Being George Clooney is not for the squeamish. There are the leading roles in major motion pictures, the jaw-dropping ladies, the villa on Lake Como, the cocktails with cohorts Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, the Academy Award, the humanitarian work …
Oh, who are we kidding? Being George Clooney is probably every bit as mind-blowing as it sounds.
But there is an aspect to the Clooney zeitgeist that has been largely obscured by the warm spotlight of movie stardom. He has answered the question most often expressed at Hollywood gatherings — “What I’d really like to do is direct” — by directing. And successfully.
Clooney not only stars in "The Ides of March," which opens Oct. 7, he stars in, co-wrote, produced and directs the film.
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Clooney’s list of directorial credits aren’t as lengthy as, say, Woody Allen’s. He debuted with “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” in 2002, starring Sam Rockwell as former TV host and alleged CIA operative Chuck Barris. He directed “Good Night, and Good Luck,” about the battle between Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy, as well as the period football comedy “Leatherheads” and episodes of the HBO series “Unscripted.”
With “Ides,” Clooney’s cameras follow an idealistic political staffer (Ryan Gosling) for a presidential candidate (Clooney himself) into the muck of a filthy campaign. Aside from “Leatherheads,” which obviously appealed to his playful side, Clooney seems attracted more toward a thinking man’s game.
“I think his directing work seems to be following a trend of telling stories that are compelling, but that no one else knows about,” noted Grae Drake, film critic for movies.com. and Fandango. “I think we’re going to eventually see a really consistently compelling body of work, because this is what he’s excited about doing.”Video: 'Ides of March' stars dish on on-set pranks (on this page)
The problem with most actors who want to direct is getting the opportunity. With Clooney, that hasn’t seemed to be an issue. His stature in the business has provided him with that opportunity.
“Other actors are perceived as dabbling in directing or doing vanity projects, like Zach Braff or Madonna,” explained Logan Hill, contributing editor at New York magazine who will soon transition to GQ. “In those cases you’re working against star power.
“But it’s almost a decade since he’s been doing it. As Clooney has become more statesmanlike in Hollywood, he has gained a legitimacy on a whole lot of points that other actors don’t have.”
One sizeable advantage of being director George Clooney is that major movie stars want to work with you. Drew Barrymore and Maggie Gyllenhaal signed on for “Dangerous Mind.” In “Good Night,” Clooney had David Strathairn as an impeccable Murrow, along with Robert Downey Jr. Renee Zellweger joined him on “Leatherheads.” Now “Ides” boasts a dazzling ensemble. In addition to Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are in the cast. In the casting process, as in elsewhere, it’s good to be George Clooney.
“The brilliant thing is that he can get incredible casts just by virtue of who he is, and get people like Julia Roberts (who appeared in “Dangerous Mind”) to work for less than they’d ask for on other films,” Hill said. “What’s kind of extraordinary is that he can pull out terrific performances from folks like that, as well as some of the lesser-known actors that you can tell he loves.
“He’s one of the premier actors of our era, and he’s getting to guide the performances of other fantastic actors.”Slideshow: October movies: 'In Time,' 'Three Musketeers'
Of course, there’s more to it than just private confabs next to the craft services table with accomplished artists. During production, people from all walks of movie-making assault the director with questions the way flies go after an abandoned sandwich. It takes a particular type of person to organize the chaos, and to do it well.
Everett Lewis is an associate professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts who teaches directing. He said there are several areas where an actor like Clooney has to adjust.
“Directing requires a visual interpretation of the script, a very different relationship to the actors and crew,” he said. “An actor’s relationship is based on the needs of the character, but the director’s relationship is based on the schedule, the script, the weather, the sets, locations and budget — not demands normally placed on the development of a character.
“Directors must consider the balance of all the characters in a scene, all the scenes of all the actors to the whole, and ultimately the importance of the vision for the entire film, not a single character. This is a big jump and the primary difference of the distinctions between actors and directors. Few actors have successfully made this distinction.”
Then there is the next question: How will Clooney be remembered as a director? Will he be thought of years from now as a hobbyist, or as an auteur in the tradition of other actors who made the switch with honor and merit?
“As a filmmaker, he’s more of an Elia Kazan than a Clint Eastwood,” Lewis explained. “And by that I mean he’s literary, idea-driven, and well-versed in the psychology of characters. His films have style, meaning and fantastic performances. Mr. Eastwood is also a rarity, a great director, but not one who over-examines characters or psychologies — he uses his actor’s instincts to respond and perform, functioning almost as a jazz musician as director. He’s caught up in the moment.
“When he’s directed more films,” Lewis concluded of Clooney, “he’ll clearly have the stature of an Eastwood, or a Kazan.”
Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to TODAY.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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