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November 1 1998
He's leaving Dr Ross and ER behind for a big-screen career; his smouldering new film is making audiences gasp. So why is the actor voted the World's Sexiest Man still woried about his future? George Clooney
comes clean to GARTH PEARCE
George and the jungle
George Clooney is being told he is the next Cary Grant. He hears it everywhere: from his co-stars, from the film studio bosses, from the magazine readers who last year voted him the World's Sexiest Man. But the actor they call drop-dead gorgeous for his role as Dr Doug Ross in ER is more like drop-dead nervous. He knows that, at 37, despite his looks and talent, there has been too much failure in his past for him to be sure of the future as he finally prepares to cut loose from television.
Clooney and TV have shared an enduring, if troublesome, partnership that stretches back 15 years. Most of his appearances have been in shows either indifferent or just plain bad, heaping more ignominy on a man who had grown used to struggle and uncertainty in his private life. But four years ago, ER changed everything. It was just another part in another pilot for a television journeyman, playing a womanising paediatrician. This time, though, something happened. Not only did the test episode, filmed in the spring of 1994, get a record approval rating from NBC's focus groups, leading to a 24-episode debut season, but Dr Doug Ross was picked as the most popular character.
For Clooney it meant fame and fortune at the very point when he feared both had passed him by. From a film career that accumulated such stinkers as Return to Horror High, Grizzly II - The Predator and Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (the exclamation mark in the title only emphasised its true awfulness), he graduated to bigger scripts and successful co-stars. There was the vampire thriller From Dusk Till Dawn, co-starring Quentin Tarantino, the romance One Fine Day with Michelle Pfeiffer, and the action story The Peacemaker, opposite Nicole Kidman.
But here is the catch: he and these top female stars couldn't get any sexual chemistry going, and none of the movies set the box office alight. And the one that did, Batman & Robin, with Clooney as the man in the black rubber suit, was slaughtered so badly by the critics that he could have been forgiven for wishing he could hide back among the Killer Tomatoes.
He is now at a moment of truth. As America prepared for the screening of its 100th episode of ER last week and with the show and Dr Doug Ross a hit around the world, Clooney has announced he will cut the umbilical cord in the new year. The film that has tempted him to go for gold is the forthcoming sexy crime story Out of Sight (released here on November 27), based on an Elmore Leonard novel. This time he was allowed to handpick his co-star, and he chose the sultry but not that well-known Jennifer Lopez. It was a canny choice.
Although the film suffers from clumsy subplots and superfluous characters, the central love affair between a professional bank robber, played by Clooney, and a federal marshal (Lopez) whom he kidnaps after a prison escape, has all the punch and sexual fizz that has been so sadly lacking in his other movies. The key scene between them is expertly directed by Steven Soderbergh, who delivered the award-winning sex, lies and videotape. This is no conventional sex scene; it bides its time, stopping for freezeframes, propelled by a samba beat. There are no acrobatics and no swathes of naked flesh (Clooney wears pristine white boxers), yet the sequence regularly draws gasps from its audience.
The film has already enjoyed a solid box office in the United States - again, nothing sensational - but it is on the international market that Clooney will be judged, by the same Hollywood producers who are guiding him into the big league. He should be reassured by the advance reaction.
Yet when we meet, it is as if he is about to face the surgeon's knife instead of a glittering film career as a high-octane romantic hero. He sits in the suite of a luxurious hotel overlooking the elegant seafront of Deauville, France, with his beautiful French girlfriend, a 25-year-old law student called Céline Balitran, relaxing in the next room. He is hailed by a crowd every time he leaves the hotel lobby to step into a sleek chauffeur-driven Mercedes limousine: a notably handsome man, 6ft tall, with brown eyes, and an unfailingly polite and charming manner. He has screen presence in abundance, and scripts and offers aplenty to launch a full-time film career.
But he is so insecure. Our conversation, littered with good-humoured, self-deprecating remarks about himself and his talents, is also full of genuine ifs and buts and maybes.
"I have had a sort of slow, plodding TV career," he says. "And that's fine. They let you get away with that. I have had only moderate success with my films, and that's not so good. Hollywood doesn't let you get away with it for too long, and it does not forgive easily. Look at the reaction to Batman, which was a lousy movie - and I was lousy in it. There was a lot of excitement about the casting when it was being made. But, later, when the dust settles, they start asking questions about you. Everything I've got in films has come because of ER. Before this show, I was reading for two lines in a movie for a casting director. I have to remember exactly why and how the world has changed for me."
These are not the buoyant words of a man who is arguably the world's No 1 sex symbol. Even the suggestion of his status, confirmed by the likes of America's US magazine, makes him squirm. "There was no way I could respond to those awards without sounding like a jackass," he says. "If I say, yes, I am a sex symbol, then I sound like a conceited idiot. If I say no, I don't want that, it's embarrassing, then I sound most ungrateful for a compliment that most men would appreciate. The only way I am going to live with it is just to say thank you and realise that it is not going to last.
