George Clooney arrived at success late by Hollywood standards. After a decade-plus of b-movies, failed television pilots, and guest spots, it seemed like his recognizable and likable presence was always going to just be one of those faces who showed up on screen and made you think, “Oh, hey that guy was in Roseanne, The Facts of Life, and The Return of the Killer Tomatoes!”
He was mature, salt-and-pepper-haired, and well into his thirties when he landed his heart throb pediatrician role on NBC’s ER that made him a household name. So, what did it? What separated Clooney apart from all the other thirty something television stars who had good looks, charisma, and just as strong (if not stronger) of a chin? Did Clooney really look that much better? Not really. He looked great, just like all the other eighties actors looked great.
Did Clooney really have more acting talent than most in his generation at the time? To say the least, not really. In fact, Clooney’s early work didn’t so much suggest acting as it did… Well, just standing in front of a camera and saying things in a pleasant manner while smiling and bobbing his head.
Clooney was a diamond in the rough for years and, as much as we’d all love to say we saw it coming, there really wasn’t much to see in Clooney’s early work but a nice smile, a deep voice, and a body lots of women really wanted to have sex with.
Even though he came from a Hollywood family, (Rosemary Clooney and Jose Ferrer were his aunt and uncle), Clooney had to put his in his time struggling for years before he was ever taken seriously as an actor or a leading man. And when he finally was, his career was all the more self-made and self-directed as a result.
He had some doors opened for him, sure, but nothing was seemingly handed to him, and it shows in both his work and in his public persona. A large part of George Clooney’s initial and continued success over the years is that he reeks of integrity.
Hindsight being twenty/twenty, there is one thing you can find in all of Clooney’s early work that informs the quality of his later work: you trust him, you like him, and you believe him. Maybe he’s a skilled and manipulative politician at heart (we’ll get to Ides of March), but the films he makes suggest that he cares about how he presents himself, he cares about people, and he cares about doing good and important work.
As he has gained more and more control over his films throughout the years, they consistently and more frequently showcased his compassion, integrity, and intensity over a number of political and social causes.
Qualities such as these are impossible to completely fake. George Clooney is a world-known movie star and filmmaker because he comes across as a man with ideals. While he’ll be the first to admit in his humble interviews he’s hardly perfect as either a man or a talent, his efforts towards making movies that matter are what have made him stand out for years, and will most likely continue to do so for the rest of his life and career. The following fifteen films show these standards in Clooney’s work over the years.
15. From Dusk Til Dawn (1996)
This silly but kinda brilliant Robert Rodriguez-directed and Quentin Tarantino-written throwaway genre-twister caper is the film that made George Clooney a movie star. Yes, the man who would go on to produce Oscar-winning movies proved himself in a film that was excessively violent, had vampires come out of nowhere, and was primarily set in a bar called “The Titty Twister”.
And he was nothing short of great in it. Playing a bank robber who takes a family hostage along with his psychotic brother (Tarantino), then gets in deep with a tribe of vampires, Clooney plays every note of this b-movie symphony in relaxed stride. He is commanding, takes hold of the camera, and you somehow believe every absurd and silly action to which he has to commit.
Covered in goo, decorated in tattoos, and fighting snake-charming vampires, Clooney is every bit as believable in From Dusk Til Dawn as he would later be in in his Oscar-winning turn in Syriana. Now, that, people, is what makes a movie star.
14. and 13. (tie) Ocean’s Eleven and Burn After Reading (2001 and 2008)
Clooney, being the charm monster he is, has lots and lots of Hollywood friends. We know this because we stand in supermarket checkout lines and see him on magazine covers and because there was a time not too long ago where you would read about a new crazy “George Clooney and celebrity friends ” story every time you opened Yahoo News.
Sometimes, Clooney likes to have parties with his famous friends and wants the whole world to see them. In other words, some of the movies George Clooney makes are strictly fun, made with people he enjoys working with, and seem to be elite (and very silly) Hollywood parties in disguise as feature films. This really isn’t an insult. If there’s someone who knows how to have fun on camera and make it infectious to his audience, it’s definitely Clooney.
Both Ocean’s Eleven and Burn After Reading have the loose feeling of friends getting together to have fun and make a (really high production quality) home movie to make themselves laugh. That’s part of their charm. They’re both crime capers with no real stakes, they both have witty banter that develops no real story, and they both feature great casts (Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, and Brad Pitt show up in Eleven and Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and, well, Brad Pitt show up in Reading).
