Movie stars, as we know them, are not so much dead in 2013 as much as they’re no longer making movies. Celebrity has stretched far beyond film or television; people become famous now without having accomplished much of anything, just for being at the right place at the right time, or tweeting out the right scandalous photo to set afire the comments sections at TMZ or Perez Hilton. Though movies cost more than they used to—both to make and to partake—they are less frequently headlined by a man or woman whose very presence ensures bankability. A handful of movie stars remain, yet even someone like Robert Downey, Jr. can only guarantee a movie will make back its profit and then some when he’s donned his Iron Man suit.
The closest Western society has to movie stars these days don’t make movies that gross hundreds of millions of dollars domestically and/or worldwide. At the very least, they haven’t since they all came together for a trilogy that is, in whole, one of the most creatively successful and consistent in modern history. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Julia Roberts are just a fraction of the expansive ensemble cast that appeared in the Ocean’s trilogy in the 2000s, and rank as among the most famous, recognizable actors of their generation. They were then and remain now pure movie stars, alongside icons like Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Ginger Rogers, and others from the 1930s and 1940s. For a few brief, shining hours, these stars collided to feature in what is stealthily a three-film treatise on the power, necessity, and demand of movie stars masquerading (quite nicely) as a rollicking trio of heist pictures.
The Ocean’s trilogy—Ocean’s Eleven, the 2001 remake of the 1960 Rat Pack film; Ocean’s Twelve, from 2004; and Ocean’s Thirteen, from 2007—is a fascinating beast even aside from its hidden message about stardom. Director Steven Soderbergh was at the populist zenith of his feature career, which he’s said to be leaving behind after this year’s excellent Side Effects and the HBO film Behind the Candelabra, when he signed on to direct Ocean’s Eleven. In 2000, Soderbergh was nominated twice for Best Director at the Oscars; he won for his stellar work in Traffic. Two years earlier, he’d managed to shake himself loose of the seeming decline represented in the work he’d done since his debut film sex, lies, and videotape—not to discount the quality of those films, merely their level of quantitative and critical success—by helming a smart, witty, sexy adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Out of Sight, starring Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Now, Soderbergh was jumping on board a remake of an old heist movie, which might have been seen by some as a step toward selling out.
What Soderbergh proves constantly throughout the Ocean’s trilogy is that the “One for the studios, one for me” designation people have assigned to his output over the last 15 years is only, at best, moderately accurate. On one hand, it’s easy to look at the names of films Soderbergh directed between each Ocean’s movie—Solaris, Bubble, and The Good German, for example—and presume that said designation works aptly. Combine the domestic grosses of those in-between films and you’d still have a long way to go to reach how much money even Ocean’s Thirteen, the lowest-grossing of the trilogy, made in the United States. Soderbergh’s success in the trilogy is as much creative as it is financial, however (and not something that can be attributed solely to the helmer; like Danny Ocean, he had a lot of help in pulling off each of these feature-length jobs). In fact, what Steven Soderbergh did with the Ocean’s trilogy was make movies primarily “for him” that just happened to be for the studios, too.
After making the aforementioned popular and well-liked films, culminating with Ocean’s Eleven, it wouldn’t be wrong to presume that Steven Soderbergh would be widely sought-after by studios to make other viable mainstream projects, possibly more tentpole franchises. But the Ocean’s trilogy is it for Soderbergh; he worked with studios again, as recently as last summer with the shrewd, insightful low-budget drama Magic Mike from Warner Bros., but never on something so high-profile and big-budget. He didn’t make the Ocean’s trilogy because he was forced into it; Soderbergh, like the stars surrounding him, made these movies because he wanted to. So rarely these days do we get mainstream films that come from people who are clearly having the time of their life, as opposed to films which spring up due to contractual obligations.
But desire does not a good movie make. No, the Ocean’s trilogy doesn’t work expressly because George Clooney and friends were having fun—it got so apparently laid-back in Ocean’s Twelve that some criticized the actors precisely for this fact, as if there’s a limit any actor must have to enjoying himself or herself on screen. No, the trilogy satisfies so much because buried not too deep within the breezy thievery being plotted and enacted is a commentary about stardom. As it dove deeper and deeper into the vast ocean of self-awareness that has become commonplace in entertainment over the last decade, the Ocean’s trilogy became a louder, more incisive discussion on the sway movie stars hold over us. This argument weaves its way throughout the series, paying off in surprising ways, all while delivering surface-level excitement and breathless, inventive set pieces that merely require the audience to pay attention so they can be on the same page as the matinee idols burning up the screen. Ocean’s Eleven came out at the right time, because it was able to capitalize on a group of movie stars at the height of their work-related popularity as opposed to their tabloid-based fame. Clooney, Pitt, Damon, and Roberts have had far different careers before, during, and after the Ocean’s trilogy, but their collective star wattage was so bright, it was nearly exploding in 2001; two of them were already established presences, to the point of being icons. One was about to prove himself. And one had just recently begun to show he was more than a pretty face who’d made the jump from TV to film too soon.
