italy in the Second World War, with dates and notes written on cards. He was "up to my ass" researching The Monuments Men. He was not so easy-going that he would deny his desire to win the Oscar that would eventually go to Dujardin. He told me he didn't know an actor who wouldn't want to win an Oscar. He won one for Best Supporting Actor for Syriana in 2006 (he won another for Argo, which he co-produced). Clooney is clearly thinking about the chapter marked "post-heartthrob," not that he's exactly losing his looks. He told me he was planning "a gradual rather than complete retirement” from acting.
“I've been doing it a long time," he said. "You're not allowed to be in front of camera all the time. (Paul) Newman pulled it back. Cary Grant stopped. Clint (Eastwood) sets the bar high: he's still cranking out movies and interested. I'm not tired, but I want to do only great scripts or work with directors I am dying to work with. You'd think that when you get the pick of the litter, the litter would be great. But it's very thin. It's hard to find class-A scripts."
That was why he and Heslov made their own movies: they could pick and choose their own material. Clooney told me he was "a restless spirit, not for more money or accolades, but because there is only a certain amount of time (ten years, he thinks) where you get the keys to the fucking kingdom," by which he meant the studios would go for his ideas, or that he could easily raise the money independently. He knows this period of professional time is finite.
Another memorable, if not disastrous, misstep, of course, was his turn as Batman in Batman and Robin. But even that he joked about: "Well I wasn't thrilled with the nipples on the batsuit. You know that's not something you really think about when you're putting it on. You figure all batsuits have nipples and then you realize yours was really the first. Batman was just constantly cold I guess."
'You figure all batsuits have nipples and then you realize yours was really the first. Batman was just constantly cold I guess.'
The appeal of Clooney is that he seems genuine, far from fake, a throwback to a Hollywood we like to imagine as venerable and fun, with movies made for love and passion not profit, with principle underlying them, populated by stars and directors who were witty, wise, handsome and urbane. In December, Clooney said anyone on Twitter who was rich and famous was a "moron." He added that those stars from Hollywood's Golden Age would not have "survived" in the hothouse-fame environment of today.
Clooney's Hollywood seems as clubbable as the Hollywood of old—however mythic that became—and not in an annoying, self-congratulatory way. It's as if he's taken the sexy fun of Ocean's 11 and somehow parlayed it to his life: hard work, Scotch, cards and backchat, with a hint of wild, to end the day.
After Tina Fey at this year's Golden Globes made him the target of the night's best zinger—“George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age”—Clooney sent Fey and Poehler a note on Matt Damon's headed notepaper, i.e. as Damon, saying because of their jokes about him (calling Damon "the garbage man") Damon's kids now called him Damon same thing.
Fey and Poehler sent "Damon" flowers and an apologetic note, then another note: "If by chance you didn't send us that letter and it was from George Clooney, please let him know that you’ve got to get up a little earlier in the day to fool a couple of girls like this. We’re grown-ass comedians.” Clooney told ABC that his prank was merely an appetizer to a "brutal" main course, so extreme he was considering whether he would actually play it on Fey and Poehler.
Clooney was raised by mother Nina and father Nick, a journalist and politician, to believe he had "social responsibilities" to fulfill. The family was "happy, but my parents were broke, my mum made my clothes, my dad said we moved when the rent was due," he told me. "I remember cutting tobacco in Kentucky, hearing a star complaining about their life and I was like 'Fuck you,’ but I will say there is no place to go that is private now. Spencer Tracy would be punching the shit out of the guys with video cameras. There is a fucking camera wherever you go. No one is designed to be watched all the time."
He said he was "resigned" to it. Did it depress him? "Yes, but no-one wants to hear that. But it would be a lie, disingenuous, not to say one day I would like to take a walk, or read a book, in Central Park."
Fame came with ER in the mid-1990s and Clooney's role as heart-throb doctor Doug Ross. As for being dubbed the world's sexiest man, he said to me, "I don't think that way. Who you are and what your image is are two different things. I'm not that guy from (his breakout 1998 film) Out of Sight. It was a really sexy movie, but I will always let people down. I will always be 5'11", and older and shorter than you imagine." He started to turn grey after high school, "but at least my hair stuck around". He's never dyed it, and he doesn't wear make-up in his films, unless he has a zit to cover up.
How did he feel about ageing, I asked. "Getting older on screen is not for pussies or the faint of heart." Had he ever had plastic surgery? "No, nothing." Would he? "Never. We're guys, we have the insane great luck of being able to go bald, fat, wrinkled and grey and no one says 'You can't do that, you can't be a leading man'. Why would any male actor cut around their eyes? Why would you ever fuck with your face?”
Turning 50, he said, "wasn't a big year”, although it marked an acceptance of becoming “a character actor. If you don't, the audience you're desperate to hold on to will go 'This is silly.' If you fall in love with the idea of how you were in 1998 you will be greatly disappointed by how you are in 2012."
