Shooting into the public consciousness thanks to his bedside manner in ER, George Clooney rapidly became one of the highest-earning actors in Hollywood. Bringing an old-fashioned charm to his role, he also chose his projects wisely (Batman & Robin aside), appearing in genre favourites like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, and collaborating with respected filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Solaris), and the Coen Brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty). He also became known as a prolific philanthropist and film producer, before getting the directing bug. In the lead up to his latest, the Coen-scripted drama Suburbicon, we looked at his directorial career to date.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Clooney’s 2002 directorial debut was an adaptation of the bizarre autobiography of the same name by Chuck Barris, who died earlier this year. Known for hosting The Gong Show, Barris’ alleges that he was also an assassin for the CIA. Written by Charlie Kaufman, Confessions was at one point intended as a Bryan Singer film with Johnny Depp slated to play Barris. Clooney picked up the reins after production was cancelled and Sam Rockwell was cast in a far-too-rare leading role. Clooney himself plays the CIA agent who recruits Barris into the fold. Apart from being an interesting movie, played as if Barris’ autobiography was gospel, with Clooney being praised for his direction; he also demonstrated canny negotiation skills during its production, convincing Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore to take pay cuts, and Miramax to give him final cut and greenlight Rockwell in the lead by offering them first refusal on projects from his own production company.
Good Night, and Good Luck
For his sophomore project, Clooney again looked to real life for his subject. The famously social conscious actor also co-wrote this smokily authentic examination of the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, and the conflict between journalist Ed Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Heading a stellar list of character actors including Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr. and Clooney himself, is the perennially underrated David Strathairn as Murrow. Clooney stretches a measly $9m budget a long way, with this tremendous ensemble cast, and filming in crisp, evocative black and white. He wisely eschews beating the audience over the head with its always-relevant message of media responsibility, presenting Murrow as dignified but flawed and letting McCarthy hang himself with his own use by using actual footage rather than having an actor play him. It’s slightly under-seen, but more than established Clooney as a safe pair of hands.
Clooney had a much bigger budget to play with for his third feature in 2008, a comedy centring on the early days of professional American Football in the 1920s. However, despite Gorgeous George being able to pull in another excellent ensemble of Renée Zellweger, Jonathan Pryce, John Krasinski, and the dependable Stephen Root, Leatherhead could be considered a flop. It failed to attract the audience that flocked to NBC’s Friday Night Lights in the US, and its subject matter was always going to limit its appeal globally. It’s hard to say why this homage to classic screwball didn’t pull in the crowds from its target market, featuring as it does Clooney doing his best Cary Grant, imported from the Coen’s Intolerable Cruelty. Perhaps it’s a little too close to the Coens in style, and they haven’t always attracted the big bucks their prestige may otherwise suggest.
The Ides of March
Curiously, Clooney’s only film to date that is set contemporaneously (a statistic Suburbicon does nothing to change), The Ides of March is a bracing and cynical political drama about the manoeuvring and backstabbing behind the scenes of American politics. Not for nothing does the title refer to the assassination of Julius Caesar. Clooney himself plays a candidate for the Democratic presidential nominations, with Ryan Gosling as his underhand junior campaign manager. The poster may falsely give the impression of this being a vehicle for the meeting of two generations of Hollywood heart-throb, but the heart of this movie is jet black. Clooney wisely diverts any accusation of liberal bias by setting this shady tale amidst the Democratic rather than Republican campaign, and with Good Night, and Good Luck jostles for the position of his finest film.
The Monuments Men
If the Coen brothers are obvious stylistic influences on their frequent collaborator’s directorial work, then Steven Soderbergh is another. What could in other hands have been a serious piece, about the titular Allied soldiers tasked with the retrieval of various art works before they fell into Nazi clutches, is instead an Ocean’s Eleven-style adventure. Once again assembling the class of ensemble players that would make most other filmmakers puce with jealousy (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett), Clooney offers up an old-fashioned, uncynical caper that, not for the first time in his directorial career, reaped mixed reviews. It did however do respectably at the box office, and further cemented Clooney as a director of real humanism, and one who understands the value of art. Accusations of historical accuracy aside, it also felt like a canny throwback to the character-driven classic war films like Kelly’s Heroes; an antithesis to the flat-out post-modern revisionism of Inglourious Basterds.