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The Long, Still-Bending Arc of George Clooney

Ever since his early(ish) days as a hot doctor, the actor has typified what it means to be a movie star. But as he tries to remove himself from such distinction, questions linger: Can he ever be more than that? Does he even need to be?

Getty Images/Hulu/Warner Bros./Universal/NBC/Ringer illustration

It takes about 90 seconds of ER’s pilot episode for George Clooney to steal the show for good. The lights come up and you’re in the titular emergency room, the graveyard shift; the doctors are tired, the nurses are tired, and the patients keep coming; everyone is busy, busy, busy—and then there, from across the room, you hear it: a low drawl. A purr, almost. Then you see him: Dr. Doug Ross, pediatrician, heartthrob. He’s pretending to be drunk, but no matter—you hear Clooney’s voice, you see him look up at the camera for the first time with winking pleasure, and you think, Oh. A star.

Lest you think this interpretation is a function of recency bias, or at least of knowing what was in store for the then-33-year-old—the Bellagio heist and the sun-dappled soirees on Lake Como and the slumber parties with the Obamas—know that his show-stealing was, in fact, an ER personality trait, in that episode and the 108 others he appeared in. And quite a few of the ones that he did not appear in too. “He’s very handsome,” a young patient’s mother remarks to a nurse later on in the pilot, after Clooney-as-Ross hair-tousles his way out of the room. The nurse all but rolls her eyes. “He knows it,” she replies.

The thing is that you know it too. If you have partaken in American cinema over the past couple of decades, be it highbrow or screwball or somewhere strangely in between, you are aware of the handsomeness of George Clooney. It is an almost structural truth, less of his face than of his aura: He is either debonair, or debonair-as-cartoon-of-debonairishness, or, having thinned his hairline and gained 35 pounds of mostly tiramisu in order to up his schlubbiness, briefly not quite debonair such that it throws the whole thing into even starker relief. But it is not just the handsomeness. It’s the hair tousles, too—the wondering where that beacon of charisma will pause next.

Clooney has said that one of his more successful moves while on ER—the one, perhaps, that made his career—was to convince the showrunners to change the character of Dr. Doug Ross from contemptible cad to flirt with a heart of gold. He is not, as it turns out, very good at playing the bad guy, or at any rate an unlikable one. That, in the end, might be the biggest problem with Hulu’s Catch-22 miniseries, out this month, which Clooney executive-produced, directed two episodes of, and has a minor role in: Joseph Heller’s nihilist wartime paradox doesn’t leave much room for warmth.

Since Dr. Ross first staggered into County General, the Clooney empire has been expanding: from TV actor to movie actor to endorser of espresso machines to wildly successful tequila impresario. Catch-22, though, is the latest expression of his perhaps most fondly, or at least most loudly, stated showbiz dream: to become more than the sum of his jawbone and take the reins instead.

The organizing principle of George Clooney, movie star, is that he toiled well into his 30s as George Clooney, non-movie star. This is not to say that he was like you or me, because he was not: His father, Nick, was a game-show host and then a news anchor, which kept the Clooney unit moving around Greater Cincinnati and also made young George, as the progeny of a very local if also very real celebrity (“Elvis and Johnny Carson,” he once described it), the talk of school. His aunt, Rosemary, was a bigger deal still: a singer and an actress, and an elegant fount of Old Hollywood grace who would, a few years down the road, let her young nephew come live with her in Beverly Hills while he bounced around auditions.

Still: George Clooney, non-movie star, had the same gooberish bangs you or I might have had in our own gooberish hometowns, and when he set off for Hollywood at age 21 with dreams of glory, he didn’t find any. To wit: He did TV, much of it in the form of failed pilots. He made something called Return of the Killer Tomatoes! He filmed Grizzly II: The Concert with Charlie Sheen and Laura Dern, both teenagers, in Hungary; it was never released. He landed a recurring role on Roseanne; he says he quit before he could be fired. He made money during all of this, quite a bit of it—“a couple of hundred grand a year,” he told The New Yorker in 2008—but, you know, it wasn’t the big leagues. Another way in which he was not like you or me. Onward.

