Read a list of George Clooney's films
Go to the "Peacemaker" Page
George Clooney, UncowledBy Sharon Waxman
Special to The Washington Post
September 28, 1997
LOS ANGELES — The first inkling George Clooney had that all was not well with his debut as a masked, latexed superhero came when he finally saw "Batman and Robin" on the eve of a publicity tour this summer. He sneaked up into the balcony of the massive Bruin Theater in west Los Angeles to watch it with the press, and he got that sinking feeling.
He's not going to lie about it.
"You're not stupid. You can feel the lull. I didn't get the sense it was terrible, just that it was not everything that I'd hoped," he says. "The story got confused along the way. To say the least. But it was a tough call; this is what Batman is. And I walked into it with my eyes open."
Clooney is a big boy, and he probably assumes more of the responsibility for "Batman's" failings than he needs to (a plot, for example, would have been nice). The mega-budget film, panned by the critics, will ultimately earn a profit even though it took in only a little more than $100 million at the domestic box office (that's about the cost of the production). But it is definitely what Hollywood calls a "disappointment."
The same was true for Clooney's first big feature, the romantic comedy "One Fine Day," in which he co-starred with Michelle Pfeiffer. It opened last Christmas to mixed reviews and mediocre box office.
Says Clooney: "They shouldn't have released it at Christmas. It should've come out on Valentine's Day. . . . But I'm learning about the business as I go."
None of this is great news for the 36-year-old actor, now on the brink of a key moment in his movie career. Hollywood asks: Can he or can't he? Will he or won't he? The question isn't whether he can act, or whether he will be offered more roles; he can and he will. The question, rather, is whether Clooney has what it takes to rise into the exclusive ranks of A-list leading men, to stand with that handful of overpaid, handsome-heroic-yet-human screen idols who can carry blockbusters -- Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson.
Clooney has neither spectacularly failed nor truly succeeded on his first two tries. Now he gets one more big chance to prove his movie star mettle in "The Peacemaker," an action-adventure thriller set in the chaotic former Soviet bloc, opening this month. It is also the first feature release of DreamWorks SKG, the new studio headed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. As Lt. Col. Tom Devoe -- a macho military man swaggering his way through the new world order -- Clooney gets to whip off snappy comebacks to Nicole Kidman's rigid nuclear scientist, execute bad guys with a great big handgun, do 360s in a bullet-proof Mercedes and waft to earth riding on an eight-pack of nuclear warheads.
It's a big role, in a big movie, with a big new studio. He'd better not blow it.
But first, a short interruption: An unshaven man holding a toddler who clutches a red Robin toy approaches Clooney's table at the Daily Grill, a casual restaurant in Studio City. "Look, honey, it's Batman!" the man says. "So sorry to interrupt -- but we're big fans." Clooney smiles, exchanges small talk. Man politely leaves.
"Yeah, yeah, for me it would be fun to have a movie that really kicks [expletive]," Clooney says. The actor is having a hamburger his own very special, disgusting way. He slices it lengthwise, tossing half the patty on the plate. He leaves the lettuce, tomato and onion on the bun, adds mustard -- no ketchup -- then proceeds to slather baked beans (exactly: baked beans) onto the half-eaten burger, a bit more with each bite. He eats like a man who knows what he wants. A man's man. Or, more actually, a boy's man. (Adults do not eat like this.) As you watch Clooney conduct this culinary ritual, you realize that this duality is his underlying appeal: the distinguished graying temples framing mischievous brown eyes, the impish grin set against a Marlboro Man jaw. He's not so much a guy to make a woman melt as he is a guy to persuade her to go bungee-jumping. Naked. "Trust me," he might say in his regular-guy rumble, as his eyes add, ". . . if you want to."
But the actor is saying something about his new movie: "Whether it opens big or not I can't control," he says. "But the movie's good. I won't have to be creative in interviews." Then he inhales a baked bean and chokes for about two minutes.
Clooney is already more famous than he ever dreamed he'd be. ("There's something amazing about getting on a box of cereal. It's an experience everyone should have once," he says.) Actually, he's already more famous than he wants to be. He's still maintaining a year-long interview boycott against "Entertainment Tonight," his way of guaranteeing that its sister tabloid show, "Hard Copy," will keep a promise not to buy footage of cameramen who stalk and bait him. He even held a press conference after the death of Princess Diana (which some criticized as being in poor taste), vowing to push for legislation to curb paparazzis' access. But Clooney's name and image are ubiquitous in the entertainment media, along with outlets further afield. He was surprised, for example, to find four pages in a Trenton, N.J., newspaper this summer about his visit with some friends to a stripper bar; he didn't actually go to a stripper bar -- in fact he was drinking at a regular bar in town -- but the newspaper interviewed strippers over what they would do if George Clooney came in.
