In post-studio Hollywood, any number of leading men have seen their career trajectory go south after a series of bad choices — and those choices almost always involved picking projects that paid well but were utter drivel.
It’s probably a good thing for George Clooney, then, that he got his well-paying drivel out of the way early with “Batman & Robin” in 1997. Hot from his starring role on TV’s “ER,” Clooney followed Val Kilmer and Michael Keaton in the latex cape and cowl, pocketed a fat paycheck, and found himself on the receiving end of some of the most legendarily vitriolic reviews in recent history.
No wonder the experience changed his point of view. As he later told an interviewer, “There was a time, which was after ‘Batman & Robin,’ which was the right time to go, ‘OK, now if you’re going to be a film actor, do better films,’” Clooney said. “It’s mostly about working with better people, working with better scripts. That’s usually the difference, I think.”
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The 12 years since that debacle has borne that out, with Clooney consistently seeking out provocative and compelling work from many of today’s most interesting filmmakers. Clooney has become the go-to guy for both Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers while, in the meantime, growing into a talented director himself. (Granted, last year’s “Leatherheads” didn’t really work out in his favor, but “Good Night, and Good Luck” and the underrated “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” were exceedingly impressive efforts for his first two outings behind the camera.)
Lots of stars whose careers straddle mainstream Hollywood and the ostensibly “worthy” realm of indie cinema repeat the “one for them and one for me” mantra, where “them” is the money guys and “me” is ostensibly the bold artist; trouble is, they often start making lots more for “them” and almost nothing for “me.” Clooney, on the other hand, strikes a shrewd balance, where even his “them” pictures (the “Ocean’s” movies, for instance) are, generally speaking, more smart and stylish than most, while his “me” movies (“Burn After Reading,” “The Men Who Stare at Goats”) are indies with enough of a commercial sensibility to appeal to a mass audience. There are, of course, exceptions — Clooney and Soderbergh’s collaboration on “The Good German” and a remake of difficult Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic “Solaris” were probably never going to click with mainstream moviegoers, but you can’t blame them for trying.
His work with Soderbergh extends to their Section 8 production company, a shingle that’s made challenging and provocative fare both with Clooney (“Syriana,” “Michael Clayton”) and without (“Far From Heaven,” “A Scanner Darkly”).
Clooney’s celebrity status isn’t just interesting because of his aesthetic decisions — he’s also proven himself to be a very canny manipulator of the media. He seems to not only get the public’s love-hate relationship with good-looking famous people and the 24-hour-news-internet-tabloid-cycle, but also to subvert it with humor in a way that only a few of his peers have mastered.
Understanding that nothing makes you the butt of a joke quicker than being named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, Clooney beats his detractors to the punch by making the first quip himself. His consistently self-deprecating and laid-back public stance has made the idea of attacking him seem almost redundant. It’s a privilege only the most handsome get to claim, but still, he claims it, defusing even the snarkiest detractors.
Why pick on the man when he’s so willing to do it to himself? And doing so affords him the spotlight every left-leaning political Hollywood star wants to use to draw attention to causes close to their heart. Whether he’s traveling to Chad and Sudan to shed light on the plight of refugees from Darfur or criticizing lobbyist Jack Abramoff, he doesn’t hold back, knowing that thanks to his quotable nature, he’s got the media more or less eating out of his hand.
Subsequently, if there’s any area where Clooney has recently found himself under attack from certain segments of the populace, it’s for those liberal politics. If you’re a liberal yourself, of course, you were probably more inclined to like Clooney after he wound up on the receiving end of attacks by people like Bill O’Reilly over the actor’s participation in celebrity telethons that raised funds for victims of 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami. But even those who don’t necessarily agree with Clooney’s politics would at least have to acknowledge that he doesn’t hide his sympathies out of fear of losing fans.
Those fans, incidentally, may be getting younger all the time. Before the year is out, Clooney will star in Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” — probably the closest Clooney has gotten to a family film since his cameo appearances in the “Spy Kids” series — and he’s getting serious Oscar buzz for “Up in the Air,” the comic drama that marks writer-director Jason Reitman’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated teen fave “Juno.”
Intentional or not, it’s a smart way for Clooney to diversify his fan base. And it can’t hurt to have admirers too young to remember “Batman & Robin.”