the star market

The Star Market: George Clooney

Recently, The Wrap ran a story about Hollywood’s “Flop Squad,” and among the usual mix of overcast superstars with resumes full of clunkers (Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis, Jude Law), you found one Mr. George Clooney. The inclusion of whom, it seemed to us, entirely misses the point of who George Clooney is. Did Leatherheads make back its budget? Who cares? He’s George Clooney! He’s Brad Pitt without the tabloids. He’s Harrison Ford before the earring and Calista Flockhart. He’s Tom Hanks, except you want to sleep with him, not wave at him over your backyard fence. In short, George Clooney is The Last Authentic Living Movie Star.

But to what does his beloved-ness and apparent integrity translate? It’s true that his films that don’t have “Ocean” in the title are rarely blockbuster hits. And his integrity, while endlessly laudable, does occasionally lead to projects (like Leatherheads or The Good German) that you likely didn’t see once, and if you had, would never want to watch twice. Now his new movie The American — yet another arty, moody, beautiful-if-teasingly-slow Clooney-starring thriller — is set to open, and the marketing has been minimal, implying that not even its studio expects many moviegoers to show up. Should Clooney stockholders be looking to buy, sell, or hold?

STOCK HISTORY: By now, the story of Clooney’s career epiphany is as well established as the tale of the apple bonking Isaac Newton on the head: After ER awakened America to the actor’s sultry charms, sandpaper wit, and irresistible Caesar haircut, Clooney moved to nabbing big paychecks for terrible movies. It was during the junket for the most terrible of these choices — Batman & Robin — that he decided he never again wanted to be pimping for a movie he didn’t believe in, and he now had the money to draw that line. Ever since, his nose for quality and his unerring ability to find parts that fit like well-tailored suits (and often involve wearing well-tailored suits) has landed Clooney in a string of well-regarded, if not actually lucrative, films. True, his aim is not always on target: For every Michael Clayton, there’s a Good German. Yet Clooney himself remains unscathed. One manager we spoke to said, “Overall, he’s had a spectacular career. And when he does something and it doesn’t work, he’s still considered valiant for trying.”

CURRENT QUOTE: $15 million — but he’s also available at a steep discount for a smaller movie he feels passionately about, which is just about all of them. “The way movies are made these days, he might get his full fee if it’s a big, commercial studio picture,” says an agent. “But if he likes the material, he’ll cut his rate to make it happen. I doubt he could have made more than $1 million to $2 million on The American — it’s just not what Focus Features does.”

PEERS: All the biggies: Brad Pitt (46), Russell Crowe (46) Tom Hanks (54), Johnny Depp (47), Will Smith (41). Says one top agent: “Tom Hanks might be a little too old to be a ‘peer,’ and Will Smith a little too young, but when you’re at that stage — someone who gets a movie greenlit or with other elements can get a movie greenlit — things can be rewritten. Flight Plan was a Sean Penn movie at Disney — until it was a Jodie Foster movie.”

MARKET VALUE: The question is not “Does George Clooney guarantee a blockbuster?” (he doesn’t, and he doesn’t try to); the question is, “Does it matter?” Apparently the answer is no. Up In The Air was a moderate success, grossing $83 million domestically, but Leatherheads tallied only $31 million, falling short of recouping its budget. (Fantastic Mr. Fox also faltered, but we chalk that up to America’s aversion to deadpan foxes and puppets, not Clooney.) Yet talking about numbers when it comes to Clooney seems not only irrelevant, but vaguely crass. After all, if he gave up the “I’ll wear a cape and leotard for $10 million” game, shouldn’t we?

Clooney remade himself into something more heroic: He is, if you’ll pardon the allusion, the perfect storm of celebrity. He does charity. (Think Haiti.) He does playful. (Think his recent Emmy cameo.) He wins Oscars (for Syriana) and makes Capital-1 Important issue films (like Good Night and Good Luck). He shrugs off flops (The Man Who Stares At Goats) and runs with the Coen brothers posse. And he’s the only current male star you can envision standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Cary Grant and Gary Cooper, largely because he’s the only current male star who seems to enjoy wearing a tie. And if he doesn’t have the box-office record of, say, Wills Smith and Ferrell, he still makes enough bank to keep industry suits calm. “He’s a huge ‘foreign’ name,” says one agent, meaning he plays well overseas. (Goats, for instance, made another $36 million internationally.)

