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Thursday, April 10, 2008
How Clooney avoided a life at the grocery checkout
Special to The Japan Times
It may seem incredible now, but when he was a TV star venturing into leading-man roles on the big screen, George Clooney declared that the nature of the business was such that 10 years hence he might find himself working in a supermarket, asking customers, "Paper or plastic?"
"I did (believe that), to a limited extent," he tells The Japan Times with a grin. "Maybe I didn't mean I would actually be working a blue-collar job, earning the minimum wage, anything like that. When you're a regular on TV, you're paid very handsomely. Movies even more so, and I was breaking into the big-time moviewise.
"But I already knew what it was to have bit parts in movies." (One example is "Return of the Killer Tomatoes!" the name of which raises a laugh from Clooney, although he has no desire to comment.) "I also knew, from personal observation and being in the show-business world most of my life, via my relatives, that the transition from TV actor to movie actor — a movie star, the big prize that everyone secretly wishes for — well, it's a very rocky transition."
The 46-year-old actor/director, whose film "Michael Clayton" opens in Japan this weekend, continues, "Most people do not make that transition. A lot of guys try, a very few make it. Most don't. And some of those that don't, you don't really hear very much from them again. They seem to fade away or disappear. Others, after they fail in the bigger arena, have to go back to television, and if they're very lucky they get into another ongoing series, but at a significant emotional cost. It's very embarrassing to fail that way, so publicly."
Coupled with that, he adds, is that the public may even believe that the too-big-for-his-breeches actor had it coming. As an example, he offers David Caruso (describing but tactfully not naming him), now back on TV in "CSI: Miami" but allegedly bitter about his big-screen failure in such flops as erotic crime thriller "Jade" (1995).
George continues, "I got a lot of flak from that (paper or plastic) comment at the time. People telling me how dare I complain, me being on a hit TV series (hospital drama "E/R") and a nationally known face? But I tell ya, some of those nationally known faces can disappear pretty fast. The public is not only rather fickle, they're given so many new faces to digest, as it were, and very few of those faces become staples."
George, born in May 1961 in Lexington, Kentucky, was the nephew of the late Rosemary Clooney, a huge singing star and sometime actress best known cinematically for the holiday classic "White Christmas" (1954). She married Hispanic-American actor-director Jose Ferrer (an Oscar-winner for Best Actor in "Cyrano de Bergerac" in 1951) and had five children by him, only to find her marriage crumbling via his numerous extramarital affairs. The 1963 assassination of her friend and hero, President John F. Kennedy, and her divorce shattered Rosemary emotionally, leading to a prescription-pills addiction and a weight gain that ruined her good looks.
"The business is a lot rougher on women than men," says George. "I really felt for and feel for my Aunt Rosemary. She had a brilliant musical career that I envy, but she went through miserable stages in her life, and she impressed on me how cruel the business — and some of the people in it — can be. How unstable. . . . She was lucky, later in life, to experience a comeback, as some performers do. But then you've had to endure depression and heartache, and terrible disillusionments that most people on the outside have no idea about."
Gift of hard graft
By contrast, George's father Nick has had a less spectacular but steadier career, working in radio and TV for decades, becoming an author and running for Congress in 2004 on the Democratic ticket in Kentucky (he lost). Nick's ethic of hard graft was something he passed down to his son — as well as his dashing looks, which have lasted into his old age.
"My dad, like my aunts (Rosemary and Betty), is a very upbeat individual. He got into the business to do what he enjoyed, not to become a big star. That was never my goal either. My dad was good-looking, and still is — I come from quite a good-looking family — but that's always beside the point.
"My dad was a communicator, very good at what he did: hosting, broadcasting, etc. And my aunt would have probably had a very limited career as an attractive blonde actress if she hadn't had that magnificent singing voice. She could have been homely (plain) and still have had a wonderful singing career, just on the strength of that superb voice."
This was not lost on Clooney, who drew lessons from the successes and misfortunes of the people around him.
"All this showed me that good looks aren't something you can rely on much. And when I got into movies, I saw how many other — like, thousands, at least — good-looking guys there were. You might be one of the better-looking guys in, say, Kentucky, but in Hollywood that doesn't mean a thing. . . . I was always aware of what an unreliable business it is, especially over the long run. To some extent, early on, I was kind of afraid of the business."
Such fear or insecurity is long gone, now that Clooney is an established, Oscar-winning actor and director, who has reaped great acclaim (except from American rightwing media, which decry his "message movies," such as the political drama "Good Night, and Good Luck" and the petroleum-themed international drama "Syriana." But he confesses that his move into directing was partly a result of his family's experiences, and those of other performers he's observed.
He offers, "For women, directing is a really smart move, because after a point their employability (as an actress) diminishes steeply, past 40 or so. It's also very smart for an actor, and one example I've taken is Clint Eastwood. Would he still be as popular an actor if he hadn't directed and shaped his career? Would he have won any of his Oscars as just an actor? I tend to doubt it.
"Anyway, by now, the business is all I know, all I do. I want to stay in it for the duration, not just for the next 10 or 20 years. Directing is a way to extend that, plus a way to get involved in a deeper way. You know, when you're hired as an actor, you're in a sense just an employee. You check in, do your scenes, (and) when they're done with you, off you go. And yet the film continues; the director, editor and other filmmakers are still on the job, and they get to shape the finished product, which the hired actor, even a star, rarely gets to do.
"I love movies, and directing is a way to totally immerse yourself in the movie you're making. When you act in a given movie and you also direct it, you really are a contributing force; you don't feel like just a hired hand, an employee who just passes through the picture."