You should not, perhaps cannot, pity Clooney. But consider, for just a moment, the other male superstars of his generation. Tom Cruise shot to superstardom at 21 after Risky Business; same for Johnny Depp after A Nightmare on Elm Street. Will Smith was 21 when The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air started airing. Denzel Washington nabbed a role in his own medical procedural, St. Elsewhere, two years shy of 30. Brad Pitt was 27 when he chewed Thelma and Louise’s scenery to hell—a role, incidentally, that Clooney auditioned for—but, well, at least he and his abs were on the right side of 30. Same for Tom Hanks, also 27 when Splash came out. When things started coming for Clooney at last, they did so easily and grandly, and 32 years is not such a terribly long time to toil out of reach of your own villa. But, well, there was a time when the universal acclaim was not.

Then ER happened, and overnight, it seemed, Clooney was a sensation. By the end of the show’s first season, Quentin Tarantino, then fresh from the success of Pulp Fiction, was brought in to direct an episode. Clooney, who’d auditioned disastrously for the role of Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, parlayed this into the starring role in Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn. He kept moving, filling his ER off days with movie sets. He got the lead in 1996’s One Fine Day opposite Michelle Pfeiffer only after Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, and Kevin Costner turned it down. “I had met Michelle, but I didn’t know her, although I did date her sister years ago,” Clooney said at the time. Shouts to Dedee. Then he landed Batman & Robin and, well, it was a train wreck, but a train wreck that people paid attention to. “You figure all batsuits have nipples and then you realize yours was really the first,” he would say later.

It wasn’t until 1999 that Clooney became the bold-face, single-name Clooney. During a three-year stretch he starred in Three Kings (four out of four, quoth Roger Ebert), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a Golden Globe for Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill), The Perfect Storm (CGI glory aplenty), and, finally, Ocean’s Eleven, the first in a triumvirate of most blockbustery heist flicks; a four-parter if you count last year’s Ocean’s 8, in which Clooney does not appear but whose offscreen presence is so powerful that an invocation thereof is used to both open and close the film.

As ER fame first set in, Clooney bought a Hollywood Hills villa previously owned by Stevie Nicks and Vanilla Ice (separately) and christened it Casa de Clooney. There, he devoted himself to a crew he dubbed The Boys, whose members include pre-fame pals Richard Kind of Spin City, longtime producing partner Grant Heslov, and Rande Gerber, husband to Cindy Crawford and, some years later, Clooney’s eventual partner in Casamigos Tequila. Every now and then, a Boy would get divorced and come move in with George; he had crashed at their places back when he was figuring out his own life, including an eight-month stint in B-movie actor Thom Mathews’s closet, so he figured it was only fair to return the favor. There was a foosball table and Guinness on tap. The Boys mounted a dragon sculpture over a Casa de Clooney fireplace, on which Clooney and friends hung, as Vanity Fair put it, “their retired wedding rings.” There were no fewer than six between them. The Boys have stayed close, to the point that Clooney reportedly gave each a suitcase filled with $1 million in $20 bills in 2013, proudly declaring that he had already paid the taxes for everyone. Another time, he got them all matching Indian motorcycles. Clooney has suggested, pleasantly enough, that when it comes to loyalty, he aspires to be like Al Cowlings, friend to O.J. Simpson and driver of the white Ford Bronco, so take from that what you will. Or, allow him to recount shitting in a litter box as part of an elaborate practical joke:

As for pranks: Clooney takes them very seriously. He had Matt Damon’s costumes gradually altered while they were filming Monuments Men to convince him he was gaining weight. He made fake Brad Pitt stationery and sent rakish notes to Meryl Streep and Don Cheadle. He has professed a fondness for what he calls “the face,” which involves putting Groucho Marx glasses over his, uh, you know, a Polaroid of which may or may not have been snapped by John Goodman and left on the Roseanne set after Clooney departed.

Or take it from The Guardian’s late celebrity whisperer, Sally Vincent, who profiled Clooney for the paper in 2003. Toward the end of the interview, which was over a meal at a chic restaurant, Vincent got up to use the restroom, leaving her voice recorder on the table. When she got back—not more than two minutes later, she wrote—Clooney was “chuckling to himself,” and informed her that in her absence he’d left her “a special message.” The next day, to her growing confusion, she found a teaspoon in her handbag, and then another spoon, and then a pair of sugar tongs. Finally, she played the end of her tape with Clooney: “I’ll be warning the maitre d’,” he said, “that a woman has been stealing the silverware.”

