Is George Clooney the ‘Current Cary Grant’ or was Cary Grant the ‘Earlier George Clooney’? Commentators and columnists have engaged in a decades-long hunt to fill the debonair-but-sometimes-daffy void left by the great Archie Leach, and Clooney is the closest the world has produced. In truth, the tag has been a burden, albeit one lightly worn, for a man who’s played the studio system with the skill of a grandmaster and the versatility of a Swiss Army knife. When he’s not been sharpening his directorial skills or making magazine covers 600 per cent more glamorous with his silver-screen looks, he’s been showing his chops across thrillers, character dramas, comedies and whatever the heck Batman & Robin was. He’s also conquered genre pictures like no-one since... aw, who are we kidding? He is Cary Grant. So while we’re figuring out what comes in a Swiss Army Clooney (apart from a Ryan Gosling toothpick), here are some of his best – and not so best – big-screen turns.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Up In The Air (2009)
Jason Reitman’s drama-comedy of contemporary life, relationships and pre-packed airplane meals proves that fate can hit even a man as eye-meltingly handsome as Clooney with its shitty stick. He plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer who spends his days doing for company headcounts what Genghis Khan did for the population of Central Asia, albeit with more wry asides than the Mongol yak-botherer ever mustered. In his dealings with Vera Farmiga’s equally hard-bitten exec, Clooney’s corporate hitman reveals an emotional rawness that, much as he hates to admit it, lurks just beneath his Samsonite-tough exterior. He’s a man permanently in transit and he knows it. Witness his face falling when she cruelly dismisses him as “a parenthesis” in her life. It’s a nuanced study of a man who’s vain enough to thrill in winning ‘lifetime executive’ status from his airline, but sufficiently self-aware to be a little ashamed about it. The kind of performance, in short, that could win a man an Oscar nomination.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Out Of Sight (1998)
The first of George Clooney’s seven collaborations with Steven Soderbergh and still the best, this fizzing adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s crime novel is a joy on every level. Clooney unleashed his flashbulb smile and easy charisma on the caper as Jack Foley, the most misunderstood ex-con this side of Carlito Brigante. He’s at once super-smooth and, unlike Carlito, a bit of a doofus. Foley’s way – if he even has one – involves being 30 seconds ahead of the Feds at all times, and, when that doesn’t come off, blinding everyone with his pearly whites and running away. It works a charm on J-Lo’s branch of the U.S. Marshals Service. The pair generates so much chemistry - the trunk scene! The seduction! The bit where she shoots him in the leg! - that at one point we’d swear there’s actual smoke coming off the screen. On the Cary’o’metre, they’re Grant-and-Marie-Saint-in-North-By-Northwest sexy and Grant-and-Bergman-in-Notorious complicated and Grant-and-Russell-in-His-Girl-Friday witty. Sadly for Clooney, his recent films - The American, Up In The Air and, well, Fantastic Mr. Fox included - prove that his on-screen relationships haven’t got any more straightforward.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: The Descendants (2012)
Alexander Payne’s much-lauded Hawaiian drama has earned Clooney’s his third nomination in the Best Actor category, but if “third time lucky” was really a thing, we wouldn't have had to endure Spider-Man III. But before we all run out and stick a fiver on Jean Dujardin, this does feel like it could be Clooney’s year, and his terrific turn in Payne’s gentle tale has all the hallmarks of a prize-winning performance. Stifled sorrow? Check. Rumpled humour? Check. Big emotional payload and a bittersweet character arc to touch the grumpiest soul? Check and check. Payne’s script plays to all Clooney’s strengths, giving him those Cary-esque slapstick moments he so excels at (nobody sprints in flip flops like Clooney) and the chance to show that, while he may not have any kids of his own, he’d still make an awesome dad. Eventually.
RECOMMENDED: Three Kings (1999)
The fact that Clooney, who's gone on record describing David O. Russell’s shoot as “the worst experience of my life”, managed to mine gold from this smart Gulf War satire speaks volumes for his professionalism. Admittedly, he did punch his director square on the kisser en route, but the on-set salvage operation was so seamless that, rewatching the film, you’d never even know the whole thing was an inch from imploding. With Clooney’s gold-craving army major Archie Gates at the helm, Three Kings is funny and scathing, well-acted and prophetic. Not bad for a film in which, given half a chance, star and director would have smart-bombed each other into the middle of the next week. It’s a reminder that, the odd Peacemaker and a tonne of so-so telly work aside, Clooney has always had an unerring eye for a smart script. We doubt he got to see the one for The Fighter, though.
RECOMMENDED: Syriana (2005)
Best Supporting Actor for Syriana’s schlebby spymaster was a handy consolation on an Oscar night when Clooney missed out on Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Good Night, And Good Luck, and Jon Stewart ribbed him mercilessly about his conveyor belt of supermodel girlfriends. “'Good Night, and Good Luck' isn’t just Edward R. Murrow's signoff,” deadpanned Stewart, “it’s also how Mr. Clooney ends all his dates”. Of course, George took it all in his immaculate stride. His Syriana character, portly CIA ops man Bob Barnes, was the first time he’d shaken off his leading man good looks to play physically against type. Sure, a Collinwood cameo and Oh Brother, Where Are Thou? showed the goof-off Clooney, but here he was with belly and beard, flailingly out of his depth in shady global conspiracies. If you were being unkind, you could call it the kind of courageous career move that usually ends in an Oscar, but, even in a cast boasting Jeffrey Wright, Christopher Plummer and Matt Damon, Clooney is the stand-out. And he suffered for his art: he put his back out due to all that extra weight.
FOR THE FAN: Ocean's Eleven (2001)
Before Don Cheadle’s accent went properly Dick van Dyke on us - not even a whole school of porpoises could have rescued that accent – there was huge fun to be had in the pals-and-poker formula George Clooney, Brad Pitt and their crew of larcenous layabouts perfected in Steven Soderbergh’s caper flick. Slipping into Frank Sinatra’s Italian loafers as Danny Ocean, Gorgeous George keeps the interplay fast and frothy as the $150m heist goes down. He’s front of house, all glad-handing and twinkle, while his band of casino breakers clear out Vegas. The actor is happy to share the screen with his handsome pals, taking time out to woo his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) back from the dastardly, humourless Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). The bajillion people, give or take, who’d have killed to see Dr. Doug Ross and Pretty Woman flirting over a dry martini went home very happy indeed, allowing the Oceans posse to take the box office to the cleaners. Grosses of $450m mean it's still Clooney’s biggest hit to date.
ONE TO AVOID: Batman & Robin (1997)
There are films so bad that other bad films run screaming from them shouting “Oh my god, that stinks!”. And then there’s Batman & Robin, officially Empire’s Worst Movie Ever. Even now, it does to our brain cells what the Hadron Collider does to terrified hadrons. Do we blame Clooney? Not really, although with a snafu on this scale, no-one comes out unscathed: not Joel Schumacher, not the Governator, not the Dark Knight himself. If you want to know what it looks like when a costumed vigilante fights crime while simultaneously scouring his rubber suit for his agent’s phone number, this is the blockbuster for you. “I never thought it was going to be a great film,” shame-faced Clooney from an undisclosed location. “Suddenly we're filming. The script isn't together. I'm just miserable in the suit, trying to make scenes work. That's not the way to make a movie.” Alas it is, George. And it burns our eyes.