Every era has its American Actor.
Clark Gable dominated the ’30s; Gary Cooper, the early ’40s. Then Humphrey Bogart began his great run a couple of years later, bringing his cynical yet idealistic vision of American manhood to the screen.
In recent years, we’ve had Kevin Costner, who in the early 1990s evoked Gary Cooper, followed in the second half of that decade by Tom Hanks, whose loquaciousness, irritability and average-man integrity reminded some people of James Stewart.
These are actors who, for a time, embodied America’s idea of itself. You look at them, and you understand where the mind of the country was, what its values were, what men were like and what people thought men were supposed to be. At various times in our history, others have worn the mantle: Stewart, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Robert Redford . . . .
Today’s American Actor is George Clooney.
He has dominated this decade, ever since 9/11 signaled a change in consciousness. In one day, our movies stopped longing for some mythic time when men were men (the Old West, Second World War) and became focused on today. Ocean’s Eleven, released just three months after 9/11, was a remake of a Rat Pack film and intended to evoke an earlier era. But in Clooney, the movie showed something modern — a hero who understood that a punch in the nose wasn’t going to do it anymore, that he needed a crafty response to complex difficulty.
It’s funny that Clooney is often compared to old-time stars such as Gable or Cary Grant. Yes, he’s a bona fide movie star, so in that way he’s classic, but the consciousness is pure 21st century: ironic, self-mocking and skeptical of authority.
The Clooney hero is breezy yet pessimistic, an upbeat personality too smart not to be worried and too realistic to be completely sure of himself.
This is not a personality that would have made sense in the classic era. If there’s any doubt, check out Clooney in The Good German, in which he plays an American journalist in the aftermath of the Second World War. Clooney seems lost in the film. He is a modern man who doesn’t translate into an earlier hero context.
Interestingly, Clooney doesn’t seem to be trying to be the American Actor. It’s just sort of happening, the result of his pursuing stories that interest him — and using his power to get those movies made. Often he does this by taking his money as a percentage off the back end, guaranteeing that if the movie bombs, the producers won’t have to cough up a huge fee.
I think Costner did try to become the American Actor, and as soon as he started trying, he and his films became self-conscious. Clooney has it easier. His image has nothing to do with any abstract notion of nobility, and his ability to laugh at himself suggests a healthy, grounded ego. Remember that funny scene in Ocean’s Twelve in which Ocean (Clooney) becomes outraged that people think he’s 50? Clooney was 43 at the time, and it’s har d to imagine another leading man relishing a moment like that.
At his best — Michael Clayton and Up in the Air — Clooney plays men who start out with certain expectations and are thrown off their game. In a way, you can say the same about every screen hero, from Gable to Hanks and all stops between. The differences are a matter of style, in the nature of those expectations and in the hero’s response.
Clooney is today’s American Actor because he enacts the drama of our time. He’s the Me Generation product who thought he might get by on geniality and good looks. He’s the fellow who thought that if he just did his job well and was friendly, life would be as easy as high school and college. He’s the nice guy who honestly thought he didn’t have to care about anybody other than himself.
And then, invariably, things go wrong. People get hurt. Suddenly, there are moral dilemmas with no easy answers, along with the realization that if he really wants to maintain his self-conception as a decent man — if he wants to become that, truly — he has to re-examine his entire existence.
This is Up in the Air. This is Michael Clayton. Things were easier back in the day when all you had to do was say, “OK, now I’m going to fight the gangsters.” Or “Now I’m going to fight the Nazis.” The modern man first has to fight himself and then has to locate the bad guy, who’s usually a shifting target. He doesn’t merely have to do what’s right. He has to sift the right choice out of the murk.
Clooney’s movies show that the right choice is possible, while Clooney himself — forever taking that journey from self-satisfaction to doubt — shows you the price.