It is, shouts to Vincent, the perfect Clooney anecdote. An exercise in which he moves seamlessly from a discussion of serious things (his growing fame, his areligiosity, his distaste for the Bush presidency) to a dastardly prank that leaves you reveling much later in his charm. He is, after all, as adroit with comedy as he is with drama: For every Michael Clayton there’s a pomade-slathered Ulysses Everett McGill, for every CIA operative a clueless Baird Whitlock, Hail, Caesar!’s wildly popular and devilishly handsome leading man who does not trouble himself with matters extending beyond his studio lot. You get it, of course.

In the meantime, it turns out that Clooney, too, knew that he was handsome. Twenty days after meeting, he and Kelly Preston bought a Hollywood Hills home together, plus a 150-pound pet pig named Max (he kept Max, who lived to the ripe age of 18 and doubled in size); he married the actress Talia Balsam after they drove a Winnebago together to Las Vegas in 1989. They divorced three years later, and Clooney pledged to no less than Barbara Walters that he intended to remain a bachelor forevermore. Nicole Kidman bet him $10,000 in 1996 that he would be a father within five years. She lost. Michelle Pfeiffer bet him $100 that he would remarry, a sum that gradually increased in retellings and supposed doublings down to $100,000. For the better part of two decades, she lost, too.

In 2013, the year he met his future wife, Amal Alamuddin, Clooney was 52, childless, and unmarried. Who could believe that our all-American dreamboat would choose solitude? Who wouldn’t volunteer to promptly cure him of these dreadful ills? The tabloids for years suggested that he might, in fact, be gay—“George Clooney’s gay-gay-gay,” he once mimicked back to a reporter, suggesting that the third “gay” was “pushing it.”

For years, Clooney has wanted us to know that he is more than just an actor. He hated the Iraq War; he personally funded a satellite to keep vigil over Darfur. His was a Hollywood sort of activist, but still: He addressed the U.N. Security Council! He was ceremonially arrested! He got malaria! He was called a “traitor” on the cover of the National Examiner!

Then, suddenly, he was courting an honest-to-god human rights lawyer, one who addresses the U.N. regularly, and just as suddenly, it seemed, the perma-bachelor had rebranded: doting husband and then, to twins who will undoubtedly be able to pull off any hats they wish, doting father. You could have missed it, were you not paying close enough attention in the early 2010s: One minute he was giving interviews about all the lovely ladies he had had the pleasure of, ahem, spending time with, and the next he was talking about art, and politics, and love. He has yet, for what it’s worth, to pay up to Michelle Pfeiffer.

Clooney has directed six films, some of them lauded (2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck.) and some of them not (2014’s The Monuments Men). He has writing credits on four of the films, plus producer status on three, including The Monuments Men and 2017’s Suburbicon. Those two are by far the worst received of the bunch—the films’ Rotten Tomatoes scores are 30 and 28 percent, respectively—as well as the two Clooney was most involved in; this isn’t necessarily a causal relationship, but, you know, the data’s worth considering. (Suburbicon is also the only one of the group that does not feature Clooney on screen, so perhaps it simply needed more stubble. Who can say!)

At the very least, Clooney has a great many famous friends who either believe in his cinematic visions or else just believe in his belief in his visions. He talked Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore into pay cuts for 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, his directorial debut; he conned poor Matt Damon’s wife out of quality time with her husband by filming Suburbicon in Los Angeles. His least star-studded cast is probably Leatherheads, which merely features Renée Zellweger and a mid-Office-run John Krasinski. Such are his powers of persuasion that he claims to have convinced Walter Cronkite to go skinny-dipping with him in Lake Como. My kingdom for your gravel-voiced approval.

His auteurism is, let’s say, a little bit studied. He is the kind of person who for Christmas one year gave all his friends copies of his 100 favorite films between the years 1964 and 1976. His first date with Amal was an invitation to join him at Abbey Road Studios in London while he supervised the score for Monuments Men. Know this, prospective lady loves: He is a man who supervises, whose multitudes include dazzling white teeth and more serious matters. Six months later, they were engaged.

