George Clooney wasn't supposed to say yes. A reporter interviews a movie star at a restaurant or a hotel lobby or an office, with his publicist lurking in the corner, ready to cut off any vaguely interesting questions. But to come over to my house for dinner? That's a trap no sucker has ever shoved a famous foot into. Partly because there are so many unknowns--you're stuck alone chatting up the family while the reporter cooks, you accidentally let slip a cruel joke about a wedding photo, you somehow use the bathroom wrong--and partly because who the hell wants to spend Saturday night stuck at some dork's house eating undercooked lamb? Would Gwyneth Paltrow come over? Johnny Depp? But George Clooney said yes, of course, why not, sounds fun.
Clooney was the only star who could have said yes, because no other star wears his celebrity so easily. Nominated for another Oscar for Michael Clayton, Clooney has managed to become this era's leading man without ever conveying the sense that he takes the role seriously. "He's a throwback to what movie stars used to be," says Grant Heslov, who has been friends with Clooney since they met in an acting class in 1983 and is now his partner at their new film and TV production company, Smoke House. "You see him and you think, Wouldn't that be a great life? He seems like a man's man. He seems like you could meet him at a bar and have a chat with him and it would be easy. And all of that is true." Sid Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, says no one works an Oscars event or the red carpet like him. "Clooney is a kind of exception to the rule of celebrity aloofness. Gregory Peck was that way. Totally open. Unabashed. You've got to be not afraid," he says. No other stars are as unfreaked out by their own celebrity, since, like most politicians, they want it either too much or too little. And it's that ability to be constantly not afraid that makes women love him. "As they say in England, he is up for it," says Michael Clayton co-star Tilda Swinton. "That means up for pretty much any fun you can think of. He has a way of daring you--which, for those of us who cannot resist a bit of a laugh, can be irresistible."
Still, this was going to be uncomfortable, this reversal of the natural guest-host order. Three years ago, Clooney invited me to his huge Los Angeles house to interview him, and he was exactly the host you'd expect: relaxed, honest, easy. Four years ago, when I left a message with his publicist to set up a time to talk to him, he simply called my voice mail and left his home number. In the summer, at his six-house compound in Lake Como, Italy, he throws nightly Algonquin-style dinners featuring such guests as Al Gore, Walter Cronkite and Quincy Jones. "He's an excellent host," says Tony Gilroy, director of Michael Clayton. "He's really smart about figuring out what people need and want. Are they hot? Happy? Cold? Thirsty? He has that ability to bend himself to the space he's in and instantly adjust to the group he's with." So I wondered, Can George Clooney possibly be a guest? Or is that just against the natural order of things? And what would I even cook? All his assistant would say was, "He'll eat whatever is cooking."
It's 6:45 on Saturday night when the doorbell rings, a little late. Clooney hit traffic, his assistant called to say, on his way back from visiting his girlfriend in Las Vegas. He's wearing faded jeans, black laced boots and a zip-up sweater, and he looks less like a movie star than a normal, un-Botoxed 46-year-old unmarried guy coming over for dinner, but he also looks like he's excited to be here because wherever he is, George Clooney's also there. He hasn't brought any wine, and I worry that this guesting thing is just not going to work out. I offer him a glass of red, and he suggests that we sit on the couch, and soon we're talking about real estate, and it's fine, and next thing I know, he's getting a tour of the house. A tour of the house? The man owns a mansion in L.A. and a 15-bedroom villa in Italy! Why don't I just show the Oscar-winning actor the tape of me in my high school production of Bye Bye Birdie? But he's nailing this guest role: "I love old houses like this." "You kept the original stuff." "It's nice to have a guest room." "I love the arches on the shower." I'm convinced that this is just a normal Clooney Saturday, that he spends his nights Charles Kuralting around L.A., knocking on doors, eating whatever's cooking and chatting about politics. Within 15 minutes he made me feel comfortable in my own house. Which isn't so easy when a giant celebrity is over for dinner.
It's becoming clear to me already that somehow this guy, even in my house, really is a movie star. Maybe the only one we have now. There are plenty of huge box-office draws (Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Johnny Depp) and even more famous celebrities (Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, Lindsay Lohan), but no one besides Clooney is so gracefully both. After an actor achieves media saturation, there's actually an inverse relation between fame and box-office receipts: people aren't going to pay for what they can get for free. "There are so many media outlets and this enormous suck on information about you, it's hard to maintain any kind of aura of specialness and mystery about the work itself, which is trying to be other people," says director Tony Gilroy. "It was a lot easier to be Bill Holden than it is to be George Clooney." Or as Clooney says, "Clark Gable wouldn't have been Clark Gable if there was Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight."
His strategy for being a movie star is pretty simple, if counterintuitive: he makes fun of himself. It's the by-product of every successful person's strategy, which is to figure out what the other person is thinking. "Before they could kill me on Batman & Robin, I said, 'It's a bad film, and I'm the worst thing in it.' You try to defend an indefensible position, you'll look like a schmuck. The guys I dig don't do that. Look at Winston Churchill. He said, 'These are our shortcomings. Now let's get past it,'" Clooney says. He thinks that's all Cruise needs to do. "I talked to him the other day, and he's a good egg. There's nothing self-serving about what he's saying. He has to turn it into a way to make fun of himself."