Clooney works his charm

Director and actor George Clooney stands between cast members, (from left) Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Matt Damon during a photocall to promote the movie "The Monuments Men" during the 64th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 8, 2014.

LOS ANGELES - If you live in Hollywood long enough, someone - whether it is a parking valet or a paparazzi photographer - is bound to tell you a story about the time they met George Clooney.

Apocryphal or not, tales of these everyday encounters with the 52-year-old movie star invariably bolster the near-mythical reputation he has built up over the years: as an actor, producer, director, activist, ladies' man, generous tipper, prankster and all-round cool dude.

In a town where name-dropping is second only to bitchy name-dropping as a competitive sport, the man seems to win over almost everyone he meets with his considerable charm.

This is on top of a career that has gone from strength to strength, from his early start as a television heart-throb on the hospital drama ER (1994 - 1999), to starring roles in hit films such as Gravity (2013), The Descendants (2011) and his Oscar- winning turn in Syriana (2005). He has also added director (Good Night, And Good Luck, 2005) and Oscar-winning producer (Argo, 2012) to his resume.

With all these successes, however, it is a little startling to see mixed reactions to his latest project, The Monuments Men, a World War II comedy-drama that he both directs and stars in alongside Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin.

The film opened in Singapore on Thursday, after having under-performed in the United States, where it has also been savaged by many critics.

But even if the movie - based on the real-life Allied platoon sent to recover the priceless art and artefacts looted by the Nazis - flops internationally too, it is hard to imagine it detracting significantly from the near-universal adoration Clooney continues to enjoy.

And he seems just as popular as a director - that is, if you believe the cast of his new film, who gush about him at a recent press conference in Los Angeles.

Of course, Clooney is the consummate schmoozer and starts working the room as soon as he steps in, his suave face creased in a benevolent grin.

He flatters members of the international press with individual acknowledgements - a snappy greeting in Italian here, a judicious hand on the elbow there - and wisecracks ("Did you guys get something to eat? 'Cause you left a mess in there").

The quips continue as he sits down next to the cast, who, even if you factor in the slightly forced camaraderie usually on display at these events, seem as genuinely fond of him as he is of them, even though his main way of showing it seems to be to tease.

"Casting was fun," he says. "We couldn't get Brad (Pitt), so we got Matt (Damon)," he says, later confirming, gleefully, that he instructed the wardrobe department to take in the seams of Damon's costume by a few millimetres every few weeks because he knew the actor was trying to lose weight.

Of course, Damon, 43, is a good friend, having worked with him on Steven Soderbergh's stylish 2001's remake of the 1960 Rat Pack heist film, Ocean's Eleven. The pair even finish each other's sentences a couple of times during the press conference.

No great surprise, then, that Damon and the others say they signed on to this film not just because of the compelling story, but also because they wanted to work with Clooney, who is known to populate both his life and movies with a roster of close friends.

Blanchett, who plays the French woman whose meticulous record-keeping helps the team recover the stolen art, says she "was deliriously happy" to be part of the ensemble cast.

"Because George, as we know, is such an incredible raconteur," says the 44-year-old Oscar winner for The Aviator (2004).

"And I think he carries that into the way he makes films and the way he tells stories about what's going on in the rest of the world in the other part of his life," she adds, referring of his humanitarian work on the Darfur conflict and other causes.

Just as Clooney's character goes around recruiting art historians, artists and others to join The Monuments Men at the beginning of the film, the actor- director wooed each member of his stellar cast individually, she reveals.

And he was so convincing, he even managed to bag comedy legend Bill Murray, an eccentric who is known to be hard to get hold of as he has no agent and generally does not take part in the Hollywood scene.

Murray, 62, Oscar-nominated for Lost In Translation (2003), says he did not hesitate to say yes to the role of the ageing architect who joins the hunt for the looted art.

"The story is so fascinating and most people don't know it. And to do it with this group of people... everyone's such a good actor but they're so much fun," he says.

"When I watched the movie for the first time, I went, 'Oh yeah, we got this shot', and then we sat down and laughed for about 40 minutes after that."

Clooney - who once famously put his Three Kings (1999) director David O. Russell in a headlock because he thought he was bullying the cast and crew - is a pretty good boss, he says.

"And everyone had great scenes, we got to see a wonderful story unfold, got to go to great places, got to eat well, we laughed a lot. And I think we'd do it all again tomorrow."

Goodman, who worked with Clooney on Argo, is also unstinting in his praise. "It was probably my happiest film-making experience this year, doing this film,'' says the 61-year-old, who has won a Golden Globe for the 1980s/1990s sitcom, Roseanne. Clooney smiles at the table as he hears all this.

If this feels like a love-in, the movie has a similarly chummy feel, with many moments of levity and male-bonding taking place as war rages in the background.

This light touch was to make it, above all, an entertaining film, even if the subject was a well- trodden period of history.

"We liked the story," Clooney says. "We were not all that familiar with it, which is rare for a World War II film."

As he often does, the actor - who is often compared to Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and other old-school Hollywood stars - looked to 1960s and 1970s American cinema for his references.

"We wanted it to be accessible. We liked all those John Sturges films," he says of his fifth directorial outing, referring to the director of The Great Escape (1963).

In fact, he and film-making partner Grant Heslov, a co-writer and co-producer on The Monuments Men, envisioned the film as a cross between Kelly's Heroes (1970), a comedic war movie, and The Train (1964), which is also about Nazi-stolen art.

Clooney, whose Good Night, And Good Luck was also a period piece about 1950s broadcast journalism, says he hopes he is growing as a director - something he admits he prefers "to doing other things", because "directing and writing seem to be intrinsically more creative".

"I really enjoy it, it's fun. I like it more than acting now."

He says he has no idea if he is getting any better at it, though. "It is the same as it is with everything, which is: You succeed at some and you fail at some. And you keep slugging away at it. All you're trying to do is learn from people that you've worked with.

Saying that he has worked with the Coen brothers on O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), Soderbergh on the Ocean's Eleven films and Alexander Payne on The Descendants (2011), he says cheekily: "I've worked with really great directors over the years. And you try to see what they're doing and just... steal it.''

Also important to him is working on stories that he feels would not ordinarily be told and, here, he concedes that his celebrity (and the media interest in his inveterate-playboy lifestyle since he broke up last year with model Stacey Keibler, the latest in a long line of girlfriends) can be useful.

"We get an awful lot of attention here. And strangely, as you get it, you want it much less. And any way, you can deflect it into stories you think are important, I think that's a very good thing to do."

He and Heslov therefore try "to find stories that are unique and that aren't necessarily a slam-dunk for the studio to make, and that will require us to pick up and sort of carry in".

"Sometimes, we pick material that focuses on things that will open conversations."

The Monuments Men was one such film, he says, because the studio did not warm to it as a commercially viably prospect until the all-star cast came on board.

"But it's hard to make films like this. It was hard to get Argo made, it took a long time," he says of the Ben Affleck-directed hostage-drama and Best Picture Oscar winner. "And Good Night, And Good Luck, I had to mortgage my house for it.

"So we're just trying to do films where you wouldn't necessarily walk in and everybody says, 'Yeah, that's an easy one.' "And, sometimes, they're a success and sometimes they aren't, but they're the ones we want to make."

stlife@sph.com.sg


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