But being so very serious seems to be part of the problem. Behind the camera, or the script, or the bankroll, you get the sense that Clooney is desperate to say something—about war or art or racism or what have you. Suburbicon, a kind of parable of late-’50s domestic turmoil, first came into his life in the late 1990s, when the Coen brothers, having written a first draft of the screenplay, asked Clooney to star. The project idled. But then in 2016, here was Clooney, having rewritten the script with his producing partner Heslov to add in a second story line about an African American family—Clooney had read about the horrors at Levittown, and he couldn’t believe that this was his country’s recent history, but also he could believe that, and he wanted to make sure that he let us know about it so that we could believe, too. And wouldn’t you know it, Donald Trump was elected while they were filming and—see? Clooney tried to warn us! But the warning, or the battle cry, or the parable, or whatever Suburbicon ended up being, was clunky, and had plenty of its own problems, ones that could not be solved by simply pointing at the ugliness and saying: here.

The Monuments Men is, perhaps, Clooney’s clearest articulation of what it is that he’s trying to do. There, we get the (true!) story of a group of American art historians who volunteer to go behind enemy lines in World War II in the hope of saving priceless works of art from the overlapping evils of Nazis, Russians, and overeager American warplanes. Clooney is, naturally, the ringleader; his first scene features trumpets swelling as he convinces a crowd of military honchos of the importance of cultural patrimony. “Who would make sure that the statue of David is still standing, or that Mona Lisa’s still smiling?” he asks. “Who would be their protectors?” George Clooney, that’s who.

But the movie is a slog—and this in spite of a putting-the-team-together sequence that yields costars John Goodman, Bill Murray, Matt Damon, and Hugh Bonneville. But if moviegoers knew, they didn’t much care: The movie made $22 million in its first weekend and in all more than doubled its production budget. Clooney is capable of making duds, but perhaps we, as an audience, are not capable of believing that he’s capable—post-batsuit, anyway—of producing anything bad. Such is his greatest power.

Clooney has worried openly about getting old for just about as long as he’s been asked about it. In 2011: “Directing is much more satisfying to me than acting. You know, I turned 50, and I look at myself on-screen and go, ‘I don’t look like I did when I was 40’—I know that.” In 2014: “Nobody wants to see you doing a love scene any more. Got it.” In 2016: “I’m not gonna be carrying movies the way I did before. There are actors you’ll see that try to hold on to this leading-man status long past the due date.” (In the annals of supremely mistaken criticism: the Chicago Tribune suggesting in 1996 that a rom-com was a savvy career move for Clooney, “before he gets too old for romance.” And how.)

He has compensated, therefore, with all the rest of it, which is, I suppose, how we end up in Catch-22 with Clooney as the mustachioed lieutenant Scheisskopf, having left the bigger roles to others, including Kyle Chandler, Hugh Laurie, and, as the central doomed-to-service nihilist Yossarian, Girls’ Christopher Abbott. “I consider my life as being a director,” he said back in 2008, and so here we are.

“I don’t do these things for money anymore,” Clooney said in 2017, boasting about how he was paid just $50,000 to write, direct, and produce Suburbicon. “You’re only relevant for a certain amount of time.” Thus, he explained, he felt he had to make these things happen “while they let” him.

But is Clooney, now 58, really nearing some kind of cosmic expiration date, one that makes it imperative for him to pump out all these spiritual mission statements? The numbers suggest otherwise; audiences are, in fact, perfectly happy to see him continue to rumble away, our perennial leading man. Many of his recent stabs at auteurism have been misfires—either misguided or boring or both—but still, it’s hardly cost him any good will. And should he so wish, he could make most any kind of movie or TV show he wants on his own—his cut of the 2017 sale of Casamigos alone was $233 million.

Maybe, yes, Clooney is right that the world’s collective fascination will shift someday—he’s been a salt-and-pepper staple since he first became a star, and at a certain point the grays will more aptly reflect his actual age. Maybe it’s not his never-ending responsibility to remain in the center of our screens. Instead, maybe it’s on us to accept the painful reality that all things come to an end.

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