‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ Transformed George Clooney Into the Actor, 20 Years Ago

George Clooney has been the protean ideal of a movie star for so long that it’s hard to recall a time when his presence on the big screen was more typified by playing the Caped Crusader in a comically terrible film. Even now that box office results have been decimate by the pandemic. There are few actors who perfectly embody the notion of what it is to be an old-fashioned movie star like Clooney. His always-at-100 smile, his dapper style, and a public look that often recalls the masculinity of Cary Grant ensured that Clooney struck an old-fashioned note of fame even at a time when movie stardom was vanishing.

It’s to Clooney’s credit that his fame on the big screen hasn’t crumbled over the last four years. During which he hasn’t appeared in a movie. Though he did appear in the Hulu adaptation of Catch-22. The last film in which Clooney appeared was the 2016 drama Money Monster. (It’s been just over three years since he directed a movie, the wilting black comedy Suburbicon.) Finally, Clooney is back in the new Netflix sci-fi drama The Midnight Sky, which he also directed. But from the start, it’s clear that this isn’t the dashing Clooney who appeared in films like The Monuments Men or Michael Clayton. With a severely trimmed head of hair and a bushy white beard, the rakish and charming George Clooney all but disappears in The Midnight Sky and is replaced with someone quieter and more meek.

On one hand, it’s a sign of an effective performer. On the other, watching George Clooney play so strongly against type is kind of disappointing to watch. The George Clooney who’s been appearing on talk shows to market this Netflix film. The one who laughs about pranks he’s pull on his co-stars or describes how. Yes, he cuts his own hair with a Flowbee and has for years – that’s the George Clooney who’s been long gone from movies for too long. (You could argue that the last time this George Clooney reared his head was in his supporting role in Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi film Gravity.)

That Clooney may well have been on set, but it was behind the scenes. The Midnight Sky is an unfortunately turgid affair, saddled with a slow-moving plot, talented actors stranded in space suits and speaking in hushed tones, and a truly ridiculous conclusion. It also doesn’t help matters that Clooney is just one of two major movie stars this month appearing in genre films in which they must help a mysterious young girl find their way home and in so doing, learn valuable truths about themselves. The other star and film are Tom Hanks and News of the World. Which may not be great but is much better than The Midnight Sky.

This month also marks an important anniversary for George Clooney. In which he began an infrequent collaboration with filmmakers who initially helped him form his own directorial eye. In 1998, he made his first appearance in a Steven Soderbergh film, the remarkable Out of Sight. But it wasn’t until 2000 that he starred in a film from Joel and Ethan Coen, the exuberant musical comic farce O Brother, Where Art Thou? The film ended up being another all-encompassing success for the Coens. Thanks to the massive popularity of the bluegrass soundtrack that permeates each scene.

20 years on, that soundtrack still accounts for a good chunk of what makes O Brother. Where Art Thou? so enjoyable. But Clooney was still a somewhat unsure film presence in 2000. On one hand, he’d starred in Out of Sight and David O. Russell’s Three Kings. On the other, he’d also starred in forgettable fare like The Peacemaker and One Fine Day. And yet, he’s the strongest asset of O Brother. As Ulysses Everett McGill, Clooney is the scruffy, charming center of a trio of convicts who have escaped in the hopes of returning to their respective homes. Everett, as he’s known, is joined by Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) on their odyssey home. (The film is based on Homer’s Odyssey. A slightly more accurate descriptor than saying that Fargo based on a true story.)

Everett has a self-described “gift of gab”. Which is both a Coen hallmark and more of a curse than a gift. (Which is, itself, also a Coen hallmark.) Everett knows how to talk, and talk quickly, and yet he rarely finds the right words to express himself in a way that will help him out. Like many Coen leads, he finds the same kinds of phrases to repeat ad hominem, from “Damn! We’re in a tight spot!” to “I’m bona fide!” All Everett wants is to get back home to his wife Penny (Holly Hunter). And their three daughters, but as soon as he reunites with them. They seem to want nothing to do with him. And Penny’s gone ahead and gotten herself a new beau who is bona fide. “He’s a suitor!” intone the girls with chirpy charm, which only serves to bewilder Everett more.

No doubt, the Coens’ script – one of their most delightfully goofy, with plenty of repeated dialogue from multiple characters – lends itself to an equally goofy lead performance. But Clooney proves himself very quickly to be the perfect leading-man foil for the always cheeky Coens. He’s appeare in four of the brothers’ films, starting with O Brother. And following with Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading, and Hail, Caesar! Each of these films takes some amount of pleasure at tweaking Clooney’s movie-star image. It starts here with a running gag about Everett’s predilection for the Dapper Dan hair product. (In the much more hit-and-miss Intolerable Cruelty, the physical obsession has transitioned down to the lead character’s teeth, one of the film’s gags that works every time.)

But it only works because George Clooney displays as good a sense of humor about himself as he does about his co-stars. There’s something about his willingness to throw himself into the role of Everett – where his scruff hides a dashing figure, but he’s also thoroughly thrashed by the dandy-esque new man in Penny’s life – that makes watching him more fun. Ulysses Everett McGill belongs next to Barton Fink and H.I. McDonnough and Larry Gopnik as one of the beleaguered men who comprise the Coen filmography.

He’s beset upon on all sides by the inexplicable – a trio of sirens, a one-eyed Bible salesman. A mysterious lawman who might also be the Devil. He takes it all with good humor, often exceedingly so; when that Bible salesman, the Cyclops-esque Big Dan Teague (Coen regular John Goodman), knocks Delmar flat with a tree branch. Everett only says, chipper, “What’s going on, Big Dan?

As director, Clooney gradually shifted away from edgier sensibilities. But it’s hard to watch his directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. About the life of game-show host Chuck Barris, and not see the influence of both Soderbergh and the Coens in the film’s style, its moody atmosphere, and its pitch-black comedy. O Brother, Where Art Thou? has that kind of pitch-black comedy, too, as in a climactic confrontation at a KKK rally where they’re trying to lynch Tommy, a Black musician Everett and the other convicts have befriended. Clooney’s exuberant performance counterbalances the darkness here and elsewhere in the film.

The joy of watching Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the joy of watching a performer find a new note to play from a range that had previously seemed limited. Clooney doesn’t often go for the big comic role; even the enormously entertaining Ocean’s trilogy relies upon the version of the actor who’s a slick star. But roles like Ulysses Everett McGill imply that inside the slick exterior of the movie star beats the heart of a character actor. It’s true that a film like The Midnight Sky allows Clooney to tap into a different style of performance than we’re usually accustome to. But 20 years later, it’s hard to watch his public raffishness. And not wish you could see him bring it back to the big screen.

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