Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.
Have you seen the new picture that George Clooney directed, The Tender Bar? It’s okay. The movie, a coming-of-age tale of an impressionable young man (Tye Sheridan) who’s taken under the wing of his uncle (Ben Affleck), has come out almost exactly a year after the last film he directed. That was an apocalyptic sci-fi drama called The Midnight Sky. It was okay, too. Nowadays, that’s about the most you can hope from a film helmed by Clooney, who early in his directing career seemed like he might be a real force. Never say never, but at 60 it seems unlikely that his best years as a filmmaker are ahead of him.
This column tends to focus on a star’s acting career — when it peaked, what he did afterward — but for Clooney, it feels more instructive to look at the period when he decided to devote himself more seriously to being a director. Many actors have made the leap to filmmaker. Maybe they wanted more control. Maybe they had grander artistic ambitions than being “just” a movie star. Maybe they didn’t want to face the uncertainty of getting older in an industry that, even for men, has no compunction about replacing you with a younger model. As Clooney himself put it recently, “I didn’t want to worry about what some casting director thought of me when I was 50 or 60.”
But it’s rare for anyone to make the transition in the way that Clooney has. At a pretty regular clip, he has delivered sincere, thoughtful movies that clearly come from the heart — movies about political causes he cares about or that speak to something meaningful for him. And more often than not, these films have been… incredibly average, although some have been worse. This is the grand second act he’s designed for himself. I wish it had turned out to be more than it has.
It’s now been nearly 25 years since I worked for the man. It was only for a year, but I was a development assistant at his production company. (Translation: I read so many spec scripts.) This was before Section Eight, his partnership with Steven Soderbergh, and long before his current company Smokehouse, which he shares with Grant Heslov. Because memories get fuzzy, I actually looked back at a piece I wrote 10 years ago about my brief time with Clooney, and here’s what I had to say: “I met the man a total of (I think) three times, and he was nothing but gracious and friendly, although I don’t pretend to have any insights into who he is as a person or what makes him tick. But it was a time when he was transitioning from E.R. to features, and so I was on hand for the release of Batman & Robin and The Peacemaker. This was not an auspicious start to his feature career. But right as I was leaving, Out of Sight came out. This was much more promising: a smart, sexy thriller that really suggested his leading-man potential.”
The year I worked for the company, I never stopped being impressed by the guy, albeit from afar: He was leaving a popular TV show, betting on himself that he could be a movie star, even though he wasn’t all that young. (He’s often considered that a blessing, happy not to have dealt with massive stardom at too early an age. “I had my Aunt Rosie” — singer and actress Rosemary Clooney — “who was famous and then not, so I got a lesson in fame early on,” he has said. “And I understood how little it has to do with you.”) Now, that leap to films seems like a no-brainer, but back then it was a risk for Clooney. There have been plenty of small-screen big deals who never made the transition to movies, but Clooney always conveyed such humility and self-deprecating humor that, even years later, I rooted for the guy. So did my parents, who always appreciated how good he’d been to me. In those subsequent years, whenever he’d be on TV promoting a movie, my mom would say, without fail, “I like that George.”
I bring all that up because, although I remain objective as a film critic when it comes to his work, there’s a part of me that wanted him to be successful. And for a time, he seemed like a throwback to classic Hollywood: a Cary Grant-like dreamboat who was a perfect mixture of grownup handsome and debonair charm. Light on his feet but also capable of real gravitas, Clooney enjoyed a pretty stellar late-1990s and early-2000s, starting with Out of Sight and continuing on through Three Kings, Ocean’s Eleven, Syriana and Michael Clayton.
I left out a few highlights — perhaps you’re more partial to The Perfect Storm or O Brother, Where Art Thou? than I am — but that’s partly my point. There’s a lot of peaks in there. In those early years, it felt like Clooney was taking real chances, and if not all of them worked, it was nonetheless exciting to watch him try. And I don’t mean because I knew him a little: Any normal viewer would be encouraged to see a star of his caliber risk being in something as nervy and uncommercial a studio picture as, say, Solaris. After working on E.R. for so long, perhaps sometimes wondering if he’d never do better than that acclaimed show, he seemed like he was choosing film roles without fear. Batman & Robin couldn’t kill his career, so he might as well do what he wanted rather than banking on seeming “sure things.”
It was during this period that he directed his first film, which was also a bit of a wild card. In 2002, he released Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, based on game-show host Chuck Barris’ memoir, in which he claimed to be a secret agent for the CIA. The movie, written by Charlie Kaufman, took the autobiography at face value, casting then-up-and-comer Sam Rockwell as Barris, who balances assassinating government enemies with creating The Gong Show. It was an uneven film, but it was boldly conceived and stylishly executed, throwing people who never expected anything so provocative from a former TV actor. (Years later, Clooney admitted he sent a nasty letter to a Washington Post critic who had given Confessions a good review but assumed that Clooney’s frequent collaborator Soderbergh must have directed it.)
