The Clooney conundrum: handsome hero of Hollywood

Liberal campaigner, ladies' man, and yet still one of the boys. As the actor leaves a trail of swooning women across London, John Walsh asks: how does he do it?
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First Bruni, now Clooney. Only a week after France's first lady packed her Christian Dior frocks and flew back to Paris, another sharply dressed foreign glamourpuss descended on London this week, sampled the local cuisine, posed for photographs in front of baying paparazzi, talked politics for hours with Gordon Brown and was snapped with Mrs Brown on the doorstep of No 10.

Gallery: George Clooney, a life in pictures

But this time it wasn't a head of state, a royal, a sheikh or a pop star (or a woman). It was George Clooney.

He is one of the most bankable film stars in the world (Oceans 13 netted him £7m) but his finest role is playing Mr Perfect. He does it well, if not quite to perfection. Ludicrously handsome at 46, with huge, liquid brown eyes, salt-and- pepper hair and pristine teeth, he's commonly accepted as the man most women, of any age, would most like to part from his designer trousers.

He has, it's said, charm to burn, deploying a form of self-deprecating, mildly saucy banter that leaves women prostrate with lust.

His status, somewhere between a screen god and a tribal chief, means he is often photographed surrounded by a harem. On Monday this week, at a Harper's Bazaar dinner at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in London, he was snapped in the company of Elle Macpherson, Thandie Newton, Jemima Khan, Natascha McElhone, Helena Bonham Carter and his old squeeze Mariella Frostrup.

The following night, at the premiere of his new, self-directed film, Leatherheads, in which he co-stars with another former squeeze, Renee Zellweger, he posed with the 10 women auditioning, on the reality TV show I'd Do Anything. If any of the auditionees were reluctant to be in the frame with George, it wasn't obvious. "He's so good looking, up close," enthused a woman who attended the Harper's dinner, "his head is so perfectly formed, his skin so perfectly buffed and polished, his clothes worn with such confidence. I tried to have a conversation with him, but I suddenly realised I was with George Clooney, and a wave of adrenalin shot through my body and I felt completely paralysed".

It's a popular response, though sometimes less breathlessly expressed. At the photo-op in Downing Street, according to reports, Sarah Brown expressed a desire that Mr Clooney should play her husband in a movie, should the occasion arise. "She's not the only woman," remarked the Daily Mirror, "who'd like to swap her hubby for Gorgeous George." On the red carpet in Leicester Square, listening to the girlish cheers and squeaks, Zellweger was asked if she minded being eclipsed by her leading man. No, she said. "That's just the Clooney effect."

What's the secret of the Clooney effect? Is it simply good looks and attentive charm that give him such droit de seigneur over the world's female population? Then what is it about him that attracts millions of straight male admirers? It must be said that he plays a convincing mensch: a liker of male company in the bar or the pizza parlour.

His box office bursting, though critically savaged, movies Oceans 11 and its sequels, are predicated on the idea of male friendship, of loyalty and cameraderie under threat. Many filmgoers emerge from them convinced that the Clooney's private life is a ceaseless round of madcap revels in the company of Brad and Matt and Benicio; Clooney does indeed socialise with A-listers, but insists that his real friends are nine non-famous chaps he linked up with 25 years ago.

Then there's his beloved pet, the late Max, a 300lb pot-bellied Vietnamese pig given to him by Kelly Preston. Clooney often rhapsodised over his porcine buddy, who lived with him for 18 years, sometimes slept on his bed, and whose demise on 1 December, 2006, grieved him, he said, more than the loss of any ex-girlfriend. Who could resist such a cute animal lover? Which woman would not half-enjoy the disconcerting experience of envying a pot-bellied pig?

And, of course, the relationship was handy for deterring people from asking Clooney who had most claim on his heart.

Since his four-year marriage to Talia Balsam broke up in 1993, he has insisted he will never marry again. He is a serial monogamist (currently with Sarah Larson, a former Las Vegas cocktail waitress) whose coded message to women is: you can't be the first, girls, and you won't ever be Mrs Clooney. But you might, just possibly, be the next.

The most important factor, perhaps, in the constituents that make up Mr Perfect, is virtue. Clooney is extraordinarily good at making virtue sexy and vice heroic. His breakout TV role was that of Dr Doug Ross on ER. Ross was a paediatrician (good) and a womaniser (bad) who, in between saving stricken children (good), seduced several women (bad-ish) while holding a candle for his lost love, Nurse Carol Hathaway (good).

