An Ocean of Talent
Tracking the Careers of the Best Hollywood Leading Men
Article by Paul Preston
Hey, there’s a new George Clooney movie out. Should you see it?
Of course you should. Clooney consistently makes movies worth watching, when he could easily rest on his looks and just make paychecks. Perhaps we have Steven Soderbergh to thank.
When Soderbergh and casting director Debra Zane put together the slick troupe of heisters for 2001’s “Ocean’s Eleven”, they (no pun intended) hit the jackpot and teamed a trio of actors (Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) who have since become the best example of what a Hollywood actor should be, balancing prestige projects with blockbusters, not pandering to tabloids and using their fame for social issue awareness. These three actors are on a pretty unprecedented run: at least one of them has been involved in a Best Picture nominee every year since 2005.
But the stars were not always aligned…
It’s pretty well known that George Clooney was unhappy with the results of 1997’s “Batman & Robin” (and the making of it, too). It was the third of a string of films that made up a shaky transition from the TV series “ER” to films, getting people wondering if he had the chops for the big screen. After appearing as Batman, Clooney had to cleanse the palate, and wisely got himself attached to “Out of Sight”, which eventually found its director in Soderbergh, who had longed to get out of the indie doldrums and make a popular entertainment. The result was a great mix of style and substance that defined Clooney’s next choices, working with David O. Russell, Terrence Malick and kick-starting another long relationship with The Coen Brothers.
Pitt’s choices in his early career seemed to show a desire to not get pigeonholed by his good looks. When it seemed like “A River Runs Through It” pegged him as the next Redford, he uglied himself up for “Kalifornia”, and when “Legends of the Fall” nailed him down as the next Fabio, he got filthy in David Fincher’s “Se7en” (wisely aligning himself with that director for a number of films). There were probably a number of romantic comedy scripts Pitt threw in the trash, later to be dug out by Matthew McConaughey.
Damon, after a number of small roles, hit Oscar early with “Good Will Hunting”. The choices he made next are easy to define as career growth simply by comparing them to the choices made by his comrade Ben Affleck. Where Damon found himself in “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, Affleck went all Nic Cage with “Armageddon” and “Reindeer Games”. One could argue that it’s tough to find the downside of Affleck appearing in a $200 million grossing movie, but if you recall, it didn’t go so well for Cage in the long run. Affleck’s return to greatness is nothing short of a miracle.
By this point in the article, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Man, it’s hard to believe all these guys with fiendishly good looks went somewhere in life”. Well, it’s what you do with it. Hugh Jackman seems perfectly comfortable being a huge movie star, teaching robots how to box, without an expansive production company and prestige projects. Gerard Butler turned the artful “300” into a string of springtime romantic comedies and action films that are mostly forgotten by summer. What the likes of Channing Tatum and the cast of “Twilight” do next may determine the next decade for them.
But there’s something about the coming together of Clooney, Pitt and Damon in “Ocean’s Eleven” that streamlined their careers on a similar path. Soderbergh’s direction on the film was “If this movie feels smug, we’re dead. We can’t be seen as just getting by on attitude.” That mantra has defined the majority of this trio’s movie choices since, like “Babel”, “Michael Clayton” and “Green Zone”.
There’s just an ease at work in “Ocean’s Eleven” that can’t be taught. The movie is cooler than you and anyone you know. Despite a winding, complex heist plot with multiple storylines, the whole thing just seems…effortless. In the high-paid movie star era (co-star Julia Roberts was making $20 million a picture), everyone took a fee cut, knowing this film would be special, and the Big Three returned for two sequels. Would it have been that way if Bruce Willis got cast instead, as rumored to have been originally intended?
Sure, there’s been a “Leatherheads”, “Troy” and “We Bought a Zoo” along the way, but even those off-target-for-them projects had decent pedigree. And not for nothing, these three guys have five “People’s Sexiest Man Alive” titles between them.
(Editor’s Note: Not sure if previous statement was meant as an accolade or as something they had to overcome. See Ryan Reynolds.)
Taking a cue from “The Brad Pack”, for lack of a better term, even Matthew McConaughey has done a 180, working with Soderbergh in last year’s surprisingly awesome “Magic Mike”, then appearing in the indie “Mud”. His next two films are the edgy drama “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” with instant-prestige director Martin Scorsese.
Bradley Cooper, your move.
This year continues the trend:
– Matt Damon appeared in the challenging action film with high-minded allegories, “Elysium”, which doubled its budget in worldwide gross. And he played against type in “Behind the Candelabra” on HBO.
– Pitt starred in and produced “World War Z”, which overcame rumors of re-shoot trouble to be Pitt’s highest grossing film ever.
People want to see what these guys are doing and hopefully it stays that way, ‘cause these actors don’t seem to want to rest on their laurels. So when there’s a new George Clooney movie coming out, you should definitely see it. “Gravity” opened October 4th.
Clooney, Pitt & Damon by the numbers:
Movies with Soderbergh:
Pitt – 4
Damon & Clooney – 6
Number of Oscar nominations:
Clooney – 6
Pitt – 4
Damon – 3
Number of Best Pictures they’ve been involved in during their eight year streak:
Clooney – 5
Pitt – 6
Damon – 2
2005: “Good Night and Good Luck” (written by, directed by and starring Clooney)
2006: “The Departed” (starring Damon, produced by Pitt), “Babel” (starring Pitt)
2007: “Michael Clayton” (starring Clooney)
2008: “The Curious Case of Benjaming Button” (starring Pitt)
2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (starring Pitt), “Up in the Air” (starring Clooney)
2010: “True Grit” (starring Damon)
2011: “The Descendants” (starring Clooney), “Moneyball” (produced by and starring Pitt), “The Tree of Life” (produced by and starring Pitt)
2012: “Argo” (produced by Clooney)
Before the year is up, these three are involved in a remarkable amount of high-pedigree productions:
Pitt will re-team with Ridley Scott, starring in “The Counselor” alongside Michael Fassbender and Javier Bardem. The Pitt-produced “12 Years as a Slave”, already wowing audiences in festivals, will also open, where Pitt stars alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor and Paul Giamatti.
Damon will appear in the new Terry Gilliam film, “The Zero Theorem”.
The Clooney-produced Oscar bait “August: Osage County” opens soon, and Clooney will appear in “Gravity” and he directed and produced “The Monuments Men”, where he will appear…..opposite Matt Damon.