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Funny Games

George Clooney Leaves The Issues Behind For His Screwball Football Comedy Leatherheads

SEMI-TOUGH: George Clooney (left) and John Krasinski look pretty good for the no-face-masks era.

By Cole Haddon | Posted 4/2/2008

It might sound unbelievable, but Leatherheads, a screwball comedy about the birth of professional football, owes just as much debt to John Kerry's failed bid for the presidency as the Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly screenplay of the same name that first sold to Universal Studios way back in 1991. Director and star George Clooney had known about the script since the mid-'90s through his frequent producing partner, Steven Soderbergh, who had been on- and off-again attached to direct it ever since Sex, Lies and Video Tape. Clooney had always hoped to star as Dodge Connelly, the aging hero of the Duluth Bulldogs, but it wasn't until, as Clooney calls it, the "John Kerry Swift boat thing" that he figured out how to make the consistently troubled script work.

Through every incarnation of Leatherheads Clooney had worked on, Dodge was always one-third of a love triangle that also included a celebrated WWI hero-turned-college football star, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), and one Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger). But Lexie's character remained frustratingly inert until Kerry's alleged Vietnam exaggerations inspired Clooney to re-imagine Carter's war-hero status and make Lexie the journalist out to uncover the truth. "What if [Carter] really wasn't a war hero?" Clooney asks. "And was there an innocent way to do it without making him the bad guy?"

Don't misinterpret Clooney's exploitation of Kerry's PR troubles as yet another attempt by the politically vocal filmmaker to turn hot-button issues into box-office gold, though. It might have worked with Good Night, and Good Luck, which Clooney wrote and directed (and earned two Oscar nods for), as well as with Syriana, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but the actor/writer/producer/director didn't want to pigeonhole himself. It's difficult to imagine that Clooney, one of Hollywood's biggest names, could find himself pigeonholed, but that's almost what happened in 2007, when his Oscar-nominated turn in Michael Clayton only encouraged it.

"Right after Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, everything that was coming to me were these issues films," he explains, sitting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills in a high-collared black sweater jacket. "[Studios] were happy to let me direct, but it was going to be the Richard A. Clarke book, [Against All Enemies], Valerie Plame, whatever. I had a great fear of being an issues director, because the issues change--and I have a much bigger interest in being a director."

Taking the lead in Leatherheads, his third film directorial effort, was part of the effort to change Hollywood's perception of his behind-the-camera work. Clooney had always wanted to play Dodge, but it wasn't until Soderbergh passed the project along to him that he saw it as an opportunity to move completely away from politics--a move he regretted the first time a 21-year-old tackled the 46-year-old on the Leatherheads set. With his directorial debut, 2002's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, he had played a bit part and, while his role increased with '05's Good Night, he kept his presence to a minimum, too.

This time out he's as front and center as he is in the Ocean's movies. "I plan on continuing [that] increase," he says, deadpan. "My next film is going to be a one-man show--a one-man Catch-22." But, "the truth is . . . I wouldn't by design direct a film I played the lead in ever again.

"It's tricky, because there's an enormous amount of narcissism that comes into play," he continues. "You're breaking the trust between two actors, particularly when you're in the lead. If you and I are doing a scene together, I'm not supposed to be judging you. Now, a lot of actors do and they'll tell you what to do, but, in general, you're not supposed to break that trust. The director is."

It's not difficult to understand why Clooney cast himself in the role of Dodge, though, as the good-looking, impossibly charming, but aging-all-too-fast football star could have been played by Cary Grant 60 years ago, and, well, Clooney and Grant share more than a few traits as actors and movie stars. We're not the first to point this out, and it's more than evident in Clooney's early work on ER or, say, the 1996 romantic comedy One Fine Day opposite Michelle Pfeiffer. It's been a while since he channeled Grant so openly, though; he's doing it better than ever, mugging for the camera while delivering lines at a pace approaching Howard Hawks' legendarily frenetic 1940 His Girl Friday, starring Grant and Rosalind Russell.

"I call it front-foot acting," he says. "The tendency since Montgomery Clift came onto the scene is to internalize--and that's great, it's made for some of the most amazing work ever. But what gets lost is [this] ability, of answering almost just before you've heard the question. The difference [now] is, you can't do it [as fast as Grant and] Rosalind Russell. If you took [those performances] and put [them] in a modern film, it would just be like an impersonation."

Clooney remains unabashed about how much he was inspired by classic comedies, even reveling in the comparisons. "Yeah, I stole from Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, in a big way," he says, laughing. "Well, homaged. I homaged the shit out of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges. And early George Stevens. There's a film called The More the Merrier we were trying to rip off--homage off."

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