Refusing to be typecast

Last Updated 23 January 2010, 11:58 IST

There’s no mystery, none at all, about why George Clooney is a movie star. Guys who are extremely handsome, move well, can project intelligence and humour, appear to enjoy the company of women and possess soft, deep masculine voices have historically done pretty nicely for themselves on the silver screen.

Clooney, in fact, often seems like a throwback to the leading men of earlier eras: a passing resemblance to Cary Grant, especially when he deploys his wry half-smile; a hint of Paul Newman’s ’60s cool. He’s the kind of actor who could float along forever on his genial presence alone, coast on charm. But he doesn’t. (Or doesn’t always.) That’s the mystery.

His performance in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air has put him in early contention for this year’s best actor Oscar, and a more effective showcase for his skills would be tough to imagine. Playing an Omaha business consultant named Ryan Bingham, who flies around the country firing people for a living (but with a gentle touch) and occasionally delivers motivational speeches in which he advises his listeners to shed the burdens of responsibility, Clooney appears in every scene and exudes all-American confidence. Dressed in impeccably cut suits and wheeling his carry-on bag with the deftness of a seasoned pro, he glides through airports and chain hotels as if he owned them, as in a sense he does.

Ryan is on the road, we’re told, for more than 300 days a year, and these impersonal places are — by choice — his true home. Instead of family photos, his wallet is filled with cards proclaiming his membership in the elite clubs reserved for the highest-volume business travelers, badges of identity supplied by airlines, hotels, car-rental agencies. It doesn’t seem like much of a life, but it suits him down to the ground. The big nowhere is his comfort zone.

What makes Up in the Air an ideal vehicle for Clooney is that everything he has to do in the film is just the smallest shade of difference away from his familiar amiable persona. Movie-star performing is a peculiar, poorly understood subset of the art of acting: it relies on a certain constancy of personality, on the ability to seem at all times as if you were simply playing yourself and to give the audience the illusion that they, somehow, know you — you the person, not just you the character.

For actors like Clooney, who work without the benefit of wigs and false noses and exotic accents, the line between self and character can be mighty thin. In the olden days — that is, the studio era, when all but the most ornery contract players made several films a year and did what their bosses told them — popular actors were deliberately confined to a fairly narrow range of parts: typecast, so that moviegoers would always get more or less what they expected when they plunked down their two bits for a Cagney gangster picture, say, or a Gary Cooper western.

Picking roles
Successful actors have a lot more power now. If they choose to, they can typecast themselves — as action heroes, for example, or romantic-comedy leading men. Early in his film career, after the television series ER had made him an official hot property, Clooney toyed with some of the more conventional types: as a romantic comedian, opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, in the pleasant but inconsequential One Fine Day (1996); as a stolid, Harrison Ford-like man of action, in uniform, in the dull Peacemaker (1997); and even as a comic-book superhero, in the catastrophic Batman & Robin (1997).

When he finally found a role in which he looked entirely at ease, it was in a film that was neither a standard-issue piece of studio entertainment nor quite an offbeat indie, but something in between: Steven Soderbergh’s tricky comic caper movie Out of Sight (1998), based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, and with all the noirish eccentricity that implies. His style in Out of Sight is too elusive, too stylised — it’s like lowlife Restoration comedy — to serve as a repeatable, bankable star persona, but it’s the foundation, in a way, for everything good he’s done since then, the theme on which he works his small, increasingly subtle variations. The larcenous gulf war soldier he plays in David O Russell’s inventive Three Kings (1999) is a tougher, slightly bitterer version of his Out of Sight character, and it fits.

And Danny Ocean, the suave criminal he has played in Soderbergh’s neo-Rat Pack heist comedies Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), is the blither, cooler model, with better clothes and better luck. But the Ocean movies, which are among the few box-office hits Clooney has had, are really the only occasions in the past decade in which he has indulged in purely personality-based acting, allowed himself the luxury of movie-star nonchalance.

Being a movie star has its creative pitfalls, chief among them narcissism and laziness. If all you have to do is play your own wonderful self, you needn’t expend much time or energy trying to bring a character to screen life — a unique human being with specific, maybe interesting, quirks and problems. You fall for your own self-created illusion. But if an actor can avoid that trap, there are serious benefits to movie stardom too, and Clooney seems to know how to exploit the advantage his good looks and charm have given him.

Movie stars don’t have to work for the audience’s attention; they’ve got it as soon as they appear on screen, and once they have it, they can, if they have the inclination and the chops, go about their proper business of exploring behaviour in its minutest, most unpredictable particulars. That’s what George Clooney does in Up in the Air, while seeming only to be himself.

(Published 23 January 2010, 11:57 IST)

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