WHAT HOLLYWOOD THINKS: In short: Thumbs up. “People like him,” says the agent. “They want to root for him. He shows up at the Emmys, talks to just about everyone. So, whether he’s a good guy or not, he’s done a good job of creating the persona of being a good guy.” Says a manager: “If you look at his track record, he’s about 1:1 on hits and misses. But he’s the Mayor of Hollywood. Everyone loves and respect his choices.” If there’s one complaint, it’s that he’s somehow not even bigger. “On the commerce level, is he a worldwide box-office level star?” asks a publicist. “I don’t think people are rushing out to see a George Clooney movie.” To be a truly monumental box-office draw, you’ve got to be willing to co-star with CGI robots or blue humanoids. Clooney doesn’t want to do that, and at this point, he’s steered his image in such a way that it wouldn’t work anyway. “I don’t think George Clooney is a gritty, slick action star,” says an agent. “Clooney running around with a gun doesn’t work.”

THE ANALYSIS: At a salty-haired 49, Clooney is unlikely to reinvent himself now — especially given that he has the career every other actor dreams of having. Tom Hanks used to hold this honor, and Matt Damon, Clooney’s sidekick, looks like the heir apparent. But for now, Clooney wears the crown: He acts, he directs, he does philanthropy, he smiles on the red carpet, and the tabloids stay far away from his private life.

“If Humphrey Bogart were alive today, navigating the TMZs of the world, I think they’d subscribe to a less-is-more theory,” says a publicist, of Clooney’s mercurial nature. (This also raises the point that he’s the only modern actor you could compare to Bogart without laughing.) Clooney has recently become press-averse, perhaps due to a long 2008 New Yorker profile that basically revolved around his unknowability. He’ll do cameos, occasional talk shows, and the odd funny and self-deprecating but ultimately unrevealing Q&A, but he seems to have realized that he can do just fine without pesky feature reporters poking around inside his head.

This aloofness masquerading as intimacy only amplifies his mystique — have you ever seen an unflatteringly revealing paparazzi shot of Clooney? — yet it may also be limiting the scope of his appeal. His public persona is that of an effortlessly charming, witty, and suave everyman who has everything, and he chooses roles that deliberately undercut the appeal of that very Clooney-ness: an aging soulless playboy in Up In The Air, a doughy soulless operative in Syriana, a slick soulless lawyer in Michael Clayton, all of whom eventually see the error of their ways. His roles seemed designed to say “Hey, being George Clooney isn’t all fun and glamor.” (Damon, on the other hand, can do this more successfully and less obviously, since he’s not Cary Grant reincarnate; he’s Matt Damon.) Which is fine, except how about some straight-up fun and glamor occasionally? Clooney is to charm as the Deepwater Horizon is to oil, yet he keeps trying to plug up his own well.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Clooney is less a growth stock than a precious heirloom you stash in the vault for future generations. An agent told Vulture that Clooney was a Redford looking for his Newman, but it’s Newman who is Clooney’s closest comparable: The matinee-handsome actor who sharpens his acting chops late in life, wins the universal respect of Hollywood, all while staying private and doing enough good works offscreen to take on the patina of a saint. If the one knock on Clooney is that we want more of him — more access, bigger movies, more success — it just means we can’t get enough of what we’ve already got. Still, Clooney could learn to wear his charms as easily as he wears his clothes. It’s not for nothing that one agent suggested Clooney would be a great fit in the Bond franchise. We can’t quite see him as 007 at this point in his career, but the thought of Clooney in a tux, with a cocktail, and free from any soul-wrenching angst, does sound pretty damned attractive.

BUY/SELL/HOLD: Cherish…but hold.

The Star Market: George Clooney