George Clooney has always been a man out of time. He is inherently Gen-X, a Nineties TV heartthrob who rose to fame in ER medical scrubs, and found film success in the era’s violent indies and glossy romcoms. He’s also indisputably vintage, with an elegant if intriguingly dangerous quality akin to that of the matinee idols of early Hollywood. He’s felt just as home in Depression-era black comedies as he has the deepest recesses of space; an actor believable when playing the mundane as well as the surreal and fantastical.
It means he occupies a unique spot in cinema. Clooney is rarely placed alongside the greats, despite possessing that rare ability to seduce the camera with a mere glance. He’s also unfairly earned a reputation for playing the same modes over and over – cool, debonair, content. That claim only works, though, if you ignore the times in which he’s been shockingly transformative.
As he turns 60, that mischievous glint in his eye just as striking as it was when he first started out, Clooney is largely absent from filmmaking. He hasn’t been seen in cinemas since 2016’s Money Monster, and few watched his TV adaptation of Catch-22 in 2019. But scroll through his work, taking in just how charismatic he is, and his absence is suddenly felt.
To celebrate his birthday, we’ve ranked his 10 greatest performances. And before anyone asks: no, Batman & Robin isn’t here.
10. One Fine Day (1996)
One Fine Day was one of two 1996 films that earmarked Clooney as a potential movie star. The other, From Dusk Till Dawn, is a ton of fun, yet it’s so busy in its blood-soaked pandemonium that Clooney himself doesn’t particularly stand out. He’s better in One Fine Day, a film that allows him to be light, screwball and honeyed. Sure, it marks Clooney at his most conventional, but what an introduction all the same.
9. Gravity (2013)
It’s debatable whether Clooney’s actual performance in Gravity has had as big a legacy as the infamous 2014 Golden Globes joke about him in it (“Gravity is the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age”). Nevertheless, Clooney makes an effortlessly striking cameo here. This is still very much Sandra Bullock’s showcase, but Clooney is winning – calm, workmanlike and charming, even when facing imminent death.
8. Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Clooney has long been putty in the hands of adventurous filmmakers. In his most recent collaboration with the Coen brothers, he essentially embodies a Hanna Barbera cartoon – all loud volume, expressive eyebrows and brilliant vapidity. In a cast of what feels like thousands, he still manages to make an impression.
7. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
A deliberate throwback to the kind of films Clooney would have starred in if he were born 40 years earlier, Ocean’s Eleven trades on Clooney’s smart-alec affability. He’s a conniving, ruthless and altogether magnificent bastard here, but still somehow beguiling. It’s infuriating.
6. The Descendants (2011)
Considering his movie-star magnetism, Clooney is also very good at playing ordinary. Therein lies the appeal of his work in The Descendants, which allows him to be clumsy and downbeat as a man who discovers his comatose, dying wife has been having an affair. Most impressive is how well Clooney plays off others here – he’s a master when it comes to listening and reacting, and allowing others to shine, too.
5. Michael Clayton (2007)
Even when he’s spiralling, Clooney often maintains a noticeable level of control in his performances. It’s partly why Michael Clayton is so effective – here he appears perilously close to the edge, fraying and tense in a way that he normally isn’t. It’s a great “movie star” performance, carefully assured as usual, yet chaotic when it needs to be.
4. Up in the Air (2009)
Otherwise what could have been called George Clooney: The Movie. Deliberate or not, there’s a quality to Clooney’s work in Up in the Air that calls to mind much of his tabloid reputation at the time: single, affable, slightly unknowable. The pleasure of the performance comes from watching him thaw, fall in love with a spellbinding Vera Farmiga and embrace his humanity. It’s a lovely, understated bit of acting.
3. Solaris (2002)
Unlike, say, Jennifer Aniston, Clooney was never hounded to ludicrous degrees about his sad singledom in the years before he met his wife, the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. Like Aniston, though, he has always possessed a fascinating melancholy, which has only been exploited on occasion by his smartest of directors. Solaris, from Steven Soderbergh, is a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 classic – though not a redundant one. It’s mainly down to Clooney, who fills the screen with such a gaping, earnest and weighty loneliness that he somehow makes space seem chillier than normal.
2. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
This was the role that catapulted Clooney from a very, very good-looking TV actor who flopped as Batman into a big-screen icon. Playing the eloquent leader of a trio of yokel convicts in the Deep South, Clooney is mannered, ludicrous and dashingly handsome. It’s part self-parody, part early demonstration of his range, and every bit joyous to behold.
1. Out of Sight (1998)
There’s a reason it took a few years for Clooney to become a movie star – he needed to find a filmmaker who matched his tempo. In his first of a number of collaborations with Soderbergh, Clooney is irresistibly, enviably smooth. As a prolific thief, Clooney plays every scene here like a seduction, whether he’s robbing a bank or wooing Jennifer Lopez. A role play scene at a candlelit bar, snow gently falling against the window, remains unmatched in its cinematic sex appeal. “You really wear that suit,” Lopez tells him, through a barely suppressed grin. It’s a scripted line, but it may as well have been said at random on the fly. After all, we were thinking it, too.