The other day, a film-critic friend and I had dissenting opinions — several of them — and our healthy debates, naturally, turned to the subject of George Clooney, one of my favorite actors. The other guy’s take on the soon-to-be-quadruple Oscar nominee for acting (and likely two-time winner come February 26) was one I’ve heard countless times: “Doesn’t George Clooney always play himself?”
Wait, that guy he was playing in Syriana was George Clooney? I do not think so, and if he was, then he gained 30 pounds and f**ked up his back on the set for nothing (if you consider a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nothing). My friend concurred (which didn’t make up for all the terrible things he’d said about the music in Drive), but still…
I considered three of my favorite Clooney performances — in Intolerable Cruelty, in Michael Clayton and in Up in the Air — and I had to admit that there’s a common thread stitched into all of them. The characters may have had different names, occupations and crosses to bear, but they were all blessed with The Clooney Charm, that undefinable and undeniable thing we’ve all seen on the red carpet, in interviews and at the winner’s podium at so many award shows. But let’s not forget, what you see is not necessarily what you get: The off-screen Clooney, the public persona, could very well be his greatest performance of all, and if it is, it trumps anything Daniel Day-Lewis has ever done.
It’s the charisma and suave likability of the Clooney character (in real life and in reel life) that made his kitchen staredown with Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March, or the fact that he looked a little bit old in The Descendants (the one that should bring Academy Award No. 2 any week now) so unsettling this Oscar season. That said, even when he veers slightly off his usual course, there’s still no mistaking The Clooney Charm (yes, capitalized because it’s an almost-human force of George’s nature and demands proper-noun treatment).
But here’s the thing you need to know about George Clooney: He’s not Meryl Streep. He doesn’t specialize in every accent under the sun or mimicking historical figures and pop-cultural icons. He doesn’t play the bad guy, he doesn’t time travel, and he doesn’t go gay just because it’s one of the easiest ways to catch Oscar’s attention while screaming, “Look, I’m playing against type.”
That doesn’t mean he can’t pull off all of the above, and some day he might. For now, his key career roles are normal men in difficult or unusual situations, real people. It’s no wonder that many of his characters resemble the actor himself. But he’s not the first highly regarded screen performer to play variations on a theme that is himself. Katharine Hepburn did the same thing for much of her career — Wasn’t her character in Summertime (left) basically her character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 10 years younger, unmarried without children, and vacationing in Venice? — and she was awarded four Oscars for what appeared to be a lack of effort.
And that’s where actors like Clooney, and Hepburn, mislead us, mess with our minds. It’s often been said that actors like them are so good because they makes it look so easy. It’s a little cliche but not untrue. As great as Daniel Day-Lewis is, I wonder if he could play an average Joe onscreen and impress anyone. Not playing himself (and taking Method acting to unbelievable extremes) is his hook, and that comes with its own set of potential mood killers. When you watch him onscreen, you are always fully aware that you are experiencing great acting. But it rarely looks like anything you’d see in the real world.
He would have turned a movie like The Descendants into a one-man show: Portrait of a Lawyer Falling Apart Spectacularly. Cue Oscar buzz! With Clooney taking the lead as Matt King, I felt like I was eavesdropping on conversations between real people while watching The Descendants — which is the best thing I can say about a somewhat overrated film and my least favorite of director Alexander Payne’s last four efforts for reasons that had everything to do with the fact that he made Hawaii look like a drab place that I never want to visit, the annoying voice over that vanished about 30 minutes in, and a punch in the forehead that led to a bruise under the left eye.
Which is not to say that the performances were uniformly great: The best friend of Matt’s wife, awkwardly portrayed by Mary Birdsong, went so over the top in her grief over the news of her BFF’s certain death that she didn’t seem sad at all, just histrionic for the sake of making a mark. She could have learned something from Judy Greer, an actress previously best known by me for being one of Charlie Sheen’s many scores on Two and a Half Men, who aced her breakdown scene later in the film.
I do understand Birdsong’s situation: Actors in smallish roles have to work hard to stand out, while the star can underplay and make his or her mark over the course of the entire film. In The Descendants, as in most of the Clooney films I’ve seen, even when the scene calls for heavier emoting than usual — the one in which Matt bids his unfaithful wife a tearful adieu as she lies dying in a hospital bed — Clooney does it the way a real person would, without snacking on the scenery.
So maybe he’s not as daring as his good friend Brad Pitt when it comes to choosing roles, or he doesn’t possess the range of Johnny Depp, to name two of his contemporaries. But as a singer, neither did Frank Sinatra, who is still considered to be one of the greatest of all time. Unlike Nat King Cole, he didn’t tackle a lot of stylistic ground, but I’ve never heard anyone fault him for that. You don’t have to hit high notes, low notes and everything in between to be a standout singer. You just have to master your own possibly-limited range.
And so it goes with Clooney. If you want to watch chameleons in action, I can tell you where to find them. But there’s an art to playing the regular guy, too, even if he looks a lot like the actor playing him. If you’re going to be yourself over and over onscreen, or variations on a character type that strongly resembles you — or rather, the public’s perception of you — you have to be entertaining while you’re at it, and like Clooney, you have to do it better than anybody else.