And it all started with a desperate attempt to rob a bank unarmed.
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“It’ll be nice working with proper villains again.”
George Clooney became a star the minute he threw his tie off in a fit of rage. The gesture is accompanied by a freeze-frame in the opening minutes of Out of Sight, which not only minted Clooney as a star in the making but Soderbergh as a director who was once again worth paying attention to on a grand scale. Clooney’s movie career before Out of Sight was quickly becoming a case of déjà vu, a la the failed movie career of David Caruso. Both men rose in popularity thanks to their electrifying work on a popular mid-90s network drama, one as a doctor, the other as a cop. Both left behind these lucrative jobs to grab some of the glamour and allure of the silver screen. With projects like Kiss of Death and Jade, Caruso’s flame fizzled out almost as soon as it appeared. And with films like Batman and Robin, One Fine Day, and The Peacemaker, Clooney, despite working with bigger actors, was nearly destined to the same fate.
But along came Out of Sight, the charming and intelligent story of a raffish convict who hooks up with a deputy U.S. Marshal while pulling a job in Detroit. Clooney’s chemistry with Lopez was off the charts, and the way Soderbergh captured their spark, framing them so closely even in scenes when their characters weren’t trapped in a trunk, amplified the sex appeal. It was, though, Clooney’s mild vulnerability in that opening scene, walking straight into a bank without a gun and managing to rob it by sheer will and charisma, that was as contributory to his future stardom. Here was a modern Cary Grant as much as Tom Hanks is the modern Jimmy Stewart: elegant, stylish, shrewd, and masterful in or out of a suit. From throwing the tie furiously off his neck, to calmly asking the frightened bank teller if it was her first time being robbed, Clooney was suave instantly; it was not forced, it was not acting. It appeared to come to him as naturally as breathing.
This innate confidence manifests itself, fittingly, throughout Ocean’s Eleven, though the opening scene may have made some folks wonder if the remake of a Rat Pack heist movie was as much a crossover into the Elmore Leonard universe as Out of Sight itself was in referencing Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. The opening shot of Ocean’s Eleven waits just a second more than we might expect to introduce us once again to Clooney, sitting down for a parole hearing and looking an awful lot like Jack Foley. The stubble, the graying beard, the slicked-back hair in need of a trim, and the low, rumbling baritone feel less like how Danny Ocean should look and more like Jack Foley, if he’d managed to pull a few jobs in the New Jersey area, instead of California and Michigan.
But no, this is Danny Ocean—referred to a couple of times, including on a personal business card, as “Daniel Ocean,” but that branding sounds just a bit too grown-up for this guy—walking out of the North Jersey Prison, a free man after 4 years of hard time. He exits the prison at the open as he will at the close, in a tuxedo, with the shirt unbuttoned on top and the tie undone, tousled in just the right way to not make him look too sloppy. The clothes Danny wears throughout Ocean’s Eleven, much like all of the affectations each of the cast members has—Brad Pitt always eating something whenever he’s on screen, Elliott Gould’s oversized spectacles, Don Cheadle’s outsized Cockney accent, and more—are all part of the plan, part of the costumes they wear. (One of the Blu-ray special features includes costume designer Jeffrey Kurland reiterating this idea: he wasn’t designing clothes for these men to wear, he was designing costumes in every sense of the word.) These are not movie stars playing characters pulling off a heist. These are movie stars being movie stars, almost as if they’re doing so to pass a pop-culture test, to make sure we still believe in their combined power.
