Thursday 22 August 2019

George Clooney is at a crossroads - his next big role could be in politics

Having lost interest in acting and with his latest film ­flopping at the box office, Clooney is at a crossroads. Could his next big role be in politics, asks our film critic

Speculation: Deposed as Hollywood's leading man, Clooney may now take at stab at becoming the US commander-in-chief
Speculation: Deposed as Hollywood's leading man, Clooney may now take at stab at becoming the US commander-in-chief
George Clooney in The Descendants
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

A decade or so ago, George Clooney was just about the coolest and most influential man in Hollywood. Having made the then almost impossible transition from TV to movies, he'd worked with Steven Soderbergh, Terrence Malick and the Coen brothers, and had established himself as a film-maker and producer in his own right.

His interest in humanitarian causes seemed genuine, his jokey disdain for societal conventions was refreshing, and other Hollywood stars tended to refer to him gushingly as 'George'. While his natural range as an actor was narrow, he had pushed himself into interesting areas in films like the conspiracy thriller Syriana, and the legal drama Michael Clayton. By his mid-40s, he seemed poised for big things, and those constant Cary Grant comparisons did not seem far-fetched.

But instead of blossoming, his acting career has stalled, partly because of his interest in directing, and maybe because of his growing involvement in politics. Either way, his box-office clout has waned. His last substantial role was six years ago, in Alexander Payne's comic drama The Descendants, which Clooney earned an Oscar nomination. He deserved it, too, but since then good films - and performances - have been rare.

His turns as a grumpy inventor in Disney's Tomorrowland, and a glib TV host in Jodie Foster's Money Monster, were pretty ordinary. So were the films, and Clooney's 2014 wartime drama Monuments Men was worse, turning a pretty interesting war story into a hackneyed mess. None of those films did well at the box office, and Clooney's latest has gone down like a lead balloon in America.

Suburbicon, which opened here yesterday, is based on a screenplay the Coen brothers wrote way back in the mid-1980s and abandoned. Matt Damon stars as Gardner Lodge, a 1950s suburban father who appears to be the devastated victim of a violent home invasion.

When two criminals break into the Lodge home late one night in 1957, they tie the family up and kill Gardner's wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), with an accidental overdose of chloroform. But when Rose's twin sister Margaret comes to stay, and Gardner becomes suspiciously close to her, his young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) begins to smell a rat.

Suburbicon makes much of the venality lurking behind the carefully tended façades of a 1950s middle-American housing estate, and is not without its moments. But a subplot about a black family who are besieged by white extremist protesters after moving into the milky white neighbourhood feels tacked on, and conveniently topical.

American movie-goers voted with their feet: Suburbicon grossed less than $3m on its opening weekend, and will be lucky to recoup its $25m budget. Of course, Clooney isn't in it himself, and his presence might have helped, but he's no longer the box-office sure-thing he once was. In fact, he hasn't acted in anything for two years, and has no immediate plans to. "I'm not going to do movies just to be in front of the camera," he told the Hollywood Reporter recently, adding, perhaps significantly, "I'm not a leading man any more." All of which has prompted speculation that Clooney may be about to (a) retire from acting, or (b) run for president.

That last possibility might sound far-fetched, but stranger things have happened. And after all, he would not be the first Clooney to run for elective office - his father Nick stood as a Democratic Congressional candidate in 2004, but didn't win. George might do a little better - and more on that later.

He was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on May 6, 1961, and was raised Catholic by his Irish-American parents - he even served as an altar boy. He excelled at school, was good at basketball and baseball, and tried out for the Cincinnati Reds. For a while it seemed like Clooney might follow his father into journalism, but instead he followed the example of his aunt, the singer Rosemary Clooney, and headed for Hollywood.

One of the things that always made Clooney so likeable was the fact that success did not come to him overnight. After arriving in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, he toiled for well over a decade on the outer edges of the entertainment industry, and was 33 by the time he made his first appearance as Dr Doug Ross in the TV drama ER; it was an instant hit, and so, finally, was Clooney.

Charming, funny, astonishingly handsome, he looked like a ready-made movie star, and by the end of ER's first season he was already getting film offers. His first major movie role was in Robert Rodriguez's gory 1996 horror From Dusk Till Dawn, but he looked much more at home in One Fine Day, a charming romantic comedy in which he and Michelle Pfeiffer played single parents who keep bumping into each other.

Clooney was born to play romantic comedies, and might indeed have become his generation's Cary Grant if he hadn't arrived in an age when Hollywood had forgotten how to make them. Instead, he was cast as the caped crusader in Joel Schumacher's especially stinky Batman & Robin (1997), a famous flop that might have ended the career of a less charming leading man.

Clooney recovered, redeeming himself in Steven Soderbergh's wonderful 1998 crime comedy Out of Sight, before beginning a long and fruitful collaboration with the Coen brothers in O Brother, Where Are Thou? And he scored his first real box-office hit when teamed up with Brad Pitt in Soderbergh's stylish remake of the rat-pack movie Ocean's Eleven.

He began directing, promisingly with the paranoid biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), more impressively with Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), a drama about a TV news journalist's battle with McCarthyism. In the half-decade or so that followed, Clooney was in his creative prime. He won an Oscar for his portrayal of a disillusioned CIA field officer in Syriana (2005), a nomination for his excellent work on Michael Clayton, and was as good as he's ever been in Jason Reitman's 2009 recession drama Up in the Air.

He continued directing, and also became an active producer, winning another Oscar for his behind-the-scenes work on Ben Affleck's Argo (2012). But five or six years ago, Clooney appears to have lost interest in acting.

His passion for geopolitics gathered steam in the mid-2000s, when he made a documentary with his father about the plight of refugees in war-torn Darfur. He became an outspoken commentator on that conflict and others, and in 2008 was appointed a UN messenger of peace. Clooney also set up his own charity, Not On Our Watch, with Hollywood buddies Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, and in 2010 became pals with Barack Obama after meeting him to discuss the situation in Sudan.

Clooney was fond of laying high stakes bets with co-stars like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman that he'd never wed again (he was briefly married in the late 1980s). It must have seemed a sure thing, but then he met Amal Alamuddin, a British-Lebanese human rights lawyer. They were married in 2014, and earlier this year, at the ripe old age of 55, Clooney became a dad.

America would have been very unlikely to elect a bachelor to the highest office in the land, and the arrival of the Clooney twins reignited speculation that he might be about to throw his hat in the ring.

Clooney has always dismissed such questions with an exhausted smile. In 2011, when journalists at the Venice Film Festival asked him about the presidency, he said "why would anyone volunteer for that job?"

But when the subject was raised again recently, his response was less equivocal. "Would I like to be president? Oh, that sounds like fun."

He was sneering a little when he said it, but his sarcasm was not convincing.

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