The movie had the same breezy flair that Clooney had demonstrated as a star, and in interviews, he sounded like a guy who wanted to take this filmmaking thing seriously, even if it meant dealing with a steep learning curve. “The funniest thing is that all the things every director goes through, I thought I could shortcut, but there was no getting around those issues,” he said after the release of Confessions, later adding, “I don’t know how much I believed [Barris’ memoir]. I didn’t want to officially ask him, because I didn’t want him to say, ‘I made it up.’ I wanted to tell the story and I thought, how interesting if it was all made up, why someone as wealthy and as successful as Chuck Barris, would have to do that. I thought that was an interesting person to explore, and that’s what we wanted to do with the film. It was pretty fun. I also love the idea of comparing the CIA to bad television. It just made me laugh, from the minute we started.”
Confessions wasn’t a big hit, despite the inclusion of stars like Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts among the ensemble — as well as Clooney’s Ocean’s buddies Matt Damon and Brad Pitt providing cameos — but the film’s hip factor more than compensated. It suggested that if Clooney was going to become a full-fledged director, he’d be an interesting one, tackling quirky material from a unique perspective. He’d build on Confessions’ promise with his next filmmaking effort, 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck, which remains his best film as a director.
The movie was both personal and political for him. Clooney grew up in Kentucky, raised by his dad Nick Clooney, a journalist and anchor. Taking place in the early 1950s, Good Night starred David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, the respected CBS broadcaster, who battles U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the man behind the era’s anti-Communist witchhunt. Murrow used his pulpit to condemn McCarthy, and Clooney very much saw the film as a showdown between good and evil.
“[Murrow] was a big part of my growing up,” Clooney said. “My father was an anchorman, doing news his whole life, and Murrow was always the highwater mark for broadcast journalists. Growing up that’s always what my father would refer to as sort of what the standard was set at that no one could ever reach again — [although Walter] Cronkite did pretty well. … I hadn’t heard [Murrow’s] rebuttals to McCarthy. But I started watching those speeches again, and I thought that they were incredibly inspiring. I miss that kind of clarity at times. … So I really enjoyed the idea of talking about Murrow again.”
Shot in crisp black-and-white, Good Night was a clear rebuke to the growing conservatism in America, spurred by 9/11 and a Republican president, but the material also seemed to speak to Clooney’s growing frustration with modern journalism. Way back in 1997, long before he’d established a track record as a cinematic leading man, he had spoken out against the paparazzi he blamed for Princess Diana’s fatal car crash. “Princess Di is dead, and who should we see about that?” he asked during his press conference. “The driver of the car? The paparazzi? Or the magazines and papers who purchased these pictures and make bounty hunters out of photographers? If you weren’t hiding behind the profession of journalism, you would be an accomplice to a crime, and you would go to jail.” Clooney viewed Murrow as a hero, and his restrained, reverent approach made the broadcaster seem like a champion of the people speaking truth to power.
Clooney was rewarded for his crusading efforts, with Good Night receiving excellent reviews and netting six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for the script he’d written with Heslov. That ceremony was a big one for Clooney, who walked away with Best Supporting Actor for his work in Syriana. (“Alright, so I’m not winning Director,” he joked from the stage of the Kodak Theatre when accepting the statue.) Between the commercial success of Ocean’s Eleven, the Oscar for Syriana and the acclaim around Good Night, Clooney was probably as hot as he’s ever been in Hollywood. Politically conscious, impossibly good-looking and immensely talented, he sure seemed like he had it all.
In the next few years, he kept delivering strong performances — everything from Michael Clayton to Burn After Reading to his underrated voice work in Fantastic Mr. Fox — but I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that he never came close to matching Good Night as a director again. In fact, the dropoff has been steep. And I say that as someone who doesn’t mind Leatherheads, his strained follow-up that was an homage to old-fashioned screwball comedies, set during football’s nascent era of the 1920s, with Clooney casting himself alongside Renée Zellweger and John Krasinski. Clooney made no secret that he wanted to make a lark after Good Night. “[R]ight after Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, after that year, everything that was coming to me was issues films,” he admitted, later adding, “I had a great fear of being the ‘issues director,’ because the issues change and I have a much bigger interest in being a director.” But Clooney couldn’t pull off the easygoing elan of the filmmakers he was aping, like Preston Sturges, and so the movie felt forced rather than delightful, self-indulgent rather than pure pleasure.
