There is a scene in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants after George Clooney’s Matt King waves goodbye to the last guests to leave the “party” he’s thrown to inform his close friends that his wife will never recover from her coma. Once they’re out of sight, he turns to walk back towards the house, but he’s completely shattered. His shoulders sag, his face is ashen, and every step looks like it could be his last. He crumbles to his knees, but it’s those last few tottering steps that took the wind out of me as a viewer. George Clooney is a movie star, by any definition — The Last Movie Star, some would argue — and here he is, playing a cuckold who can’t even control his own rambunctious daughters. Combine this performance with his legal fixer in Michael Clayton and his corporate grim reaper in Up in the Air, and you have a trio of devastatingly powerful roles that accede the vulnerability of age, guilt, and regret. Now 50 — just a year older than Tom Cruise — Clooney seems to be pulling a page from the Paul Newman playbook: Gorgeous leading man embracing the gray around his ears with roles like Frank Galvin in The Verdict, a stark portrayal of a flawed man that doubles-down on our preconceptions of a screen icon yet liberates the actor to expand his acting toolbox.
There are plenty of professional parallels between Newman and Clooney, not to mention their liberal political activism. Both were failures before they became successes. Newman had to endure the likes of The Silver Chalice before finally becoming a star at age 31 with Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). Clooney had been condemned to television supporting roles until, at 33, his Dr. Doug Ross proved that he was destined for something greater than just being a pretty face. Like Newman, Clooney used those good looks and popularity to make the films he found compelling (Three Kings, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Syriana), yet they were both the first to realize the moment they weren’t action heroes anymore. Neither needed to be convinced that they couldn’t — or shouldn’t — be shooting bad guys or chasing terrorists.
Newman made The Verdict when he was 56 years old. He’d done Slap Shot at age 50. (Interesting that Clooney did his Leatherheads at roughly the same age.) But he was a decade removed from his last great movie role, The Sting (1973). Watching Butch Cassidy and Luke Jackson play an ambulance-chasing alkie who punches a woman in the face was a mesmerizing reversal of cinematic expectation. The depth and contradictions of Frank Galvin suddenly made a potential sequel to The Hustler interesting, and The Color of Money subsequently earned Newman his only long-overdue Oscar.
Clooney’s Matt King echoes the direction he set as Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air. Recall the scene in that film where the mile-high playboy has his heart broken on the phone by the higher-flying Vera Farmiga. It’s not magic, but his depictions of vulnerable men only make us root for them more. These truly flawed characters, like Newman’s Galvin, need to redeem themselves because they’d forgotten and drifted away from what was most important: the law, family, whatever. We meet them in a dark place, and in the end, we have a moment of righteous justice, a catharsis for all of us. It’s unlikely that many actors of Newman and Clooney’s star wattage can successfully take us on this journey. Some are still fighting the inevitability of time, and others don’t have the necessary gifts to honestly bare themselves in such an unflattering light. Like Newman, Clooney seems to have an understanding and appreciation for how fans perceive him, yet both men never flinched from forcing us to reconsider that reputation. Paul Newman was always “Paul Newman” on the screen, whether he was Fast Eddie Felson or Nobody Fool‘s Sully Sullivan. He was no chameleon. Yet, the more complex characters that he tackled later in his career were enhanced by how we thought we knew the actor on the screen. And I feel that same phenomenon is fueling Clooney now as well, making his next 20 years — his Color of Money, his Nobody’s Fool — something to truly look forward to.