Once an actor or actress reaches a certain level of fame, it’s almost impossible for them to disappear into a future role. The reported titters that accompanied trailers for Clooney’s newest film, the massively successful Gravity, may be partly attributed to the fact that some audience members found it hard to buy George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts. They’re George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, not spacemen. Perhaps this is why Clooney has been fond of wearing disguises of all kinds when he can: his low-key supporting role in Good Night, and Good Luck., or the mustachioed government agent in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, or even the hyper-obsessed leading men he’s played in his collaborations with the Coen brothers. There are no hidden depths, though, to Danny Ocean, even when he’s pretending to be someone else or lying through his teeth. The same goes for the rest of the cast: these stars can’t hide behind their real names or faces. Danny’s journey to robbing three Las Vegas casinos on the same night begins when he visits Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), an old friend who works as a blackjack dealer in Atlantic City. Of course, because Danny and Frank are old friends, it’s no surprise that Frank’s had to use a fake name, one he can barely utter to Danny without cracking a smile.
The dichotomy between real movie stars and those posers who want to be accepted is as potent and present in Ocean’s Eleven as the often pointless and failed attempts to hold up a mask to these people’s true selves. One of the great comic touches in the film, to be paid off in full in Ocean’s Twelve, is that Pitt, as Danny’s right-hand man Rusty Ryan, is first seen subtly hustling (and coddling) a group of young stars whose careers are soaring primarily due to teen-oriented shows on Fox and the WB: Joshua Jackson, Holly Marie Combs, Shane West, Barry Watson, and, as the ringleader, Topher Grace. (Grace already had a built-in connection to Soderbergh, having appeared in Traffic.) Grace and his pals are being taught poker by Rusty—Danny joins the game unexpectedly a few minutes into the sequence—and are hopelessly oblivious to fine comic effect. (Grace’s triumphant roar that he has “all reds” is particularly clever.) Danny and Rusty do not directly treat these younger celebrities with disdain, but that’s only because the audience gets to in their stead. Watching the end of the scene—a deliciously self-aware gag in which Pitt and Clooney walk by adoring female fans and paparazzi without being noticed, all while Grace is swarmed—speaks to the idea that to be a movie star is to be confident. You can fake confidence for a while, but eventually, as is shown in Twelve, you get revealed as a hustler.
Ocean, Ryan, and the rest of their crew are confidence men more than they are hustlers, and though both are cut from the same cloth, there are subtle differences. In that poker scene, Rusty tries to explain to Grace the point of not revealing too much, too quickly, and the That 70s Show star all but waves his hand in bored dismissal. It’s not so much that Hollywood is his playground—Danny calls Las Vegas “America’s playground” at one point, and clearly believes it—so much as he lacks awareness and maturity to muck around in such an environment. Respect becomes a more overarching theme of the Ocean’s trilogy—Danny tut-tutting the crafty Night Fox in Twelve for breaking the code, or being shocked that Willy Bank, in Thirteen, ignores the ramifications of shaking Sinatra’s hand—but is just bubbling below the surface of Eleven. Terry Benedict, the closest the series gets to a Big Bad, is almost as smart as Danny and his crew, but his rigidity and shark-like focus on taking down anyone who dares wrong him are as much strengths as they are weaknesses.
“You look bored,” Danny tells Rusty matter-of-factly once they leave behind the would-be heartthrobs, and that boredom is as much a theme as respect is, throughout the trilogy. Once actors reach the height of the star, the real world just cannot suffice. And in some respects, the entire heist can be read as a veiled attempt from Soderbergh and company to revive the old-fashioned movie star, if only for a couple more hours. It’s as if they were predicting the end of the movie star and the influx of the concept-driven blockbuster even before the latter fully proliferated the marketplace. To be a movie star in the 21st century is to be among the last of a dying breed, and it’s appropriate that these stars should be so hyper-self-aware in each of the three Ocean’s films, to be so precisely aware of that fact. There was a time when being like Cary Grant meant you were made for life. Now, being like Cary Grant is to be a social outcast. What Ocean’s Eleven tries and succeeds at doing is arguing in favor of the dashing leading man, the rakish heroes who dress well, walk tall without swaggering, and ooze smoothness. (Granted, not all of the crew are so confident; tech guy Livingston Dell’s M.O. is that he’s always a sweaty mess even if he’s got a machine-like intelligence.)