The interview took place prior to that year's presidential elections, and Clooney decried how far to the right the Republicans had moved on gays and immigration. He was also critical of the Democrats. He had told Joe Biden, "You come to Hollywood for money, you don't come for what we do well: we know how to sell products."
The Republicans weren't the only ones with a gay problem, I said to him. Why hadn't any major film star come out? He looked surprised. "I'm not quite sure who that is. There are gay actors in Hollywood, pretty much everyone knows who they are." So why haven't they come out, I asked again. Was there an issue there? "Of course there is, but there are immensely successful out gay men playing straight men on television and no one saying 'that isn't allowed.’" He was presumably referring to Neil Patrick Harris, but he's an exception that doesn't prove a rule.
'I probably wouldn't have done ten or fifteen years ago, it would have been hard to continue doing the kinds of films I wanted to do. It would be easier for me now at 50, not doing romantic leading roles. I'd like to think I would come out, I'd like to think I'd be man enough.'
As to the rumors of Clooney being gay, which Brad Pitt stoked when he said he and Angelina Jolie wouldn't get married until it was legal for Clooney, Clooney said, "Honest to God who cares?" Would Clooney come out if he was gay, I asked. "That's a good question," he said. "I probably wouldn't have done ten or fifteen years ago, it would have been hard to continue doing the kinds of films I wanted to do. It would be easier for me now at 50, not doing romantic leading roles. I'd like to think I would come out, I'd like to think I'd be man enough. I've stood up for a lot of things that got me in trouble over the years."
He was referring to his activism and politicking in Darfur and the Sudan, and he was concerned the public soon lost interest in such causes. But Clooney wouldn't ever run for public office. He likes that he isn't behoven to lobbyists and backers, that he can say what he says independently. "I talk in Congress about Sudan. I have rebel leaders on my cell phone. I can go to the UN and not worry about who I am pissing off."
Was he a workaholic? “Yes, I spent a lot of time unemployed and can't forget that. I still think of myself as an actor who has to prove himself, who is constantly aware of the fact it will go away. You can't enjoy it unless you have that perspective." He has bought "outright with cash" houses in Los Angeles and Lake Cuomo, which he can sell if times get lean. He doesn't have the accoutrements of personal trainer or chef and is proud that when his lauded-Hollywood life ends, he'll be able to take care of himself. He dealt with the ridiculous amount of adulation showered upon him, he said (and genuinely, not faux-meekly), "By feeling like I am undeserving, that you can't believe your luck when they're nice to you."
Not all has been flowers and tweety-birds for Clooney. While shooting Syriana, he injured the base of the neck, leaving him in searing pain. "For the first time I contemplated my mortality and whether I had accomplished all I wanted," he told me. "I felt I was going to die or have to die, I felt I couldn't live with so much pain." He's had three operations.
Clooney said the experience had left him feeling that, "You must attack life and not get dragged into things which mean nothing. If you knew you had a week left, what's more important—award statuettes or the films you leave behind? Is what people pigeonhole you as important? If you sit in Hollywood and get caught up in it, or Google yourself, you live in hell."
He talked about wilder times: the boozing after ER took off ("I drank pretty seriously"), some recreational drug-taking in the early 1980s. He only really clammed up when it came to talking about relationships. At the time he was seeing former wrestler Stacy Keibler, who he has since broken up with. He was married to actress Talia Balsam, and there were subsequent relationships, including with Lisa Snowdon and Elisabetta Canalis. Would he ever marry? He laughed. "I don't know and I'm never going to answer that question."
‘If you knew you had a week left, what's more important—award statuettes or the films you leave behind?’
Clooney is happier drily riffing on his celebrity friends. He affectionately trash-talks Sandra Bullock as a charming person but a heavy drinker, boasts about beating Leonardo DiCaprio at basketball, and cobbling shoes while Daniel Day Lewis was being all actorly-intense near him.
Of the future, Clooney told me: "Every time you see a retired person they seem to play golf and die. I have no interest in that shit. This is fun, but I'm terrified of the moment when you're the guy who goes to the studio and says, 'Hey, I've got this idea' and they're like, 'Thanks for stopping by' and you walk out and they roll their eyes. The easiest way to become irrelevant is to stop. You have to reinvent yourself." He told me he loved what he did. "I push the envelope, aware that luck has gotten me to this spot…” I thought he had finished, but he added pointedly, “…and understanding that luck changes."
His greatest achievement, Clooney said recently, was supplying the voice to Sparky the gay dog in South Park: "To finally play Sparky was something that I think pretty much completed my career."
The key to George Clooney's charm, and continued success in the face of perceived fails like Batman and Robin and The Monuments Men, is in this dry humor, perfect looks, intelligence, a genuine humility and jobbing actor's natural, eternal wariness of where the next job is coming from. While the media waits to see the next move in his private life, and whether he will ever marry, Clooney revels in the freedom to work on projects he feels passionately about. He has an evident desire to make a difference for those causes important to him, but also to have a lot of fun while doing so. His pals can party with him, and get deep with him. So, leaders of political regimes which fall foul of Clooney's political conscience, and yes you, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, watch out.