Many towns and villages comprise Lake Como, Italy’s retreat for the wealthy and aristocratic dating back to Roman times. Now, in 2011, and in the midst of a world recession, proprietors of grocery stores, restaurants and bars across the region claim to be George Clooney’s ‘local’.
A cluster of unsuspecting tourists can be seen pointing and posing for photographs in front of an imposing lakefront villa. “George Clooney lives here,” they explain, excitedly. Satisfied they’ve seen the beloved movie star, director, writer and humanitarian’s home, the sightseers leave. However, in a neighbouring village, the same scenario is taking place. It’s not surprising some of the residents, albeit begrudgingly, refer to the area once associated with papal officials and European royalty as ‘Lake Clooney’.
The international jet-setting world of Clooney elicits intoxicating images of a James Bond-like existence, where glamour and opulence dominate the day’s agenda. This Kentucky-born movie star, from relatively modest beginnings, epitomises la dolce vita as though he were born to it.
Four months a year he resides in his six-house compound in Lake Como’s Laglio district (nowhere near where the above tourists had ‘tracked’ him), and the remainder in a mansion in Los Angeles he bought in 1995, formerly owned by Stevie Nicks.
He travels by way of private jet, and has a two-seater Electric Tango 600-1 parked in his garage.
Clooney is equally famous for his refusal to wed any of the ever-increasing string of ‘longtime’ girlfriends, all of whom are paraded on worldwide red carpet events he attends. He was married to actress Talia Balsam from 1989 to 1993 but, so far, has kept true to his promise that he will never marry again.
In person, Clooney seems a little at odds with his iconic image and he’s quick to dispel the myth that the gods are always smiling on him. For instance, box office failure in a movie star’s resume is usually a taboo subject and can be a deal-breaker when negotiating an interview with the likes of an A-list star’s publicist. Refreshingly, Clooney seems to relish his comparative unsuccessful choices.
Over the course of 15 years and many interviews, he’ll find a way to raise the subject: “Most of my movies don’t make money,” he’ll say. Although that may sound disingenuous, other than the Ocean’s Eleven franchise and 2009’s Up in the Air, which grossed over US$100 million (budgeted at US$25 million), in general terms, it’s a true statement.
He’ll also bring out the old Batman quote: “I almost killed the franchise,” referring to his ill-fated turn as the caped crusader in the critically panned Batman & Robin in 1997. Of course, these unprovoked admissions make him that much more likeable. And, as the recipient of endless praise, he has no need to broach the subject of his Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor in 2006, for Syriana. And he never does.
“I never went through the phase of being a dick because success didn’t happen for me until I was 33 and I got ER. I wasn’t 21 so I was old enough not to believe all the lies people say to you when you get famous. I understand that this kind of success is a stroke of luck but at 21 I would have probably thought it was my genius that made me a star,” he says. “To me, if you’re overconfident, you’re probably not paying attention.”
Scratch the surface behind the Armani suits and exotic lifestyle and you’ll find more substantial things on his mind. Notably, his humanitarian efforts. He’s financially supported people in crisis all over the world, and was heavily involved in helping the victims of Darfur – he and his father, former news anchorman, Nick Clooney, travelled to Sudan together to raise awareness of the crisis.
He also donated money to the victims of the 2004 tsunami and 2010 Haiti earthquake. Among many honours for his philanthropic endeavours, in 2007 he received the Peace Summit Award given at the eighth World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, and in 2008 he was designated a UN Messenger of Peace. He is also co-founder of Not On Our Watch, a not-for-profit with a mission to bring attention to mass atrocities around the world, giving voice to victims.
“Look, people are overly kind to me about going to the Sudan and things like that but the truth of the matter is, I think that’s what you’re supposed to do, if you’ve been lucky enough to have success,” he says. “It’s how I was raised. Anybody who’s been around this business long enough understands that there were equally as good, if not better, actors in acting class than me and more talented people in every other thing that I’ve done as well. So it requires an element of luck to play. I feel like that should be shared whenever you can.”
He grew up with his older sister Adelia watching their father as a news anchorman on local television. His mother, Nina, was a former beauty queen pageant, and his aunt was singer Rosemary Clooney. George was never far removed from the public life he would later enter, whereby he would eventually eclipse the success of fellow family members.
Despite the name recognition, the family lived an unpretentious lifestyle in Cincinnati. Not much is known about his mother, although in an interview in Los Angeles several years ago when he was promoting The Peacemaker, he explained: “I rarely talk about her because she doesn’t dig being in the public eye. But what I can tell you is, she was a real [mum]. She drove me to school every day and she raised me. She’s the heart of my family and the salt of the earth.”
Due to his father’s career as an old-school newsman, the family dinner table was full of opinions on current events. This ignited an interest in worldly issues that served him well in later years when he would turn his talents to directing. Taught to question authority, Clooney thinks outside the microcosm of Hollywood. Hence, his choices are not overtly commercial.
A CHARMED LIFE
Clooney’s on the Ides of March promotional campaign; following his trail from the Mexican island of Cancun, to the Venice Film Festival, Toronto, and New York, there’s no visible glitch in his seamless charm. There’s no snappy retorts at his minders or hint of impatience with over-enthusiastic fans.
