We all love movie stars, and the very idea of them. But sometimes we get the notion that it is harder to be a “true star” now than it was once upon a time. We may note that Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Laurence Olivier and John Wayne were all born in 1907. Take the first decade of the 20th century, and nearly every “great star” was born in that span. Why should that be? And, more especially, if it is a provable fact and an observable condition, what has happened to movie stars now? Is it possible, as this paper suggested to me, that George Clooney is the new Cary Grant?
I like Clooney; I revere Grant. I wrote in 1975 that he was “the most important actor the movies have ever had”. Of course, he had stopped working by then. Grant had made his last picture, Walk, Don’t Run, in 1966, when he was 62. He was esteemed by 1975, but what I wrote was still widely considered impetuous and silly. He was hardly rated as an “actor”; he had never won an Oscar. In the 30 years since then, I think, the opinion has become an orthodoxy: Grant is untouchable, magnificent and hugely influential, and the presence that contained a very complicated screen character. Still, in 1975 and in the years of his steady greatness, Grant was not seen as a genius. Nor does orthodoxy now mean that the estimate will last. Indeed, in most of Grant’s best pictures he persists in talking to female characters as if their happiness and their moral identity were important to him. Look around you, and it’s hard to deny that that habit could go out of fashion any minute.
I like George Clooney, and I am prepared to be tolerant with his “strategising” that if you make an Ocean’s Eleven, or Twelve, or Thirteen this year you can make a Syriana next – because, let’s face it, the Ocean films oil the machine, while Syriana is “important”. Let me modify the above: I like Clooney, yet I think that bargain is hogwash and dangerous. The original Ocean’s Eleven (from 1960) was enough for me, and while some of the later versions (with Clooney as Danny) play along with the idea that the whole caper is being done to please or win back a lady, it’s as plain as can be that the films are in the “boys’ night out” genre. They indulge and exaggerate the charm of male company and polished team expertise. And just as the original was designed to flatter Sinatra and his clan, so the new series (number three comes very soon) endorses the principle that boys don’t need to grow up.
And that’s where a strange attitude in Clooney raises its head. Syriana, which he produced, and Good Night, and Good Luck, which he wrote and directed, both insist that boys have to grow up (for the sake of the nation). The spectacle of unmodified boyishness in command has been on view now for a full six years (the years in which Clooney has emerged as an intelligence), and his support of Edward Murrow, just like Syriana’s suspicion that everything in our newspapers may be connected, is valid enough to need serious respect. Yet the serious man goes off every year or so to do another Ocean’s Eleven, in which boyishness has higher tides every time. There is not really room for dispute: you can’t ask your countrymen to be as brave as Murrow or as watchful as Syriana if you’re giving them time off for a Las Vegas escape.
Now, I will admit that I run a risk of going too far in saying that. Clooney makes a very practical, sensible plea that you earn your liberties in Hollywood. That you have to make crowd-pleasing material if you want to take some risks. It is a very pretty theory, and one that Hollywood likes because in the end it leaves the production system in control, as if it were truly the best of all possible worlds.
And Grant made some very silly films – The Pride and the Passion, say, where charity can claim that he was ready to swallow anything to work with Sophia Loren. Grant made films that were largely ignored or forgiven by the audience – his Cole Porter in Night and Day is absurd and shaming (because Grant and Porter were friends) and the audience politely overlooked it just as Clooney-lovers have already agreed to forget that he made The Good German.
We accept the fundamental justice of comparing Clooney with Grant because Clooney seems to share some Grantian traits: he is very good-looking, and yet quite self-deprecating about that huge advantage; he is prepared to be taken for smart and sophisticated, while nursing quite serious and profound thoughts, and he is bred in a tradition that knows it’s easier to be smart when others underestimate you; and Clooney has a look in his eye – it’s been there ever since ER, though it has seldom flourished – that says high romance with the right woman must be one of the great things in life.
