In the new Coen brothers comedy “Hail, Caesar!,” George Clooney plays a movie star in the early 1950s — not exactly a stretch for an actor frequently compared to Cary Grant and other classic screen icons. The movie is a tribute to the days when studios controlled their actors, but Clooney himself has had a fairly unpredictable career.
Back in the mid-1990s, Clooney achieved what was then a rare feat: He not only emerged as a star on NBC’s medical drama “ER,” where he played the womanizing Dr. Doug Ross, he also landed lead roles in major-studio productions like “Batman & Robin.” Still, only after Clooney left the show in 1999 did he begin transforming himself into the movie star we know today.
It was soon afterward that Clooney launched his persona-defining “Ocean’s 11” franchise, but he also zigzagged through a variety of genres, from comedies to dramas to war movies. As a producer, he revealed an eye for the political (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), the unusual (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) and the commercially successful (2012’s Oscar-winning “Argo”).
Clooney, 54, has never gone back to television in a major way, despite the medium’s new resurgence. He’s one of the few stars who now seems to belong solely to the movies. Here’s a look at his big-screen career over the decades.
THE INAUSPICIOUS DEBUT
“Return to Horror High” (1987)
Despite his recurring handyman role on NBC’s “The Facts of Life,” Clooney had to make his movie debut in this fright flick about a film crew stalked by a killer. He got only a few lines, and that included the obligatory “Hello? Is anybody here?”
THE LOW POINT
“The Harvest” (1993)
Clooney appears briefly as a lip-syncing drag queen in a crime thriller that suggests the actor’s career was floundering. The next year, however, Clooney made his debut on NBC’s “ER.”
“From Dusk till Dawn” (1996)
Given all the blood, guts and nudity in Robert Rodriguez’ vampire shoot-’em-up, it’s hard to remember that Clooney was the star. Critics weren’t kind, but Clooney won best breakthrough performance at the MTV Movie Awards.
“Batman & Robin” (1997)
Joel Schumacher’s still-notorious flop, featuring Clooney and Chris O’Donnell in the title roles, was blasted for its camp humor and cartoonish acting. “George Clooney is the big zero of the film,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle, “and should go down in history as the George Lazenby of the series.”
“Out of Sight” (1998)
Here’s where the Clooney persona really begins. As a cocky bank robber opposite Jennifer Lopez’ sexy cop, Clooney was so perfect that director Steven Soderbergh went back to him for three “Ocean’s 11” movies. Clooney followed this with the edgy war comedy “Three Kings” (1999) and quickly made “Batman & Robin” seem a distant memory.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000)
Can Clooney do comedy? The Coen brothers thought so when they cast him as Ulysses Everett McGill, an escaped convict who becomes a famous folk singer during the Great Depression. The film became an unlikely hit (the soundtrack sold 8 million copies) and put its shamelessly mugging star in a whole new light.
CLOONIEST ROLE EVER
“Ocean’s 11” (2001)
Clooney stepped easily into the Frank Sinatra role in this remake of the 1960 heist film and launched a $1.1 billion franchise. Short on substance but long on style and class, the films were basically vehicles for the stellar cast (Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle), with Clooney shining the brightest as a Las Vegas rogue who always outsmarts and out-charms the competition.
“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002)
For his directorial debut, Clooney chose Charlie Kaufman’s script about Chuck Barris, the famous game-show host (“The Gong Show”) who also claims to have been a CIA assassin. Critics liked it more than audiences did, but the movie proved that Clooney wasn’t afraid to show his eccentric side.
“Intolerable Cruelty” (2003)
In his second collaboration with the Coens, Cooney plays a legendary divorce lawyer who meets his match in a beautiful gold-digger (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The film met with a collective shrug, but Clooney and Zeta-Jones are a screwball comedy dream team with sex appeal to burn. Worth a second look.
THE WHISPER CAMPAIGN
Clooney’s Oscar-winning role (for best supporting actor) in this oil-industry thriller (he plays a scapegoated intelligence operative) seemed to increase the rumblings that the actor might run for office. That still happens whenever he makes a political film (be it “Good Night, and Good Luck” or “The Ides of March”) but Clooney always shoots down the rumors. “’I’d have to run on the ‘Yeah, I did it’ ticket,” he once said. “Did you sleep with so-and-so? Yeah, I did.”
“Michael Clayton” (2007)
Clooney earned his first leading actor nod, and deservedly so, playing a legal-political fixer who develops a conscience. For all-around quality — from the script and direction by Tony Gilroy to the jaw-dropping performances by Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson — this is arguably Clooney’s best film. He helped produce, too.
“Up in the Air” (2009)
Clooney earned his second leading actor Oscar nomination playing Ryan Bingham, a management consultant who prefers his frequent-flier status cards to emotional attachments. With a never-better Vera Farmiga as the woman who pierces his facade, “Up in the Air” became a $160 million hit and earned six Oscar nods overall. It’s Clooney at the top of his game.
THE NEAR MISS
“The Descendants” (2011)
Clooney’s last great role to date was in Alexander Payne’s comedy-drama as a man struggling to care for two troubled daughters (Amara Miller and a breakout Shailene Woodley). Clooney was widely praised for his performance and earned his third Oscar nod for leading actor. He might have won, too, if not for Jean Dujardin in “The Artist.”
That Clooney clout
How much clout does George Clooney have in the film industry? It’s almost as if he can produce a movie by merely speaking the title.
Clooney once agreed to appear in a film with the Coen brothers called “Hail, Caesar!” based on nothing but a plot description. As the years went by, Clooney kept mentioning the project — which didn’t really exist — until it eventually showed up on IMdB. According to Joel Coen, “Finally, we got so much grief, that we decided to sit down and write the script.”
That’s the story according to the film’s official press notes, anyway. And keep in mind that “Hail, Caesar!” which opens Feb. 5 , is a fond tribute to the self-promoting, baloney-slinging Hollywood studios of the early 1950s. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a producer and “fixer” (based in part on a real figure) whose job is to keep the truth out of the papers and his studio machine purring happily. Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a hard-partying and slightly suggestible screen star who gets kidnapped while filming a Biblical epic. The supporting cast includes Channing Tatum as a song-and-dance man, Scarlett Johansson as the star of several aquatic musicals and Alden Ehrenreich (“Beautiful Creatures”) as an amiable singing cowboy.
Clooney’s next project is “Money Monster,” a thriller directed by Jodie Foster. And yes, that movie is real.