"All these things are going to disappear one day, and I know that every time I am confronted by fans. To some of them, I am not really there. They are screaming and I will be asking how they are, and then they scream some more. You become this other thing. They will talk about me as if I am not there, like how much older I am in person or how I have all this grey hair. So none of it is there for ever."
What Clooney's adoring followers don't see, or perhaps don't want to see, is how the years of cumulative failure have tempered his optimism. The cruel fact is that, short of ER and the life he has enjoyed as a result, he has known withering uncertainty and disappointment both in his career and personal life. His live-in relationship with the actress Kelly Preston ended when she left him with their pet pig, Max, now aged 11, and later married the reborn star John Travolta. His 1989 marriage to the actress Talia Balsam, then known through the television series Taxi, at the tacky chapel of White Lace and Promises, Las Vegas ("I was born in Kentucky, so I appreciate any kind of white-trash thing," he says), ended in divorce three years later.
In the wake of it, he walked out of his umpteenth television show, BabyTalk, under threat of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, put on about 25lb in weight and suffered from a bleeding ulcer. Long before that, as a child, he had had a salutary lesson on just how fickle fame can be. His father, Nick, the prominent host of a television news show in Cincinnati, Ohio, was suddenly fired; he had to move his family five times in eight years, looking for work. Their home, once a rented colonial mansion on a private estate became, briefly, a trailer park.
There was also the spectacular crash of his aunt, the singer Rosemary Clooney, whose British No 1 hits in her soaring career in the 1950s were This Ole House and Mambo Italiano. "By 1955 it was all over for her," Clooney reflects. "She was 24 years old and all washed up because rock'n'roll had started, and popular music and jazz just went away. She did not become less of a singer. But she didn't understand it and became a nut for 20 years, took every drug known to man and had nervous breakdowns until she finally got her act together."
It is no apocryphal story. Although he relates it with ease and a half smile, as he's obviously told it a hundred times, it comes with a message: this is not going to happen to him. The hopes and expectations will never be raised as high as his aunt's or hung out to be shattered like those of his father. "Dad taught me not to believe people who say you're a god, nor to believe them when they say that you suck," he says succinctly.
Such advice has helped him pick his path through the minefield of Hollywood with great dexterity, considering his jobs have included selling insurance and men's suits, working as a builder and serving in a
women's shoe shop. It even prepared him for such disappointments as narrowly missing out on the role in Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise that propelled Brad Pitt to movie stardom. But the slow build-up and
reversals of fortune have given Clooney an awareness of his age and how the years have passed him by. All other Hollywood stars were long established at 37. Even Harrison Ford, regarded as the slowest to rise to the top, was only 34 when he finally landed the key role of Han Solo in Star Wars and began a remarkable film career.
"I am committed to work, and that is a problem for my personal life," Clooney volunteers. "It is very tough on Céline, because her identity is very much associated with me. Yet she has none of the advantages, because I am hardly ever there. A television series is a full-time job, 14 hours a day, five days a week, nine months of the year, with no time off. I also do a film in my spare time and vacations, which means working weekends and nights and all that stuff.
"Céline does not work that much. She is an assistant teacher at a kindergarten, so works five days a week in the mornings until two in the afternoon. So she has a lot of spare time. She has friends in Los Angeles and people she likes being with. But I cannot pretend it is easy. We don't have vacations, and I would imagine that bothers her. It would bother me. It is just that, for the moment, I am unable to do a thing about it."
Although apologetic towards his girlfriend of two years, he can't resist an almost laddish reference to his love scene with Lopez in Out of Sight. "Céline did not like that one very much," he admits. "I did not want her to see the movie until I took her to the premiere in Los Angeles, because I knew she was going to be pissed off at me. There was nothing I could do, because the scene is there on a giant-sized creen.
I am saying to her, 'But it is very tame for a movie, when you think about it. A couple of kisses. Nobody is naked. Nobody is grinding at each other's bodies.' The trouble, of course, is that it looks so damn sexy. So she was very jealous for a minute or two. But it could have been a lot worse and she could have been a lot madder."
There is a feeling that if the relationship survives - and Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman have bet $10,000 each that Clooney will be married and a father by the year 2000 - she is going to encounter many more such love scenes in the future. Clooney has natural style, a big-screen presence and an easy charm that can tempt audiences to leave their TV sets to pay to watch him at the cinema, if the projects and co-stars are right. A Cary Grant for the new century? Why not?
But the man himself has learnt the sobering lessons of his own personal history; those brown eyes hold an inner sadness for good reason. "It is nice that so many people think I can survive past ER," he says. "I just
don't want to become one of those whatever-happened-to-him guys. My life is good at the moment. I hope I don't screw it up."
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