Ever since, he’s struggled to make a movie with either the audacity of Confessions or the deep passion of Good Night. Instead, it’s felt like he’s been chasing ideas and styles, never fully confident in what he was trying to achieve. The Ides of March was an unconvincing political drama about an ambitious press secretary (Ryan Gosling) dealing with a scandal. (That movie was about how politics are corrupt.) The Monuments Men was his attempt to mix a war movie with an Ocean’s-style hangout film about soldiers rescuing priceless paintings during World War II. (That movie was about how the Nazis were bad and art is good.) Suburbicon adapted a shelved script from the Coen brothers about a seemingly tranquil 1950s suburban community that’s full of darkness underneath. (That movie was about racism and inequality in America.) Last year’s The Midnight Sky was, as Clooney put it, “like doing The Revenant and then doing Gravity for the second half,” as it told two interweaving stories set in post-apocalyptic times. (That movie was about, duh, humanity.)
And then there’s The Tender Bar, a warmhearted, intentionally low-key film about family and finding your voice. (At an early screening I attended, Clooney introduced the movie by saying he wanted to make something positive in a world that was so negative.)
Although he likes to bounce around genres, what binds his movies is a desire that they be about something more profound than just their plot — they’re meant to communicate something integral about us. (He can resist the idea that he’s an “issues director,” but he basically is.) But another thing they have in common is a certain slackness — they rarely feel particularly inspired, that they were ripped straight from his soul. For all of the humanitarian causes that Clooney champions in real life, his post-Good Night films tend to be bland once-overs about Important Topics, offering not-very-revelatory insights that, for instance, 1950s America was actually pretty terrible (Suburbicon) or human beings have the capacity for such goodness (The Midnight Sky).
Lately, it’s almost seemed like he thinks he’s doing us this big favor by making these films, as if we need him to impart such wisdom upon us. Even The Tender Bar’s milquetoast depiction of basic human decency seems detached, unexamined, tossed off. Recently, his movies haven’t been the work of someone who’s actually engaged with the idea of being a filmmaker. They feel like they’re something he does because, well, a guy’s got to do something, right?
As a result, Clooney may be America’s most average director. His movies are astoundingly just-okay, always competently put together and featuring good actors. And yet they have so little impact, wafting away on their good intentions, never quite landing. Disparage Clint Eastwood’s politics and his only-shoot-one-take aesthetic all you want, but his films ripple with his obsessions and interests — even now in his 90s, you sense that he’s working through things, repeating certain themes and character types because he can’t let them go. Clooney’s movies lack that burning desire to exist — that fervent sense that their creator had to get something out of his system. His films feel like hobbies. Think how many struggling filmmakers would kill to be in his position. Even when Clooney’s movies are good, they hardly matter.
There’s no harm in readjusting your priorities as you get older. Clooney has gotten married, settled down and become a father. He takes fewer acting roles, presumably quite comfortable after his tequila company Casamigos sold for $1 billion in 2017. And he won his second Oscar as a producer on Argo. George Clooney’s life is almost assuredly better than yours and mine.
And yet, the lack of fire in the films he directs feels less like an anomaly and more like a permanent condition. What’s strange is that he keeps bothering directing at all. (I haven’t even mentioned his 2019 Hulu miniseries adaptation of Catch-22. It, too, was merely all right.) Other actors occasionally direct a movie, but Clooney gets behind the camera so often that you’d think he was wholly invested in the endeavor. But that’s not how something like The Tender Bar comes across — it feels like a doodle from a very successful Hollywood fixture who doesn’t have much more to prove.
If Clooney hadn’t shown such promise early, it would probably be easier to dismiss his string of recent throwaway efforts as just vanity projects from an A-lister. But when Clooney was establishing himself as a movie star, he took chances, and it was thrilling to see him make those big swings. He didn’t act like other celebrities, who often do the safe or obvious thing. (The embarrassment of Batman & Robin disabused him of that notion.) But from Leatherheads to The Tender Bar is a study of a well-intentioned liberal stuck between wanting to teach lessons and wanting to give the audience a good time. In the last 13 years, he’s rarely succeeded at either.
Recently, he talked about a conversation he had with his wife after he turned 60. “My goal is to pay a little more attention to life in general, because I think actors, directors, writers, and all of it, we’re always in such a desperate rush not to step off the gas, and the panic sort of sets in that if you do, then that’s it,” he said. “I’m still getting nice offers to work, so as long as they let me play in the sandbox, I’ll play in the sandbox, but I don’t have to fill it with all the toys anymore. That’s been the exciting and realistic part of aging.”
I respect that, and as someone who used to know him very, very barely once long ago, I like hearing that he’s happy. But I’d also rather him not keep churning out subpar movies if that’s the mode he’s in right now. No one’s saying contented people can’t make great films, but Clooney’s movies’ averageness doesn’t feel like the product of happiness. Instead, they feel complacent, a far worse crime than “getting soft” or “settling down.” In his prime, Clooney sometimes failed, but he never came across as complacent — he was always madly dashing after that next challenge. The smoothness of his polished onscreen persona has now curdled into something fatally bland in his filmmaking. When everything’s just okay, it’s never good enough.