In Venice, he arrives by speedboat to the premiere with his friend Cindy Crawford and her husband Rande Gerber in tow. Paparazzi have a field day snapping away at this aesthetically pleasing trio.
Laughing at the chaos before him, Clooney steps off the boat onto the island of Lido, where the film’s premiere will take place. He looks fit, tanned and un-Botoxed. An unusual and little-known fact: he refuses to wear make-up on screen. His female co-stars, all of whom sit in a make-up chair for several hours in the hopes of looking ‘natural’, are understandably in awe, if not a little miffed by his nude visage.
At 50, he’s easily as handsome, if not more so, than many of his younger counterparts.
“Sexiest man still alive?” he laughs, referring to his past titles on People’s magazine covers.
“How do I feel about it? It’s better than the alternative, right?” he jokes. “But as I get older I think I want to write and direct more and less do I want to see myself on screen.”
Ides of March marks his fourth film as director following Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; Good Night, and Good Luck; and Leatherheads. A few months earlier in Cancun, looking out at the transparent Caribbean waters, he talked about one of the major themes in this political thriller in which he also co-wrote. “It’s about the drive to succeed at all costs and what you’re willing to trade and do to win at all costs, including your soul, which seems to happen a lot.”
WORLD OF POLITICS
On a personal level, it’s impossible to find anyone who isn’t charmed by Clooney, although he’s come under some attack from environmentalists who take offence to his penchant for flying privately.
He has said: “I can’t stand up and say, I am the ‘green guy’. The green movement is one of the most important, but it’s tough for me to do because someone can come at me and go, ‘Oh, look, if it’s so important to you why are you flying on a private jet?’ So I have to accept that I am not the guy to be the spokesman for that.”
With his apparent interest in politics and world issues, his easy, articulate manner and charm, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine him entering politics. “Oh, doesn’t that sound like fun?” he laughs, dryly. “Do what President Obama gets to do every day? I can’t think of anything better. No, I have no interest at all. None. Never have. I prefer the idea of being able to press issues from the outside.
“Politics are much more difficult than the world of Hollywood. You’re elected by people to do something that you find almost impossible to do because of the way the machines work there. Hollywood’s a little bit simpler than that. People love to compare them: ‘DC is like LA with prettier people,’ they say. It’s just not true.”
Clooney has had some political experience via osmosis. “My father ran for Congress. He’s a really honorable guy, my dad. I watched him struggle with things they wanted him to do, such as fundraising. Unless you can pay for it yourself, you have to show up at these fundraisers for things you might not necessarily want to support. And that’s a very tough thing to do. Everyone does it. And in the case of my dad, it wasn’t that he was morally against anything he was doing, but it’d be things that he didn’t particularly think were what he wanted to do or be involved in. So, I think it’s very hard not to lose your soul in politics.” He smiles. “Plus, I’d have to give up a much nicer house.”
Speaking of which, in the idyllic Italian town of Laglio, population 889, Clooney is known as a gracious and enthusiastic host of legendary dinner parties where his famous friends will sometimes end the night skinny-dipping in front of his villa.
Some of his esteemed guests include Hollywood’s Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon, and Marissa Tomei. He also put on a wedding last year for friend John Krasinski (The Office) to British actress Emily Blunt.
His dinner table has witnessed some lively conversation through an eclectic mix of guests, including intellectually highbrow types such as the late broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite, CNN political analyst David Gergen, talk show host Charlie Rose, and former vice president of the US, Al Gore.
Despite his renowned love for politics and intellectual discussions, when it comes to what attracts him as a man, he seems more down to earth than he is elitist. Perhaps it’s his mid-west upbringing that doesn’t allow for any kind of snobbery.
The hotly-debated subject of his love life is an ongoing issue, and, to his credit, his refusal to kiss and tell has earned him a reputation as a gentleman. He’s currently in a relationship with former WWE wrestler Stacy Keibler, 32, a statuesque blonde. She follows in a long line of attractive women including Italian television presenter Elisabetta Canalis and cocktail waitress Sarah Larson. These relationships were preceded by a five year on-again, off-again romance with British television personality, Lisa Snowdon.
Without question, the most important and enjoyable aspect of his life seems to be when he is engaging with those around him that matter the most. Generous of spirit and naturally inclusive, he wants them to experience the environment he loves best.
“I spent a long time being broke before I had some success and I could never afford to travel, especially to Europe. And I love Italy. It has the best food, the best wine, the people are nice. Everything I do in my personal life is based around the idea of having good friends around me.” Clooney shrugs. “It’s the way I like it and the best way I know how to live.”
THE GIRL IN THE PICTURE
Discovered at 14 in her hometown of Perth in the audience for a modelling competition, Gemma Ward went on and became one of Australia’s best known supermodels. She has since moved on from modelling, saying: “I never really cared about what I looked like … I never thought I’d be doing a job where you always have to look nice, and polished and sophisticated.” She is currently on set for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, her move from catwalk to screen having so far been successful. Film credits include Tamara, Queen of the Mermaids in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Jackie Masters in The Black Balloon alongside Toni Collette.