The fact that each film is also made by a master filmmaker (The Coen Brothers directed Burn, Steven Soderbergh directed Ocean’s) adds to their appeal and charm. Clooney and friends had fun making these films, no doubt, but with the talent involved behind the camera, they must have had to take their fun pretty seriously, too. The results are entertaining, mindless, and well-crafted parties George Clooney wants to make sure we’re all invited to.
12. Three Kings (1999)
David O. Russell’s brilliant action/adventure satire of the nineties, capitalism, and the war in Iraq is a masterpiece of audacious filmmaking, a brilliant exercise in tonal shifting, and a uniquely energetic mess of high emotions. It was also Clooney’s first real crack at a film that was politically daring, something he would not shy away from in his future work.
Clooney’s work in Kings is subtle and almost invisible. His presence and charm doesn’t steal focus from the movie, but instead blends into it for the first time as a lead in his career. He is a solid presence and gets his job done exactly the way he should, but the movie isn’t about him and he knows it. Russell, with his mad energy and examination of cultural decay, is the true star of Three Kings. Perhaps that’s why the two men almost killed each other out of frustration during filming?
Three Kings was an important step for Clooney. While he did great work, the most important thing he took from the experience of making the film was probably fuel for his desire to make more socially-conscious films, which was certainly yet to come in spades.
11. O, Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Clooney’s clout as a serious actor and all-around cool guy couldn’t have been much hotter when he signed on to do the Coen Brothers’ 1930’s-set screwball comedy O, Brother, Where Art Thou?
As an actor, Clooney found a new voice in working with the Coens. He no longer had to rely on his wit or charm, he actually had to completely obliterate them. In doing so, he completely and convincingly is able pull off his dim-witted but affable escaped convict role who has to return home before his wife (Holly Hunter) runs off with another man.
A comical update of Homer’s The Odyssey, Clooney blends right into the Coen’s stylish absurdity. His physicality and his vocal patterns are completely transformed into a cartoonish but believably alive creation. His character of Everett is a variation of all the Coens’ comedic heroes: well-intentioned, slightly conniving, pretty downright stupid, and unavoidably lovable. Clooney pulls it off with perfection.
10. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Clooney’s charm and likability are at full throttle in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. He is a cocky, arrogant, lovable, and brilliant thief who is wearing his wife’s patience thin and further estranging himself from his relationship with his son. He’s also a fox, and raiding chicken coops is his passion, game, and addiction that he just can’t change or pull himself away from from.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox is stop-motion animated, and Clooney’s responsibility for the lead character’s charms and charisma begins and ends with his voice. With Clooney’s personality being a perfect fit for the character, however, that voice is more than enough, and just as effective as anything he’s appeared in fully. Even as an animated object, Clooney knows how to own our attention.
9. Gravity (2013)
Clooney’s smooth personality was used in just the right way in director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. He plays a character that isn’t much of a stretch: he’s a very charismatic astronaut who is calm under pressure, can turn the most dire situation into a joke, and who will always put others first before he allows himself to secure his safety.
If there is a “typical” George Clooney role, Gravity is it, but Cuaron knows how to use it masterfully for his space thriller. In a sense, Clooney’s character is the jokester guardian angel to Bullock’s uptight and troubled heroine and it’s a perfect role for him and for the movie.
Clooney’s affability and familiarity are just what the movie needs before it goes haywire and sends (a very brilliant) Sandra Bullock into survival hell amidst a flurry of groundbreaking special effects and set pieces. Clooney brings no ego to the movie or role, as he is seemingly very aware the film is Bullock’s show, and he has a way of making his work exist simply to amplify hers. Not many stars have the ability to do such selfless work in such a large-scaled movie.
8. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Clooney made his directorial debut based off of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay adaptation of Chuck Barris’ (possibly?) fictionalized biography of the same title. The book claimed that Barris, while a hugely popular dating show host in the sixties, was also moonlighting as a secret government hit man.
Sam Rockwell owns the role of Barris, and Clooney has a great supporting role as his recruiter/mentor. Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore both also offer solid support as Barris’ polar opposite love interests.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is like watching a brilliant film student experiment and have lots of fun in doing so. He over-embellishes the staging of some of his scenes, he shows off his clever transitions a little too much, and he has more fun with color filters than Oliver Stone on a peyote trip. All of this is what adds up to Confessions’ appeal: It’s a schizophrenic experience that you would expect from some strange foreign filmmaker, not People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive.
Clooney threw a lot of paint up against the wall, experimented in the pictures he made with it, and proved he could make a pretty damned interesting movie in the process. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a quirky and crazy beginning to a side of Clooney no one ever saw coming.