NEW YORK - Among all the other things he is in Hollywood and for fans, George Clooney is also the only star working today who would fit right in during earlier Hollywood golden eras, when giants like Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster and Paul Newman roamed the backlot. Much more than his buddies Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, Clooney seems at home in a black-and-white, “Out of the Past” kind of world.
Which serves him well in his new movie, “The Good German.” In the adventure-drama set during the last days of World War II, Clooney plays Jake Geismer, a U.S. war correspondent in Berlin whose coverage of a peace conference gets sidelined by his discovery of black market activities, the dead body of a sneaky American soldier, and a reunion with his German ex-lover, Lena (Cate Blanchett), who’s as haunted and ruined as the city she’s trapped in. Filmed by director Steven Soderbergh in crisp B&W, the entire movie feels like it was made in the mid-1940s, from the opening credits to the final, “Casablanca”-like fadeout.
“It’s funny - I’ve been trying to discuss a black-and-white melodrama, and all the TV interviewers ask is, `Who are you dating?’” Clooney says with a wry smile as he pours himself a soda. What would the perfect answer be? Something retro seems in order: “That’s right - I’m only dating in black and white,” he jokes.
But whether he’s in silvery two-tone (“Good German,” his Oscar-nominated directorial success “Good Night, and Good Luck’) or lifelike Technicolor (the caper flicks “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve,” the `70s-style conspiracy thriller “Syriana,” which got him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Clooney has perfected a classic style both on-screen and off that’s as rare as it is unexpected.
“It’s a weird thing, because things happen to you as time goes on, and I don’t think people thought that about me seven years ago,” Clooney says, leaning forward in a chair and playing with the soda glass on a table, so that a one-on-one chat feels like a riff in a saloon.
“But things change, and maybe you do a couple of parts that get into that area, and so you kind of become that. So I think right now, I have a nice slot in the world for jobs - there’s a lot of good, fun jobs out there for me, which is nice, because I’m sort of booked forever.
“And part of it, too, is that you get to a point in your career where you say, `What is it that I’m interested in?’ And you have two ways of playing it: You can either try and protect what it is that got you success, or you try and continually move to whatever you consider the next level to be.”
For Clooney, 45, whose appeal on television’s “ER” didn’t translate to the big screen until 1998’s “Out of Sight” (after misfires “One Fine Day,” “The Peacekeeper” and “Batman & Robin”), that “next level” meant looking back to a movie persona that was popular before he was born.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) was a Depression-set lark from the Coen brothers, and features a supremely silly Southern-fried performance by Clooney, sounding like Foghorn Leghorn after he’d swallowed a thesaurus. “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001) was a remake of the archetypal Rat Pack movie, and in it, Soderbergh, who first collaborated with Clooney on “Out of Sight,” surrounded the actor - in the big-daddy role of Danny Ocean that Frank Sinatra originated in 1960 - with equally cool cats like Pitt, Damon and Don Cheadle, and made “Ocean’s” a box-office hit.
As a director, Clooney followed his countercultural-style debut, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002), with last year’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” about the newsman Edward R. Murrow’s confrontations with Sen. Joe McCarthy in 1953. The film got six Oscar nominations, including for Clooney’s direction and his and Grant Heslov’s script.
“The Good German” continues his old-fashioned streak. “George knew what was required, because he knows all those old movies so well,” says Soderbergh. “There are other stars out there, but there’s no one like him, and I really don’t see anyone else coming up.”
“George’s glamour and personality are so strong that it’s easy to miss how hard he works on characters,” says “Good German” screenwriter Paul Attanasio. “That was true of actors like Cary Grant as well. To go from screwball comedies to a dark Hitchcock film like `Notorious’ shows tremendous range.”
“As soon as I saw George on `ER,’ I said, `That guy’s a movie star,’ and that was why I wanted to direct `Out of Sight,’” says Soderbergh. “He had been attached to it first. And I thought, selfishly, that if that was something he was going to do, then I wanted to be a part of it.”
This ability to rally the troops is also part of Clooney’s classicism: Never one to take his fame seriously (except in terms of his work goals), he wears his celebrity so lightly, no one is intimidated. It’s the same kind of confident charm Grant and Newman had at his age.
“I think when you’re young and getting started, fame is like a bug light - you’re driven toward success so intensely as an actor because you’re pointed that way,” says Clooney. “And when you get it, you realize most of the things that you thought would be great are not.
“And that’s not whining, or saying `Woe is me.’ The greatest thing about being in the position I’m in is, I can walk into a movie studio and say, `I want to make a black-and-white film noir,’ and they’ll make it because they don’t want me to go someplace else. And that’s great.
“There are other parts that aren’t so fun. But you know, when someone comes up to you and gets you at an awkward time, it’s just as easy and quick to sign an autograph as to argue why you shouldn’t.”
He even riffed his way good-naturedly through a People magazine interview earlier this fall for his Sexiest Man Alive honor (he joshes about being a two-time “non-consecutive” winner, as if he’s the Grover Cleveland of Sexiest Men Alive), sounding like he was receiving a belated “Most Likely to Succeed” award from his high school back in his home state of Kentucky.
As with many things in his life, to illustrate why he can go with the flow, Clooney mentions his father, anchorman/TV host Nick Clooney, and how he’d view it.
“I think the secret is always to remember - and my father (believed) this - that over a period of time, people are going to be incredibly kind to you, as well as incredibly cruel to you. And they’ll probably be overly kind and overly cruel. So you have to find a way to define yourself, and not worry about the rest of it.”
His self-definition has included speaking up recently to help save Darfur (he’s worked with UN officials to bring attention to the African region), and ramping up a very busy slate of movies; next year will bring “Michael Clayton,” about a lawyer having a crisis of conscience; the inevitable “Ocean’s Thirteen”; and the next entry in his directing career, “Leatherheads,” a romantic drama set in the world of the 1920s NFL that he describes as “‘The Philadelphia Story’ with football.” He has at least three other projects lined up after that.
Describing his accelerated pace, Clooney explains, “What it is, is ... they’re going to take things away. All the toys can go back into the toy box, you know? Watch the old TV show `This Is Your Life’ - that’s everybody. But you don’t want (that dismissal) to happen because of inaction. Creatively, this is the best time of my life.
“Right now, I’m at this point where I’ve got a lot I want to get done yet, and I don’t have time to indulge in other things. I don’t have time to get in fights, or deal with other stuff. I’ve really got to work.”
Because even a Sexiest Man Alive twice over recognizes that 45 is, at the least, a halfway mark. “And if this is the halfway point in life, it’s not like the last 45 years are really good, comparatively,” Clooney says, grinning. “It’s not like they tack on your 20s again at the end!”