The perfect star

As "The Perfect Storm" bears down on the box office, George Clooney tries to prove -- yet again -- that he's an A-list star

By Gregg Kilday

Published June 29, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)


If George Clooney didn't exist, Hollywood would have invented him. Come to think of it, Hollywood more or less did.

Faced with a serious shortage of leading men, the movie industry drafted Clooney -- previous credit: People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive circa 1997 -- to fill the bill. This weekend, his star appeal gets its biggest test yet as Warner Brothers' $140 million "The Perfect Storm" makes its way into port with Clooney at the helm.

A bad wind is already blowing.

Director Wolfgang Petersen's computer graphics-augmented take on Sebastian Junger's bestselling account isn't facing an easy cruise. Petersen's film -- call it "Das Fishing Boot" -- will be racing headlong into Mel Gibson's latest opus, "The Patriot," a Revolutionary War flag-waver that opened yesterday.

Daily Variety foresaw bloody, mano-a-mano combat: "Both films have weak spots. With 'Storm,' it's clearly Clooney, who is no Mel Gibson at the B.O." Clooney tacitly admitted as much last week when, in a shrewd bit of expectations-spinning, he confessed to CNN's "Showbiz Today": "We'll get beat by 'Patriot' the first week. It's Mel Gibson, you know, I mean - that's OK. It's also supposed to be a good film. But I think we'll stick around awhile. We've got good legs."

Before you shout "Man overboard!" consider the fact that a mere six years ago, the affable Clooney was nothing but a 33-year-old journeyman TV actor, the kind of guy who lived for pilot season, when the casting couch fills with handsome hunks for all those cop/doc/lawyer shows that the networks churn out every season.

After a decade of bouncing from show to show ("Roseanne," "The Facts of Life," "Sisters") Clooney finally got lucky. Forced to decide between a couple of projects, he picked "ER"; the doctor thing proved an immediate hit, and Clooney got to play sexy Ben Casey opposite Anthony Edwards' stolid Dr. Kildare. Rosemary's nephew became a TV star.

Meanwhile, the Hollywood stud farm was facing a thoroughbred shortage. Once-invincible international action stars like Arnold and Sly were beginning to run out of steam. Established brands like Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas were pushing 50 -- and beyond. A number of actors in their 40s who were expected to take their place -- Jeff Bridges, Dennis Quaid -- had peaked too soon; suffering one flop too many, they'd been barred from the A list. And though a new generation of romantic boy-men like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were coming into their own, they still hadn't quite graduated from callow-youth parts to full-fledged grownup characters. That left just a handful of all-purpose, bona-fide stars -- Gibson, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner (and to a lesser extent Nicolas Cage and Denzel Washington) -- shouldering the weight. This elite group could hardly meet the demand for seasoned actors with proven box-office track records ready and willing to take on mature roles.

So when the pinup magazines took a shine to that new doc on "ER," Hollywood was only too happy to take a flyer, hoping to groom him into a genuine film star. Unwilling to follow in the footsteps of David Caruso -- who traded one season on "NYPD Blue" for belly-up failure in movies like "Kiss of Death" and "Jade" and wound up as a "South Park" punch line -- Clooney kept his day job while testing the movie waters during his TV hiatuses. His first foray, director Robert Rodriguez's vampire slash-fest "From Dusk to Dawn," was a minor hit, grossing $26 million for Miramax's low-rent Dimension label.

But when Clooney moved into mainstream romantic comedy opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in "One Fine Day," the results weren't promising. The movie opened to just $6.2 million and managed a final gross of only $46 million.

Still, Hollywood, and, in particular, Warner Bros., which produced "ER," was undaunted. Desperate to find a star to stretch the latex in its fourth Batman film, "Batman & Robin" (1997) (the series had already used up Michael Keaton in the first two installments, and a petulant Val Kilmer in the third), the studio turned to Clooney. "Batman & Robin" turned out to be the least successful installment, all but dooming the franchise with a $107 million gross, a steep decline from "Forever's" $184 million. Still, Clooney (whose mug was obscured for half the movie anyway) emerged unscathed. "The studio was just grateful that he was willing to wear that silly rubber suit," recalls one Warner veteran, "and that he went out and did his best to sell the picture."

Since then Clooney, who left "ER" for full-time film work last year, has settled into a remarkably consistent, second-tier stardom. The true A-list test is one's ability to lure opening weekend audiences, and Clooney's stats speak for themselves: His '97 DreamWorks thriller, "The Peacemaker," opened to $12.3 million; in '98, director Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" -- though a big hit with the critics -- debuted to $12 million. And last summer, David O. Russell's edgy "Three Kings" scored a $15.8 million weekend. One difficulty Clooney faces: His "ER"-friendly fan base is solidly female. But unlike rabid young males, older women don't automatically show up in droves for opening weekends -- and testosterone-heavy projects like "Three Kings" don't appeal to them in the first place. With the exception of "Batman & Robin," in which the franchise was the true star, Clooney has never been able to crack a $20 million opening. The pervading wisdom is that he can't "open" a film.

"The Perfect Storm" should change that -- though, again, Warner is pushing concept (little boat, big sea) over actors in its marketing campaign. "Clooney's not a movie star," insists one producer. "He's certainly cute. And I did like him in "Out of Sight," but Soderbergh is a genius with actors. It's telling that Clooney was weak in a romantic comedy like 'One Fine Day,' where the charisma should show. He'll get credit if 'Perfect Storm' does well -- and I think it will -- but he won't deserve the credit, any more than Jeff Goldblum or Richard Attenborough deserved the credit for the success of 'Jurassic Park.' It's the waves, stupid."

Another observer of Clooney's career disagrees, arguing, "He's a star. When he's on the set, he's the man and he gets what he wants. How famous do you need to be? He gets to headline pictures, but he doesn't have to shoulder all the weight a Mel Gibson must carry."

Of course, Mel gets paid to tote that load. Gibson now commands as much as $25 million per film. Here's the real secret behind Clooney's ascension: He's a cheap date, at least by Hollywood standards. Though his asking price is $10 million, the actor knows when to cut a deal: He agreed to take $5 million on "Three Kings"; successfully underbid Cage to win "Perfect Storm" for an $8 million salary; and cut his fee even further to appear in the Coen brothers' upcoming Depression-era comedy, "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"

In early conversations about his next project, Warner's all-star remake of the Rat Pack classic "Ocean's Eleven," he immediately offered to work wholesale, helping the studio to inform the film's other prospective stars -- Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis -- that they would have to take a pay cut too. "'Ocean's Eleven' is a good move for him," observes the producer. "Ensembles are one way an actor can conceal his real box office value. He'll rise with the tide of Julia and Brad and everyone else in that movie."

So far, Clooney's easygoing appeal, bolstered by his pragmatic business dealings, has served him well. This year, he made his first appearance on Premiere magazine's annual Power List, albeit in 82nd place. And he's escaped the fate of TV personalities like Tom Selleck and Ted Danson, who were never able to find a foothold as movie stars and slipped off the big screen.

Now all he has to do is cross his fingers and hope that if "The Perfect Storm" doesn't perform up to expectations, he won't go down with the ship.

Gregg Kilday

Gregg Kilday, a writer in Los Angeles, writes regularly about the movie business.

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