Why'd George Clooney make 'Ides of March,' not run for president?
Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss was being conservative, arithmetically speaking, when he opened his review of George Clooney’s new political film “The Ides of March” by saying, “Half the liberals I know want George Clooney to be President of the United States.” After spending years watching the actor-director make issue-oriented movies such as “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” while spending countless hours trying to focus world attention on human-rights abuses in southern Sudan’s Darfur region, pretty much every liberal I know has fantasized about a Clooney presidential bid.
But instead of running for office, Clooney has directed “Ides,” about a liberal Democratic governor — played by Clooney — who’s caught in a tight battle for his party’s presidential nomination. The film is a liberal fantasy, and not just because there isn’t a malevolent Republican or tea party fanatic in sight. The candidate Clooney plays is the kind of dreamboat that progressives hoped Barack Obama would be — an unflinching supporter of abortion rights, environmental protection and the welfare state.
But this liberal champion isn’t who he first appears to be. In fact, the film offers a deeply cynical portrayal of politics in the modern age, full of ruthless campaign operatives and flawed, duplicitous candidates. If anything comes across loud and clear, it is the distaste Clooney has for today’s political practitioners.
As a Hollywood liberal with a thinly veiled contempt for shallow, poll-driven politics, Clooney is in good company. After all, this town has spawned great liberal hopes before, notably Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, who were seen as presidential timber themselves. But like Clooney, they chose to make movies about the dirty business of politics instead of running for office themselves, Redford with “The Candidate” and “All the President’s Men,” Beatty with “Shampoo” and “Bulworth.”
It brings to mind a striking difference between Hollywood liberals and Hollywood conservatives. Liberals disdain the political process, preferring to promote pet causes (global warming or Haitian relief) or make movies about the corruption of the system. But a long line of showbiz conservatives, from George Murphy and Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Fred Thompson, have jumped into the pool. A popular song-and-dance man in ’30s and ’40s movies, Murphy was elected a senator from California in 1964, serving one term before being defeated in 1970 by John Tunney, a handsome, tousled-haired liberal who bore an eerie resemblance to the fuzzy idealist Redford played in “The Candidate” just two years later.
Thompson had a nice career playing CIA chiefs, senators and presidents in the movies before he spent nine years as a real senator from Tennessee. Schwarzenegger, of course, left acting to become governor of California, just as Reagan had done in the 1960s, launching a political career; we all know how that turned out.
So why do showbiz Republicans take the plunge while Hollywood liberals shy away from the campaign trail? As luck would have it, I found someone with a few answers: Steven Ross, a film historian who has just published a fascinating book called “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.”
Ross disputes the conventional wisdom that Hollywood has always been a bastion of lefty activism. He notes that Louis B. Mayer, a staunch Republican who turned his studio into a virtual conservative think tank, pushed the GOP agenda in the 1920s and ’30s by bankrolling candidates and leaning on his talent to contribute to Republican campaigns.
Ross contends that for all the showbiz left’s involvement with specific issues, from civil rights to today’s fight over global warming, it has been the Hollywood right that has had a greater impact on American political life. As he puts it: “The Hollywood left has the political glitz, but the Hollywood right sought, won and exercised political power.”
Part of it is the makeup of the men involved. Reagan and Schwarzenegger both embraced the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Show me the showbiz liberals who have had that kind of fire in their bellies. When Ross interviewed Beatty for his book, the actor made it clear he didn’t want to take the abuse that came with campaigning.
“He was widely admired as a movie star, but he understood that as a politician he could easily be widely reviled,” Ross explained. “I think he understood his limitations. Beatty was famously indecisive. So if he couldn’t make a quick decision on a film set, imagine how hard that would be when it came to making a life-or-death political judgment.”
I think there’s another factor at work. The actors who became successful conservative political figures were men who, long before they ran for office, had a simple, well-defined image. Reagan almost exclusively played nice guys and good-hearted heroes (which is why it was such a shock to see him, in his last movie role, play a thuggish crime kingpin in “The Killers”). Schwarzenegger was always a crudely one-dimensional action hero, sometimes even when he was spoofing himself. Thompson didn’t have to even break stride when he ran for Senate, having already played a string of strong authority figures and government officials.
In contrast, Redford and Beatty — and now Clooney to a large degree — are often men of ambivalence on screen. Whether it was Beatty in “Bonnie and Clyde” or “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” Redford in “Three Days of the Condor” or “The Great Gatsby,” and Clooney in “Michael Clayton” and “Up in the Air,” the liberal actors often play complicated, conflicted, not altogether knowable characters. It makes for good acting and good reviews.
But we don’t like so many shades of gray in our politicians, which is why Reagan was so successful: As a president, he had his story line — it was morning in America — and he stuck to it. It’s why GOP insiders lobbied so hard to get New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie into the presidential race. Compared with most of today’s public officials, Christie is blunt and refreshingly free of cant. When Hurricane Irene was barreling up the Eastern Seaboard and Christie warned his citizenry, “Get the hell off the beach!” He sounded like Ralph Kramden in “The Honeymooners,” warning his wife, “Alice, you’re going to the moon!”
Or perhaps the distinction is even more elemental. Showbiz conservatives such as Reagan and Schwarzenegger were optimists, true believers, rightly or wrongly, in American exceptionalism.
Showbiz liberals are, by nature, pessimists, which is why one of the most telling lines in “Ides of March” has a hard-bitten reporter telling the idealistic young campaign operative not to be so enamored with his boss: “He’s a politician. He’ll let you down, sooner or later.” Clooney admits he’s equally cynical. “I'm not getting into politics. I have no interest in politics — because of the compromises you have to make,” he recently told my colleague John Horn.
For actors, pessimism is good for business — it’s the dark, troubled characters who often propel them onto Academy Award ballots. But for real elections, you need to be an optimist — and that’s not a role Clooney seems comfortable playing.
Photo: George Clooney at the New York premiere of his new film, "The Ides of March." Credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters