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Finest dandy vows to keep his hand in

October 23, 2003

GEORGE Clooney is Hollywood's dandy, the man who acts, directs and plays the game like the huge stars of a more glamorous time in cinema.

So it is no surprise to see Clooney starring in a modern take on one of Hollywood's grandest genres, the screwball comedy Intolerable Cruelty.

Sure, its directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, tried their hand at a homage to the 1940s batch of auteurs, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges et al, with The Hudsucker Proxy but it misfired badly.

Intolerable Cruelty, in which Clooney plays the ruthless divorce lawyer Miles Massey, whose heart and mind flutter upon meeting a vivacious gold-digger (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), is a different matter: it is a sharp, witty modern comedy.

And while Zeta-Jones may not be the new Katharine Hepburn, Clooney makes a very convincing case that he's this generation's Cary Grant.

Not that Clooney will concede he's becoming more comfortable in those comic, Grant-like roles.

"Goodness. They're fun to do," he says. "I don't know. It's always a blast to do them. I thought that Solaris was pretty funny," he laughs.

"I've been working on comedies for a while. Batman & Robin was a hoot. And if you can do them with Joel and Ethan [Coen], you just feel really lucky, especially if you get to work with people like Catherine [Zeta-Jones] – it's really fun.

"I'm lucky enough, sort of in a backward way, that a lot of films that I did weren't particularly successful early. So, I didn't get pigeonholed into having to do one particular thing.

"So, I've been given a little bit of free rein to try a bunch of different things and have them all fail at once. So, this has been a fun one. Look, I'll do anything that those guys ask."

Those guys are the Coen brothers, the writer-directors behind a similarly diverse slate of films ranging from Blood Simple and Raising Arizona to Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

While not quite a muse, Clooney has starred in two of their past three films and he's taking every opportunity to learn from them for his own direction.

"Did I steal from them? Yes. Yeah, of course. It had a big effect," admits the director of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. "They have things that they do that other people don't do in general.

"Those guys, [Out Of Sight director] Steven [Soderbergh] and most of the people I've worked with lately have been really good at keeping sets moving and fun and don't do a lot of takes and they keep it alive, which I have found to have a lot of higher energy.

"So, I stole a lot of shots from them. I stole a shot from them, showed it to them and they told me where they stole the shot from," he laughs.

Clooney concedes he will direct again, probably on a film called Leather Faces, but the 42-year-old has recently been stretched for time while producing with his buddy Soderbergh, on the political drama for television, K Street.

Clooney even admits that one day he will give up acting for directing, because "eventually, I probably will have to".

But even Paul Newman is acting into his late 70s.

"Sure but name me another one," Clooney says. "Yeah, Robert Redford, OK, there are a few but Robert Duvall, fine, he is Robert Duvall. He did To Kill a Mockingbird, I did Batman & Robin, he did Network, I did Battle of the Network Stars – there is a difference.

"I am well aware of the idea that you could. The question is whether or not you can, whether or not you are able, and that's why you do the other things, that's why you produce and that's why you have a company so you can have some control over your career when people go 'I don't want to see you act any more'."

Clooney appears in total control, acting with a select band of well-regarded directors, producing and directing his own projects, spending summers at his new villa on Italy's Lake Como and living the life of a rousing bachelor, just as his Beverly Hills lawyer character does in Intolerable Cruelty.

Not that he modelled his character on anyone he knew, he laughs.

"Yeah, Ben and Jen! Isn't that intolerable cruelty?"

Not quite as intolerable as the pre-nuptial agreements which Zeta-Jones's character, Marylin Rexroth, imparts upon Miles Massey.

"I think that they're very important," Clooney says of pre-nuptial agreements. "I have a pre-nup and I'm not married. I have one with anyone that I go to dinner with."

But there are plenty of agreements Clooney probably wished he'd never signed. It's no secret he suffered an ignominious television career until he hit the jackpot as Dr Doug Ross in the drama powerhouse ER.