In fact, Clooney has delivered on that promise all too seldom: it’s there with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (still one of the movies I wish he’d study); it’s even there in the first film he directed, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (the Chuck Barr
is story), in which the love affair with Drew Barrymore and the use of Julia Roberts as a femme fatale are intriguing when put together. I wish therefore that we could see Clooney playing the parts Grant played in films such as The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, Only Angels Have Wings, My Favourite Wife, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, Suspicion, Talk of the Town, Notorious, I Was a Male War Bride and People Will Talk.
Yes, that list is 12 films, all of which fall within the genres of screwball, romantic comedy or comic adventure, most of which are in the category of masterpiece, and all of which were made before Cary Grant was 46 – which happens to be George Clooney’s age now. You can say in response that once upon a time actors were under studio contracts so they had to make more films. That’s true, and I’m not saying Grant wasn’t improved by the dozens of films he made in the 1930s (many of which were not good). But soon enough, Grant broke out of fixed contracts. He was an early freelance, for the simple reason that he believed in being judged on the material he chose. And from the late 1930s until the early 1950s, Grant made very few poor films. Even the routine pictures – such as Mr Lucky, Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, and Crisis – are pretty interesting. As late as the 1950s, Grant was at his best in light material. You can watch To Catch a Thief and even North By Northwest and decide that Grant was “coasting” on good scripts and the exquisite provocation of people such as James Mason, Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint. He was 51 when he did To Catch a Thief and 55 on North By Northwest. The latter is still one of the great studies, within the framework of comic adventure, of a vain and irresponsible kid (his initials are ROT) who learns to behave like an adult with feelings and ties of duty. You see, North By Northwest is the kind of vehicle that enabled stars to exist. By the standards that function today – by the standards even of Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck – it is a great film, an entertainment that turns into a moral tale.
Time and again, the apparently “easy-going” Grant found himself in stories in which his character had to make up or change his mind. That was hardly accidental. It was the self-awareness of a man who was himself a constant worrier – and who had “lost” his mother in a quite remarkable way. One day she was there in Bristol, the next she was gone. It was more than 20 years before he learned the awful truth.
It’s not entirely fair to hold Clooney’s stability against him. But in turn, Grant was a mess as a marrying man, and perhaps perplexed about his own sexual preferences. He did not talk about those things on TV (the great threat in the age of Clooney), but that doesn’t mean he ignored them. In the end, Grant was the actor he was because of his ambivalence. And Clooney, perhaps, is several degrees too settled, or pleased with himself. At his worst, Clooney exudes the feeling, “I bet you wish you were me,” yet Grant in his lifetime observed the irony in people who wanted to be him, but hardly knew there was nothing graspable there.
I suspect Clooney will do a lot more good work. He has a stack of promising ventures in production or prospect. But here is the last point and maybe the most important one. The people born in the early 1900s started doing talking pictures as beautiful young people at a moment when the world fed on movies and believed in them as models of how to kiss, whether to smoke and how to be cool or intelligent. Grant and Hepburn made few mistakes (though they made pictures deemed failures in their day, such as Bringing Up Baby), but they worked when the world was discovering movie stars for the first time. Their grace and our need went hand in glove. Today we are suspicious, cynical, wary. We wait for stars to be ripped apart by scandal. We know that the movies were glorious once and pale imitations now. Grant was one actor who socialised with directors and writers when those people were eager to do films about falling in and out of love. And great stars need love as their air if we are to fall in love with them. Today the stars are smart-asses, oddballs, in for a quick killing and nimble enough to land on their feet if the trap door opens.
I’d bet on George Clooney managing, whatever happens. But he can’t be Cary Grant. And he should be under no burden to try. It’s tough enough being George Clooney, which is a way of saying that we have only a few young stars now: Hanks and Clooney, Depp and Cruise, and that they must gaze upon their elders (Nicholson, Connery and Eastwood) and wonder if such creatures will ever come again.
BY David Thomson
PROC. BY MOVIES