The James Bond films are on hold indefinitely, thanks to money woes at MGM, the studio behind the spy series. But there's another movie character hitting theaters this month, and viewers could be forgiven if they thought he looked a little bit familiar.
In "The American," which opens Sept. 1, George Clooney plays Jack, an assassin who retreats to Italy after a job goes bad. He's no James Bond, but there's a Bond-like sense about him.
“Cubby Broccoli (the late producer of the Bond films) had Cary Grant in mind to play James Bond,” explained Rick Jewell, film professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, who teaches a class in Bond. “Of course, by that time (1962), Grant was too old to do it. But that was the model of James Bond he worked from, that kind of suave, incredibly handsome individual who also had a comic side to him. Someone who could be highly effective as an action hero, but also a romantic hero as well.
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“For my money, George Clooney very nearly fills the bill. I’m sure they would have considered him except for one thing: that he is American and not British. Over the years they decided they were never going to cast somebody who wasn’t at least from the British Empire.”
“The American” does not fit snugly in the Bond milieu. Whereas Bond tangled with villains spawned from novelist Ian Fleming’s boundless imagination, and he did so in travelogue locales, Clooney’s hired assassin operates on grittier turf. Jack is more of a loner, hiding out in Italy waiting for a final assignment, and pursuing romance with a local woman rather than a seductress named Solitaire, Honey Ryder or Pussy Galore.
Like a golden age star
But it is Clooney’s movie star presence — a potent blend of brains, looks and charisma — that enables him to add Bond-like class to just about any film.
“I think he has an inherent likeability and native intelligence that aligns him with the stars of the golden age of Hollywood, like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant,” said Scott Foundas, associate program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a contributor to Film Comment magazine. “There are not many contemporary stars who invite those comparisons,” Foundas added. “He does.”
In 2005, upon the release of the Clooney-directed biopic of Edward R. Murrow, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Foundas wrote a lengthy piece about Clooney for L.A. Weekly and found him to be engaging as a human being rather than as a star trying to be perceived as a human being.
“You certainly don’t feel with Clooney that he’s trying to sell you a bill of goods,” Foundas said. “When I wrote that piece, a friend of mine who I didn’t know at the time had worked for Clooney’s company told me he has some personality tics, like the way he leans into you to make a point. But that’s how he is. He isn’t putting on an act for a journalist. He is who he is. That definitely comes through.
“Sometimes in those situations you feel that people are trying to project an image of themselves, rather than just being themselves. Not with Clooney. That quality is connected to his popularity with audiences.”
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Foundas also noted that Clooney makes excellent choices in roles, and he thinks that may partly be the result of “a long time struggling in actor hell in the ‘80s and even ‘90s, when he was sort of going nowhere, going from one TV sitcom after another.”
“There is a certain wisdom that comes with age,” he continued. “Clooney was almost 40 before he became a big star.”
Choosing smart parts
Peter Debruge, film critic for Daily Variety, said Clooney came out of television’s “ER” and was “big screen ready.” Since then, he not only has made wise choices, but also bold ones.
“He seems to be unusually intelligent, and therefore he’s a good judge of material,” Debruge said. “That’s also borne with his involvement as a producer, including things he hasn’t starred in. He was a producer on ‘The Informant!’ which I felt was an underrated, very smart piece of material that didn’t perform too well. He definitely has a sense of humor, which you can find repeatedly in his work, even in things he directed.
“For instance, ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ was sort of a thinking man’s satire. It wasn’t a farce, it wasn’t too broad, and it definitely shows someone who is trying to challenge his audience.”
And that doesn’t sound like someone trying to emulate James Bond. “When you’re sort of a dapper looking star, you can coast on your good looks,” Debruge said. “Clooney has not chosen to do that.”
Still, USC’s Jewell feels there isn’t that much of a distance between Clooney the spy in “The American” and Bond, and he only wishes the powers-that-be in Hollywood who cast the Bond films would agree with him (although he said he likes Daniel Craig, who currently occupies the part, if another installment ever gets made).
“Obviously he’s one of the more handsome guys going in movies,” Jewell said of Clooney. “Up until James Bond came along, a lot of spies in movies were Hollywood type actors like Alan Ladd and Fred MacMurray. They certainly were good looking guys, but they didn’t have the sexual charisma that Sean Connery brought to the role.
“I think Clooney has that. He’s handsome, but he also has some kind of indefinable quality that makes him attractive to the opposite sex.”
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com. He lives in Los Angeles.
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