He's one of the few to make the transition successfully from being a major TV star to a major movie star. The cast certainly can't do it.

But does he have the perspective now to assess how he managed it?

"I hear that a lot but I think if you look at it, there are an awful lot of people who are in film that came out of television.

"I mean, really a lot. Bruce Willis did, Tom Hanks did, Meg Ryan, Michael [Douglas] did, that's right, and so, I think there's a lot more television out there.

"When I was doing really bad television, it was a really tough chasm, but I think that it goes in waves. There's also the pecking order. Theatre people look down on film people who look down on TV people, who look down on re-enactment actors," he laughs.

"You won an Oscar, didn't you? Great. I got nominated for a People's Choice once. I got a Saturn Award. And it goes on and on."

As for Clooney going on and on, he's next scheduled to shoot the sequel to the hit caper film Ocean's Eleven, titled (imaginatively enough) Ocean's Twelve.

He says it starts filming in March in Paris, Amsterdam and Rome.

"Yeah, it's a tough shoot, really awful to do it," he says sarcastically of the film that teams Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac and Andy Garcia under Soderbergh's direction.

"It's going to be fun. Everyone came back and started talking and we went: 'OK, we had a big hit'. So, immediately, it became these big negotiations and stuff. Then, we all sat in a room and said, 'Look, let's do it for 5 per cent less, and then, we can say we're there because we want to be there,' and so, we all said: 'OK, let's do it that way'.

"We had a good time doing the last one and we made good money in the back end and so if it works, it works and if it doesn't, we get to make a movie again together."

Intolerable Cruelty opens in cinemas on Thursday, October 23.

We all love to hate Catherine the Great

Scheming gold-digger Marilyn Rexroth in Intolerable Cruelty is just the latest in a series of superbitch roles for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has made a career out of being unlikeable.

Earlier this year, life seemed to imitate art when the Welsh woman, once the sweetheart of the British press thanks to her role in the beloved TV series The Darling Buds of May, took on the press in a lawsuit against Hello! magazine.

Her appearance in court – to sue for photographs run in the magazine without her permission including one which showed her eating cake – made her one of Britain's most talked-about women.

She didn't do herself many favours in the witness box, claiming the $1.4 million she was asking for was not a lot of money to her and husband Michael Douglas. "It is a lot of money, maybe, to a lot of people in this room but it is not that much to us," she said, causing an uproar and leading to a plethora of stories in the press about her prima donna behaviour, including allegedly making her family get in contact with her via a personal assistant.

But it's been on-screen that she's been truly villainous. Here's a connoisseur's guide:

Chicago (2002): Cabaret star Velma Kelly wasn't just a murderer; she was bitterly jealous of other murderers. Of arch-rival-turned fellow-killer Roxie Hart, she says: "First she steals my publicity. Then she steals my lawyer, my trial date. And now she steals my goddamn garter!"

America's Sweethearts (2001): As the chilly and manipulative Gwen, a movie star in love with fame but out of love with the man who has brought her stardom (her megastar husband, played by John Cusack), Zeta-Jones embodied egomania. "Everyone hates me, everyone wants a piece of me," she cries. "My therapist is out of the country, I wasn't nominated for a Golden Globe this year! Leave me alone!"

Traffic (2000): When clueless trophy wife Helena learns that hubby has been nabbed as a drug kingpin, she will stop at nothing to save him and their country-club lifestyle. "Now get out of the car and shoot him in the head!" is a typical quote.

High Fidelity (2000): Self-absorbed ex-girlfriend of music-absorbed Rob (John Cusack).

The Phantom (1996): Sala, the dragon-lady sidekick to evil industrialist Xander.

Catherine the Great (1995): Zeta-Jones plays the title role of the suppressive and adulterous Russian empress. "I'm about to seize the throne of Russia – whatever shall I wear?"

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