The movie star is alive and well in Ocean’s Eleven, even as the stars seem to know that they can only reassert and reclaim their dominance for two hours, after which the audience may forget that George Clooney and Brad Pitt exist as more than gossip-rag fodder. That the film pulls this trick off—and does so from the very beginning; as soon as Clooney ascends the elevator at an Atlantic City casino, dressed sharply and walking smoothly through the casino floor, it’s a statement of purpose as much as it is a simple image of a con man kicking off a new job—is thanks in no small part to Soderbergh. For a director defined mostly by his experimental nature, Soderbergh clearly had a great love for the culture of the 1960s and 1970s, evidenced here all the way down to the end credits. (The clever way in which Julia Roberts is listed among the cast—“And Introducing Julia Roberts as Tess”—is given a phenomenal payoff in Twelve.) The Ocean’s trilogy is a sometimes hazy, dreamy throwback to the filmmaking style, American and European, in 60s- and 70s-era genre pieces, from the jazzy David Holmes soundtracks to casting staples of those decades like Elliott Gould and Albert Finney to the deliberately showy camera techniques. If the art of the con, practiced in so many ways throughout the trilogy, is on display as a twisted form of magic through the actions of Danny and his crew, then Soderbergh, too, should be considered a filmmaker-as -magician, unveiling a kind of alchemical trick to make us once again believe in the power of the star.
Another way in which the evolving nature of stardom is on display in Ocean’s Eleven—and again, this really is a theme throughout the trilogy worth exploring—is present in Matt Damon’s work. Damon plays Linus Caldwell, a hotshot pickpocket in Chicago who Danny recruits partly based on his skill and partly because he’s something of a legacy con artist. One of the film’s arcs is specific to whether or not Linus can cut it in a big-name crew, whether he can be trusted with such a powerful responsibility or if he’ll drown in his own, unearned brashness. In 2001, Matt Damon was not yet at a point in his career where he could confidently be called a movie star. He’d won an Oscar with his friend and writing partner Ben Affleck, but in a way, their bouncy, excited, youthful acceptance speech only set them back career-wise. Now that they’d reached such a materialistic peak, they had to prove they were worth all the adulation. Affleck has, over the last few years, proved as such behind the camera even more than in his performances. Damon proved it earlier, balancing his straight-ahead action-hero work in the Bourne franchise with more laid-back, winking material in the Ocean’s trilogy. In a way, he had to prove that he could cut it as a star by having fun, and mocking his self-image, as opposed to maintaining and forcing it on the American public. Playful self-deprecation is the most constant source of humor in the Ocean’s trilogy, and allows these stars to at least let the audience in on the joke. They may not be like us, but they at least realize how we react to movie stars, those on the rise like Damon, or those who’ve reached a point where they can’t lose their status, like Clooney, Pitt, or Roberts.
We treat movie stars almost as if they were modern deities, and a good deal of Ocean’s Eleven posits its characters as godlike figures in the most direct ways. Some of Danny’s crew (including Danny) huddle around a series of small televisions showing security camera footage to make sure that the setup for the heist goes as planned; Benedict, in both his opening and closing scenes, stands over the casino floor at the Bellagio, his head floating above the players like a sentient balloon, always watching and rarely choosing to interact. When he mingles, he does so with the high rollers, and only to maintain appearances, not because of genuine interest. Even Ocean and his crew rarely come into contact with the real world or its denizens, except to manipulate them to their own ends: the stripper who steals a casino employee’s ID badge, or the old cowboy/car salesman who Frank literally strong-arms into offering him a lowered deal on a pair of vans. Non-stars are rarely given a voice in the Ocean’s trilogy, and rarely exist to be anything other than mocked. (The most high-profile example is David Paymer’s character in Ocean’s Thirteen, about whom more later.) The audience is never made to feel as if they’re being condescended to or mocked; if anything, in a sly way, Soderbergh and company make us feel like we’re a secret, silent part of Ocean’s crew. By watching the heist unfold, we’ve been accepted into the crew, at least as a friendly observer.
This, in spite of the fact that the characters so frequently speak to each other in coded terminology. We might be able to pick up on some of the deeper meanings embedded in mini-cons dubbed a “Boesky” or a “Jim Brown,” but not at first blush. The code words and phrases are a running gag in each film, as if these characters have their own language that hangers-on can only hope to one day master. (This extends to a tongue-in-cheek sequence in Twelve where Linus is left baffled at the buried-in-meaning coded conversation Rusty and Danny have with a foreign contact played by Robbie Coltrane.) The only way these stars can survive on their own or together is to live by a code, and to speak in it, as well. The heists Ocean and his crew pull aren’t just done out of revenge or a dedicated ability to prove that the impossible can be achieved, but because it’s the only way they can have fun. The thrill of the steal, even if it’s “slightly more complicated” than a smash-and-grab, is what makes these diverse men tick.
