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Clooney has fully ascended Hollywood’s throne

George Clooney (Jeff Kravitz / Getty Images) George Clooney instructs a star-studded group of phone operators at the Hope for Haiti Now telethon.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / February 21, 2010

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A little after 10 p.m. EST on Jan. 23, something remarkable occurred in Los Angeles. Anyone watching the presentation of this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards on TNT got to see it. What people had intuitively felt for some time now but not quite registered finally became unmistakable: George Clooney is the King of Hollywood.

The once and former monarch, Jack Nicholson, some time ago assumed senior status (starring in “The Bucket List’’ will do that for even the most exalted sovereign). Now it’s Clooney. The man Time magazine dubbed “The Last Movie Star’’ two years ago is today Hollywood’s first citizen. Not just up in the air, he’s now also on a throne.

The night before, the Hope for Haiti Now telethon organized by Clooney had run worldwide. It was a remarkable achievement, bringing together 140 stars and raising $61 million.

But here it was just Clooney, appearing onstage at the Shrine Auditorium to announce the winner for outstanding performance by a film cast. That’s the biggest award SAG has to offer, its equivalent of the best picture Oscar. Clooney’s presenting it was a mark of the status he has attained. Another was the warmth of the reception he got. It combined affection, admiration, and maybe even a little awe. That hadn’t been the case with the previous presenter, Warren Beatty, giving the best film actress award.

Mostly, though, what was so movie-majestic was Clooney simply being himself: how he could manage to be at once assured, serious, and, yes, mischievous. He brought the house down with an aside about Betty White, the recipient of a SAG lifetime achievement award earlier in the evening. Clooney, noting he’d once guested on “Golden Girls,’’ thanked White for “discretion,’’ implying she’d had her way with him. It was all the funnier for the joke’s being much more at his expense than hers.

This was the man capable of directing both “Good Night, and Good Luck’’ and “Leatherheads,’’ who’d become a dead ringer for Paul Krugman in “Syriana’’ after breaking countless hearts as Doug Ross on “E.R.,’’ humanitarian and prankster both. “That’s one of the advantages of being an adult,’’ Clooney’s character tells his daughter in “One Fine Day.’’ “You get to act like a kid any time you feel like it.’’ It’s also an advantage of being king - except that a good monarch knows how, and when, to act like an adult, too.

There at the SAG Awards was a ruler not just loved by his subjects but also worthy of their love, as well. And that’s the point. James Cameron proclaimed himself King of the World. But George Clooney is King of Hollywood by acclamation.

Jeff Bridges, for “Crazy Heart,’’ is going to win the best actor Oscar next month, not Clooney. But that’s all right. Bridges is Hollywood nobility, too, albeit of a very relaxed, populist sort. And Clooney already has an Oscar, for that hedge of beard and additional poundage in “Syriana.’’ No, kings don’t need to receive honors. They bestow them.

Maybe the best way to understand Clooney’s kingliness is as the intersection of two great predecessors’ careers. Clooney has often been compared to Cary Grant, and understandably so: the dark good looks, the smoothness, the suavity, the ability to play classic romantic leads (rare in Grant’s day, extremely rare now), a not-unrelated ability to excel at comedy, even the willingness to go gray. They also share a certain aloofness, a sense of withholding something. (Think of that final scene in “Michael Clayton,’’ where Clooney sits in the back of the cab, his face a bulletproof, feeling-proof mask.)

An apter comparison, though, might be Paul Newman - who also went gray, had a pronounced frat-boy side, directed several times, loved fast machines (Newman drove race cars, Clooney rides a motorcycle), and was fervently liberal (a delegate for Eugene McCarthy to the 1968 Democratic convention, no less). Unlike Clooney, Newman scorned Hollywood, staying put in Connecticut, not even showing up when the Academy gave him an honorary Oscar, in 1986. Self-exile is not a royal option.

Clooney doesn’t get enough credit for his range. It’s impossible to imagine another star capable of starring as Batman and in three Coen brothers movies. Two other wildly different roles, both directed by Steven Soderbergh (John Ford to Clooney’s John Wayne?) give a further sense of the nature of his reign.

“The Good German’’ was an intriguing idea - trying to re-create the look and feel of a classic Hollywood movie of the ’40s - but it didn’t work. What did work was Clooney in the lead as Captain Jake Geismer. Mood, style, manner: He fit right in (as Tobey Maguire most certainly did not). Newman is unthinkable as a Studio Era star. Clooney could have done it, with ease. Like any good king, he represents continuity with the past rather than a break with it.

Clooney’s most popular role has been Danny Ocean - not his best, that’s for sure, but unquestionably his most popular. Danny looks back to the past - lest we forget, Sinatra played him in “Ocean’s Eleven’’ - even as he flourishes in a present that’s awash in winking irony and slick starpower.

What is Danny but a kind of (very casual) dress rehearsal for ruling Hollywood? Here he is, leading the likes of Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle (Julia Roberts, too), not by throwing his weight around but through sheer force of charm. Danny, you might say, is the uncrowned King of Vegas. It’s all cherries on his slot machine. Anyone who can so convincingly play that part - let alone three times - is a King of Hollywood waiting to happen.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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George Clooney

Actor, director, man about town. And now: Hollywood royalty.

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