In his films, by contrast, he has played many gangsters and robbers: in From Dusk Till Dawn, Out of Sight, O Brother Where Art Thou? Welcome to Collinwood and the three Oceans movies. (He auditioned for the part of the psychopathic Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, but was turned down.)

It could be argued that his career has been built on the dislocation between his heroic good looks and the inconvenient fact that his on-screen character robs banks and shoot people. Perhaps because of that, he has embarked, in recent years, on a series of film projects that deal with political issues – and have real-life villainy extremely clearly in view.

His directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind in 2001, was the jaunty, comic-book story of Chuck Barris, a game-show host (like Clooney's father, Nick) who doubles as a CIA assassin. The CIA, unsure how fictional it was, called it "outrageous" and "ridiculous" and denied that anyone called Chuck Barris had ever worked for them. In Good Night and Good Luck in 2004, he again delved into his father's career, this time as a broadcast journalist in the 1950s, and pitched the lean-jawed Ed Murrow, host of CBS's See It Now against the loathsome, Communist-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy.

More a morality play than an effective drama, it offered a blunt lesson about the media's responsibility in taking on the government. Syriana in 2005 explored the global reach of the oil industry and the corruption attending on the granting of drilling rights. Some critics complained about its anti-American tendency; one wrote "Osama bin Laden could not have scripted this film with more conviction".

One could try to write off Clooney's late involvement in political issues as an attempt to seem an homme serieux, rather than just a pointlessly handsome millionaire playboy. But most critics praised Syriana, and the conviction of Clooney's performance brought him his first (and so far only) Oscar, for best supporting actor. When he visited Gordon Brown on Tuesday, as a "messenger of peace" for the United Nations, it was obvious that he was not a Geri Halliwell-style "ambassador" of polite concern.

He has been addressing the Darfur conflict since the summer of 2006, when he visited the region with his father to make a film, Sand and Sorrow, about the refugees' plight. He and his fellow actor Don Cheadle were awarded the Summit Peace Award by a gathering of Nobel peace laureates last December for their efforts. "Don and I stand here before you as failures," said Clooney in his acceptance speech. "The simple truth is that when it comes to the atrocities in Darfur ... those people are not better off now than they were years ago."

In Downing Street, he talked to Mr Brown about the practical need for helicopters to airlift people to safety, and suggested London as a place where rebel leaders could meet. The PM, bowing to the charisma of the man who his wife would like to impersonate him in a film, told the press he was "grateful" for Clooney's "leadership".

"The thing about Clooney," says another of his army of women fans, "is that he's a proper person. He used to be a journalist, like his dad, and he knows what's going on in the outside world. And we know he can write and direct, we know he's the real McCoy. He's a serious person".

Ecce homo. He's handsome, he's charming, he's got skin like this and eyes like that, he makes women faint, but he's also the embodiment of male cameraderie, he loves pets, he drinks, he doesn't want to go into politics ("Run for office?" he once asked. "No. I've slept with too many women, I've done too many drugs, and I've been to too many parties") but he hates repression, oil-hungry fat cats and the CIA. He has portrayed a saintly pediatrician, and a charming vault-robber with equal success, he was once married but now only wants girlfriends, he's a messenger of peace who cares about refugees and tries to persuade world leaders to make a difference to Darfur. It's quite a good-guy rap-sheet.

One looks in vain for a chink in his armour. Here's one. Leatherheads, his new movie, has tanked. It cost Universal $58m, but, despite an aggressive advertising campaign, took only $13.5m on its opening weekend and came second in the charts behind a gambling movie called 21.

Universal bosses are concerned that Leatherheads won't turn a profit. It's a definite blip. But it's unlikely to halt the onward rush of George Clooney's conquest of the world's hearts.

This week, his name is on the lips of many British women, and all over the covers of serious magazines. Major interviews with him can be found in both Esquire and The New Yorker. In the latter, Ian Parker attempts to nail his quality: "Clooney is America's national flirt, a pitchman on talk shows and red carpets who, against the background hum of the world's lust and envy, is lightly ironic, clever and self-deprecating, with furrowed brow and bobbing head, and a gyration in the lower jaw suggesting something being moved around under the tongue."

A masticatory tic of the lower jaw, eh? No wonder he got on well with Gordon Brown.