Eventually he stops choking, and insists on completing a thought about becoming, or not becoming, a superstar. It'll happen or it won't. "For me, it can be my next film, the one after that -- it can be no film. It doesn't make any sense," he says. "The projects I've taken on, most of the time, worked out." A beat, and then he adds: "This ride you're on has very little to do with you. People will say you're brilliant, and it's not always true."
Still, he feels good about "Peacemaker." When he saw it, he says, he thought, "Okay. I got one now."
'In a Great Place'
Last season, he acted in TV's No. 1 show, "ER," four days a week -- a grueling series of 14-hour days -- and shot "Batman and Robin" from Friday through Sunday. When that wrapped and the series went on summer break, Clooney spent two months promoting the film, giving interview after interview to the insatiable American media monster, then left on a promotional tour to England, Germany, France, Spain, Australia, Hong Kong and other markets. By the end of July, he was back on the set of "ER," taping a new season as that handsome pediatric resident Doug Ross. (He has two years left on his TV contract and, he says, every intention of seeing it through.) But there's also promotional work for "Peacemaker," and he has two other films lined up, the first a dark comedy called "Outta Sight" that starts shooting next month.
Why stick with TV? At this point Clooney doesn't do it for the money; he was paid $10 million for each of his last two films. Even his claim of loyalty to the show seems a bit too pat. The truth is, "ER" is a kind of insurance policy for Clooney: just in case. He spent too many years doing bad TV ("The Facts of Life") and worse films ("Return of the Killer Tomatoes") to bow out of one of the best things on television. What happened to David Caruso, the former star of "NYPD Blue" who left for a movie career that swiftly nose-dived -- he's returning to TV this fall -- will not happen to him.
"Eighty percent of what you do is [expletive]. Crap," Clooney says over hamburger remains. He sips a cappuccino. "Eight out of 10 plays I see suck. Eight out of 10 movies I see suck. Eight out of 10 TV series are awful. So if you get in that 20 percent, you take it, you bathe in it as long as you can."
He adds: "And I have a contract. I have a responsibility to that show. I have lawyers who say, 'Okay, we can walk away.' It would be easier, physically, to leave. But it's not right. That show is why I've gotten to this position."
A quick interview break, in which a reporter mistakenly leaves her notebook on the table. When she returns, Clooney has penned his own notes: "I'm starting to think George Clooney is a . . . genius! . . . Wow! . . . That's so smart! . . . I wish other men could be as sensitive as this man!" The actor gives one of his little-boy, crinkle-eyed squints. "I was about to write, 'Fascinating. Scintillating.' "
If necessary, this could pass for charming.
Clooney, it turns out, is an idealist of sorts. He grew up Catholic in Lexington, Ky., and in Cincinnati, where his father was a star anchor of the local television news. (Nick Clooney is now a host of golden oldie movies on the cable channel AMC.) The young Clooney eventually soured on religion -- he couldn't quite believe that all the Buddhists were going to Hell -- but has kept his unbending sense of right and wrong. He recently wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune mocking a local NBC affiliate's decision to hire trash-talk TV's Jerry Springer as a commentator. (Springer was once mayor of Cincinnati.) "I'm proud to be part of a network that finally just admits that news has become pure entertainment," he wrote, calling the news program "a tabloid show with nicer hair." Then he offered the station a list of suggestions such as, "Do a five-part series on string bikinis -- good or bad" and "Get Siegfried & Roy to do the sports and weather."
Why did he bother? "I believe in black and white," he says. "I love people or hate them."
But Clooney is also a realist; he's told practically every interviewer that he learned a lot from the fact that his aunt, Rosemary Clooney, went from being one of the hottest singers in America in the 1950s to being unemployable when rock-and-roll took over.
In him, the result is an ambition tempered by a familiarity with the knocks of the real world. Clooney still wants it all, but he realizes he may end up forgotten, gone. "Success is all relative. If you're making a living as an actor, you're doing good," he says. As for fame, "It's not can it go away. It will go away."
He calls for a check. "I'm already more successful than I ever thought I'd be. Much more. Much more. It's all icing on the cake. I've made more money than I'll ever spend in a lifetime. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow -- it's over. I won. I beat the odds. I'm in a great place."
He pauses as he strolls out of the restaurant. "The way you want to do it is like Cary Grant. Have a successful career, then in 1966 . . . decide you're looking too old, leave the movies and never look back. Then at 80 years old have a stroke and drop dead. That's perfect.
"I don't believe in Heaven and Hell," he says. "I don't know if I believe in God. All I know is that as an individual, I won't allow this life -- the only thing I know to exist -- to be wasted."
Then George Clooney gets into his beetle-black, turbo-charged Porsche convertible. Puts on silver-rimmed shades. Tips the attendant five bucks. And roars off into the blinding, midday Hollywood glare.