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George Clooney keeps defying definition

Actor tangles in politics, keeps his 'independent' reputation
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

Wouldn’t it be great if more movie stars were like George Clooney?

He’s the modern model: He’s too cool to demand a $20 million salary to prove his self-worth; he writes, directs and produces; and he expends his movie star capital to push for the things he believes in.

“I’m a hybrid,” Clooney said last week after he accepted the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival’s first Spirit of Independence Award. “I succeed in both worlds. I hope that selling out on ’Ocean’s Eleven’ is not such a bad deal. The trade-off is, I get to go make something uncommercial that will probably lose money.”

Clooney is confident enough to go toe to toe with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly or to protect a movie extra from an abusive director or to coax not only fellow “flaming liberals” to join his campaign against hunger in Africa but also Pat Robertson as well. (On ABC’s “Nightline,” Clooney got the televangelist to admit that in certain extreme situations, condom use is a good thing.) And when a completion bond company backed out of Clooney’s second directing effort, the $8 million black-and-white drama “Goodnight, and Good Luck,” starring David Strathairn as newsman Edward R. Murrow, Clooney put up the necessary $7 million to insure the movie himself.

This is not your average star. So though Clooney boasts a production deal on the Warner Bros. lot, he has more than earned the label “independent.” Along with his Section Eight producing partner Steven Soderbergh, Clooney balances such big-budget studio pictures as “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve” that rake in cash with riskier fare that he sometimes stars in and produces -- such as “Solaris,” “Insomnia,” “Far From Heaven,” “Welcome to Collinwood,” “Criminal” and his directing debut, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”

Section Eight’s next three movies also push the edge of the studio envelope: Besides “Goodnight, and Good Luck,” in the fall Clooney will star in the provocative Middle East terrorist thriller “Syriana,” written and directed by Oscar-winning “Traffic” writer Stephen Gaghan -- “We’re going to get in a lot of trouble for putting a face on the evildoers,” Clooney says -- and he is just starting to shoot Soderbergh’s post-World War II mystery “The Good German,” which he also expects to stir controversy.

So it wasn’t a total surprise when, on Saturday night, Clooney accepted the Spirit of Independence Award “for someone of undeniable integrity who inspires us,” as Film Independent director Dawn Hudson put it. After a fancy sit-down awards dinner in a Westwood office penthouse, during a probing Q&A from film critic-turned-studio-exec Elvis Mitchell, Clooney revealed his unusual filmmaking philosophy.

“Steven and I have a great relationship inside the studio system,” Clooney said. “We make the kinds of films we want and commercial films at the same time. Steven and I have lost a lot of money. We are way in the hole. But this is not a day job. I’ve got some cash. I have a nice house in Italy. I do OK.”

Clooney’s change in approach came, he said, after he starred in two studio duds, “The Peacemaker” and “Batman & Robin.” “I got tagged. So I said, I’ve got to be responsible. What are you going to do at 70 years old and they’re doing a retrospective and they’re all big commercial films? I started looking for scripts. I held out for a year.”

Clooney went on to make Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight,” the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” and Wolfgang Petersen’s “The Perfect Storm.” Now, the triple threat prefers to take more chances on movies by slashing his salary, as he and the ensemble cast did on the “Ocean’s” movies.

Basically, Clooney figures that it makes sense to take his $20 million upfront salary and put it onscreen to produce a better, riskier movie -- hopefully along with a few other movie stars to help carry the picture. (It’s also a lot less stressful and more fun.) This “Ocean’s Eleven” model “has paid me big-time, on the back end,” he said.

It’s a smarter bet to finance and market a $30 million picture with three stars, Clooney argues, than a $40 million movie with only one. “If you do that,” he said, “you’re free to try and pick the best films possible. I don’t want to work with people where you feel like they’re just collecting footage. If you want to get these films made, you have to be an investor.”

It was not easy to put together “Goodnight, and Good Luck,” a serious drama set during the McCarthy era that Clooney insisted on shooting in black and white, which lessens a film’s value. The only way to wedge nonmarquee actor Strathairn into the leading role was to play CBS News chief Fred Friendly himself, Clooney said: “I cast myself to pay for the film. That’s part of the deal.”

Clooney looks back fondly on the ’70s golden age, he told Mitchell, “when the inmates were running the asylum.” He has assembled 100 films from the period to give to his friends, including all the best movies that were released between “Dr. Strangelove” in 1964 and “All the President’s Men” and “Network” in 1976: “One of the great dark comedies ever,” he said of “Network.” “Everything Paddy Chayefsky wrote about has happened.”

On the horizon: Clooney plans to follow up his most recent Coens film, “Intolerable Cruelty,” with “Hail Caesar,” about theater actors in the 1920s putting on a play set in ancient Rome. “The star would have an idiot toga and a pencil mustache,” he said. “This would complete my idiot trilogy.”

That’s another thing we like about Clooney: He enjoys making an ass of himself. Onscreen, that is.