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George Clooney: Beyond Charm

Written by: FFT Webmaster | October 14th, 2011

In television interviews earlier in his acting career, when George Clooney was inevitably introduced as the “new Cary Grant”, one could find a telltale grimace on his otherwise perfectly aligned face. Yes, Clooney is as handsome, his charm as legendary, his mischievous side as pronounced and his ethereal fame as lofty, but George Clooney has ambitions (and arguably talents) that go well beyond Mr. Grant’s in the latter’s storied 40 years career. For Clooney, acting is just one rung in a ladder that he has successfully climbed to become one of the most iconic and recognizable screen presences of our age. Actor, writer, director, producer, philanthropist, social activist….these are all monikers that he wears with ease. Clooney is much more than just charm, he is an example of the versatility of the modern screen actor and an individual who has channeled his considerable fame and clout to bring attention to the injustices that he recognizes and empathizes with in the world. Clooney’s visibility is especially high this season, what with his fourth directorial film, the political thriller IDES OF MARCH, currently in theaters and his next Oscar nominated performance in Alexander Payne’s THE DESCENDANTS closing the New York Film Festival on Sunday evening.

Clooney has the right stuff in his genes. Born in Kentucky in 1961, his mother Nina Bruce is a former beauty pageant queen and his father, Nick Clooney, is a former anchorman, as well as a game show and American Movie Classics host. His aunt was singer Rosemary Clooney. Spending part of his childhood in Ohio, he grew up in a typical Midwestern home with traditional Catholic values. In middle school, he developed bell’s palsy, a debilitating condition that partially paralyzes the face. The malady went away within a year but he described it years later as “the worst time of my life”. He was an enthusiastic baseball and basketball player. He tried out to play professional baseball with the Cincinnati Reds in 1977, but was not offered a contract. He attended Northern Kentucky University from 1979 to 1981, majoring in Broadcast Journalism, but never did get his graduate degree. He broke into acting as an extra in the TV series CENTENNIAL in 1978. Clooney’s first major role came in 1984 in the short-lived sitcom E/R (not to be confused with ER, the better-known hospital drama, on which Clooney also costarred a decade later). He played a handyman on the comedy series THE FACTS OF LIFE and had a recurring role on the sitcom ROSEANNE, playing Roseanne Barr’s work supervisor. As with many actors who eventually attain fame, his first role on the big screen was in the 1988 exploitation quickie RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES.

He got his big break on the hit NBC medical drama ER, when he played Dr. Doug Ross, alongside Anthony Edwards, Julianna Margulies, and Noah Wyle, from 1994 to 1999. His good looks and mischievous persona made him a heartthrob and perennial favorite. While on leave from the series, he began appearing in movies. His first major Hollywood role was in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, directed by Robert Rodriguez. He followed its success with ONE FINE DAY with Michelle Pfeiffer and THE PEACEMAKER with Nicole Kidman. Clooney was then cast as Batman in director Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN & ROBIN, which was a moderate box office success but a critical failure. He more than redeemed himself in 1988, when he starred opposite Jennifer Lopez in the sophisticated thriller OUT OF SIGHT, the first of many collaborations with director Steven Soderbergh (the two were partnered in a production company until last year). The 1990s were a good period for the actor, with commercially successful projects such as THE PERFECT STORM and the Coen Brothers’ O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? He hit paydirt in 2001 when he teamed up again with Soderbergh for OCEAN’S ELEVEN, a remake of the 1960s Rat Pack film of the same name. The film earned more than $450 million worldwide and spawned two sequels, OCEAN’S TWELVE (2004) an OCEAN’S THIRTEEN (2007).

However, Clooney wanted more than simply acting fame. In 2001, he and director Steven Soderbergh co-founded Section Eight Productions. Through the company, he made his directorial debut in the 2002 film CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, an adaptation of the autobiography of TV producer Chuck Barris. Though the movie didn’t do well at the box office, Clooney’s direction showed promise. He turned to acting again in 2005, starring in SYRIANA, based loosely on former Central Intelligence Agency agent Robert Baer and his memoirs of being an agent in the Middle East. The same year he directed, produced, and starred in GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, a film about 1950s television journalist Edward R. Murrow’s famous war of words with Senator Joseph McCarthy. At the 2006 Academy Awards, Clooney was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, as well as Best Supporting Actor for SYRIANA. He became the first person in Oscar history to be nominated for directing one movie and acting in another in the same year. He won his only Oscar to date for SYRIANA. His next film as a director, the 1930s screwball football comedy LEATHERHEADS (2008) did not gain much traction at the box office, but his subsequent work in such highly regarded films as MICHAEL CLAYTON (2008) and UP IN THE AIR (2009) have continued his maturation as an actor and his profile as a serious artist.

With THE IDES OF MARCH, Clooney attempts to reinvigorate the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s by working in a post-911 narrative of distress and cunning denial. The film opened the Venice Film Festival and has been making the rounds of major festivals before opening theatrically last week to mainly positive reviews. While a Best Director nomination is a strong possibility, the buzz is beginning to build for his finally etched comedic performance in THE DESCENDANTS, the latest film from director Alexander Payne (SIDEWAYS), in which he stars as a Hawaiian patriarch with a demanding family. His work in this film may be the key that finally turns Oscar gold in the Best Actor stakes for him.

However, far from the glitz of Hollywood or his adopted residence of Como, Italy, Clooney has been a major and vocal activist in social affairs. He has used his celebrity to bring attention to the conflict in Darfur, helping organize rallies and fundraisers and advocating political involvement by the United States and Europe to address the conflict.  In April 2006, he spent ten days in Chad and Sudan with his father to make a film in order to show the dramatic situation of Darfur’s refugees. In September of the same year, he spoke in front of the Security Council of the United Nations with Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel to ask the UN to find a solution to the conflict and to help the people of Darfur. In December, he made a trip to China and Egypt with Don Cheadle and two Olympic winners to ask both governments to pressure Sudan’s government. Clooney is also involved with Not On Our Watch, an organization that focuses global attention and resources to stop and prevent mass atrocities. He narrated and was co-executor producer of the documentary SAND AND SORROW. In January 2010, he organized the Telethon Hope for Haiti Now, which raised millions of dollars for victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He has also be instrumental in the launch of the Satellite Sentinel Project, which aims to monitor armed activity for signs of renewed civil war between Sudan and South Sudan, and to detect and deter mass atrocities along the border regions there. He has been an outspoken advocate for civil rights in the United States and abroad, never concerned that his political stances could jeopardize his cinema fame. In this sense, he is a rather extraordinary Renaissance man whose strongest work may still be ahead of him.

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