Few filmmakers manage to traverse the line between the art house and the multiplex as fluidly as Steven Soderbergh. Over the course of his career, he has ping-ponged between independent films and mainstream fare repeatedly, carrying some stylistic flourishes across his career, and playing with some similar questions in both strains. His experience makes him uniquely qualified to evaluate and analyze Hollywood, and many of his most successful films work both as independent narratives and as sly commentaries on mainstream cinema.
Perhaps nothing captures this commentary better than the director’s work with George Clooney. The two have paired six times (for Out of Sight, the three Ocean’s films, Solaris, and The Good German). Each of these films functions in some way as commentary on Hollywood and, more particularly, on the nature of celebrity.
George Clooney is many things as an actor, but perhaps most importantly, he is a full-on movie star. In an era when that breed is increasingly rare, Clooney is renowned for his charm, ease, and good looks as much as for his acting chops, and Soderbergh capitalized on this from their first outing together. In Out of Sight, the film that arguably made Clooney a movie star, he plays con man Jack Foley, a smooth operator who seduces FBI agent Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) even as he plans to pull off a heist. Clooney’s ascent to film stardom occurred here in part because the film turns on him being a movie star in the classical sense, with all the charisma that entails. Without his good looks and effortless charm, the plot, which requires fastidious and law-abiding Karen Sisco to fall for him, is a complete nonstarter. Lopez falls for Clooney for exactly the same reasons we as an audience do—he’s charming, gorgeous, and seems to be having a lot of fun. Moreover, he exudes fun, as if he is inviting us to enjoy ourselves as much as he does.
Soderbergh and Clooney’s examination of celebrity reached its apex in the Ocean’s trilogy, where Clooney again played a daring and debonair conman who could get away with anything in part because we wanted him to. Surrounding Clooney with other movie stars (including Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Don Cheadle), Soderbergh turns the heist film into a meditation on the nature of celebrity, and on the culture that propagates the idea that movie stars can get away with anything so long as they are charming, beautiful, and funny. In Ocean’s Eleven, we see Pitt and Clooney’s characters hob-knobbing with celebrities, and in Ocean’s Twelve, the gimmick arguably reaches its apex when Julia Roberts’ character impersonates Julia Roberts as part of the heist. At base, the Ocean’s films are about the romance of celebrity and the allure of movie stars. They are arguments for the continued vitality of a movie star culture in an era when most movie stars (Pitt and Clooney included) often want to be taken more seriously as actors. The movies are successful not because of any particularly strong acting, but because deep down, we mostly want to watch these characters pal around, trade barbs, and pull one over on their antagonists (played by Andy Garcia, Vincent Cassel, and Al Pacino, all, incidentally, performers known more for their acting than for their status as movie stars). We root for them to lead care-free lives of luxury, if only we can occasionally get a peek behind the curtain. The Ocean’s movies were monumentally successful in large part because they offered that glimpse.
Solaris and The Good German tackle the nature of celebrity more obliquely, which may explain why both are considered flops. In Solaris (a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film that hews closer to the original novel by Stanislaw Lem), Clooney plays Dr. Chris Kelvin, who is called to a space station orbiting the titular planet to help explain some unusual phenomena. When he arrives there, he is confronted by his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), and must contend with his confusion and hers as they puzzle over her clear unreality. Rheya is obviously a replica of some sort, an artificial recreation of Kelvin’s wife, but she has feelings, and she drums up many of Kelvin’s. Solaris becomes an exploration of the artificial and the lies we tell ourselves, a film about choosing unreality and escapism over the mundane tragedies of real life. Seen through this lens, it is yet another Soderbergh-Clooney project about celebrity and the way we as viewers tend to idealize our movie stars to the point of delusion. We don’t want what’s real. Reality has warts and blemishes. Reality is flawed. What we want is the artificial, where everything can be what we’ve always hoped. That’s what we look for when we turn to movie stars.
The Good German is an open attempt to replicate the style and look of 1940’s noir, filmed in black and white, and using out of date aspect ratios (the 1.33:1 ratio that declined in the early ‘50’s on the DVD and the more modern but still rare 1.66:1 in its theatrical run). The film is never as focused on its story (a murder mystery that also serves as a chance to explore the idea of complicity by Germans in World War II who willfully chose to avoid exposing themselves to the horrors of the Holocaust) as it is on replicating films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, most explicitly The Third Man and Casablanca. Here, Clooney plays a Bogart stand-in, and once more, the film is most interesting if read as a commentary on the artificiality and romance of movie stars.
Both Soderbergh and Clooney have tackled many different questions over their careers, but together, they consistently aim to understand celebrity in all of its glory and danger. The pair seem to inherently understand the allure of movie stars, and their most successful collaborations are celebrations of those we elevate above the status of “actor” and to the level of pop culture Gods. Yet in their less seen and less successful work together, the two address the darker underbelly of celebrity, the way we use movie stars to focus on perfection, avoiding their humanity, and using them to escape from our own lives and problems. In the Out of Sight strain, the films are all about the reasons we can’t look away; The Good German and Solaris are about the sort of things we try to keep out of sight.
— Jordan Ferguson