Buried meanings aside, Ocean’s Eleven, like the rest of the trilogy, is immense fun, as much now as it was in 2001. We can enjoy the movie not just because the heist is successful—of course it is, even if the ambiguous final shot leaves us wondering about our characters’ fates, though not as extremely as the climax of something like The Italian Job—but because the characters are all exceptionally intelligent. The entire crew is always a step ahead of Benedict and his goons (the brutish identical twins who barely speak, another minor example of how those in the world surrounding these stars are meant to be used and disposed of, almost thoughtlessly), as well as the audience. Of course, some of Ocean’s gang are in front of others: Rusty doesn’t realize that Danny’s ex-wife is the impetus for the heist at first; Linus figures out too late that he’s not really in charge of the mission to go into the Bellagio vaults, that he’s just gone by himself part of the way to prove himself to Danny; Saul doesn’t even know that Tess and Terry are in a relationship—his “She’s too tall for him” a hilarious throwaway line that happens offscreen. We, however, do not feel cheated as Benedict does, even if we keep convincing ourselves that we know how each twist will unfurl and reveal itself. Maybe it’s advantageous that Ocean’s Eleven opened a few years before the onslaught of “20 Things That Don’t Make Sense About Movie X” articles and videos online, before the assumption that we must outsmart movies before we allow ourselves to be entertained by them.
Above all else, Ocean’s Eleven is, precisely because it exists as a throwback to when being a movie star did not mean needing to open something at the box office with at least $50 million on opening weekend, an extremely cool film. Soderbergh, in the Blu-ray commentary, points out what turned out to be a fascinating contradiction: that he did not want to draw any direct, distinctive parallels between the original Ocean’s 11, starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the rest of the Rat Pack; and his remake. One could make casual connections—even though there are two African American actors in the crew, it’s hard not to see Cheadle as the Sammy Davis, Jr. stand-in, especially since he played Davis in an HBO TV-movie about the Rat Pack—but Soderbergh didn’t want overt references to what inspired his film. He said, accurately, that the Rat Pack were the epitome of cool, and to so aggressively force his cast follow in their footsteps was a fool’s errand. Though he’s not wrong, by not trying to achieve a sense of coolness, the cast ended up being a fine corollary to Sinatra and friends.
The fun extends beyond the cast’s lighter-than-air work, as they all manage to not try terribly hard while hitting every mark in triumphant fashion. Soderbergh’s experimentation got a workout in each Ocean’s movie, the obvious high point here being the wordless scene where the crew (aside from Danny, who, as part of the plan, is going back to prison for breaking his parole) congregate at the Bellagio’s dancing fountains, then disperse into the real world once more, scored to Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” (There are a number of other wonderfully framed shots and scenes, such one in which Linus keeps watch on Danny, who’s staring longingly at Tess, both men among a crowd of onlookers facing the opposite direction, watching an old Vegas hotel get demolished.) That “Clair de Lune” sequence—Ocean’s Thirteen, interestingly, is willing to not only name-drop Sinatra and use him in the soundtrack, but makes a direct callback to this moment, too—is as purely transcendent a scene in Steven Soderbergh’s filmography as anything else he’s done, and speaks to the culmination of the film’s hidden goal, reviving the movie star for at least one more go-round. It is a perfect marriage of sound an image, an earned victory in all ways.
As the crew takes in the dancing fountains, Soderbergh’s camera panning across their relieved visages patiently, it’s hard not to see Clooney’s spirit in the combined fruits of their labor. Without Danny, the crew wouldn’t be able to relax for a moment, even if they don’t fully let their guards down. Rusty, in the middle of the group, glances to one side, then the other, all but imperceptibly nodding at his cohorts and vanishing into the crowd. One by one, the rest follow, until we’re left with the two old-timers, Reuben and Saul, and Linus. This is less a passing of the guard—Linus has proved himself more than ably by now—than it is a reaffirmation of the past weighing heavily on the present. Reuben smiles widely, puffs on his cigar, then backs off, leaving Linus to pat Saul on the back, indicating a job well done. And so we’re left with Saul, the last vestiges of a past that the rest of his crew is wise enough to respect. By 2001, stars like Cary Grant were left to shine on TCM to rightfully adoring fans, old and young. For a few shining, sparkling moments, Ocean’s Eleven brought back such old-fashioned idols, those “glimmering, glowing stars in the cinema firmament,” as Lina Lamont once crowed in Singin’ In The Rain. Ocean’s Eleven is a special film not just because it’s a rollicking caper, but because it’s a reminder that the old can, and has, become new again.
— Josh Spiegel