The beautiful little red-haired boy has been splashing around in the swimming pool for nearly an hour, his lips purpling madly, when he breaks the water's surface and sees, silhouetted in the perfect stillness of a Sunday afternoon, a great figure lowering itself down to him. The boy has on a mask, foggy with sweat, that he has pulled down over his ears so they are doubled over, glowing grotesquely. It is impossible for this not to be painful.
"If you don't let me fix that strap, your ears will fall off," the man says, easing himself into the water. "You'd better listen to me," he tells the little boy, "I'm a doctor."
"You're not," the boy says, rubbing his ear nervously, no longer as sure of himself as he would like to be.
"Yes, I am," George Clooney says, adjusting the strap and making the world safe for boys again. "And I'm Batman, too."
Clooney is doing the head tilt as he says this. The neck muscles are sprung just enough to allow his head to dip to the left, the eyes looking up, a little boy himself now. The head tilt is Clooney's go-to move, his instinctive way of finding a perfect conversational eye-level with anyone. It is the little boy in him, ears adorably pinned back. Watching Clooney do this, you can't help but wonder when he first realized this could get him girls.
"He has a very strong face, very expressive eyes and he is very much like a little boy," says Mimi Leder, who directed Clooney in "The Peacemaker," the eagerly awaited first release from DreamWorks SKG. "He's all those people wrapped into one. He is that man. He is that boy."
When "Peacemaker" opens Sept. 26, Clooney will not only be carrying a movie for the first time, he will be trying to find out if he is man and boy enough to save the world from dumb action movies, while simultaneously launching Hollywood's first start-up studio since Fox Film Corporation and 20th Century Studios merged to create 20th Century Fox in 1935.
"I've yet to do a movie that had to rely on me," he says. " 'Peacemaker's' really the first one that you'll go to partly to
see if I'll make it or not, whether I'll survive. But that's OK, I don't mind that. Every once in a while you have to stick your neck out." Tilt, tilt, tilt.
"If I wanted anyone to save the world," says Leder, who, in fact, wanted exactly that for her nukes-on-the-loose thriller, "it would be George Clooney. He's the man."
Clooney will only go so far as to acknowledge that he's a man, which is hardly the same thing, and yet no small matter in itself.
"Becoming a man was the great thing for me, the thing that changed my career the most," he says.
On Sundays, however, he is neither the man or a man, but rather one of the Boys, a group of old friends that gathers weekly under the miniature HOLLYWOOD sign he has erected on the hill above his Studio City home. For four hours, Clooney and "the boys" (as he unfailingly refers to them) play basketball--some occasionally stopping for cigarette breaks--then they head up to the pool, where the womenfolk await.
"It's kind of like a pack, a pack of wolves or something," says Tommy Hinkley, an actor who first went to Clooney's home to baby-sit his pet pig, Max. "The testosterone's just flowing. And George is like the rock of the group in terms of keeping everybody together."
"They're the most honorable men I know," Clooney says of this non-elite, unpowerful group. "It's not a he-man woman-haters club at all. It's seven guys--some married, some not--who have been together for a long time. I'm proud to be a part of it."
After the death of the father of a member of Clooney's group--actor Richard Kind, who has had supporting roles on such shows as "Mad About You" and "Spin City"--Clooney found out that the funeral was to be held a day later in Trenton, N.J. "One of the good things about being famous is you can get a jet," Clooney says. "I got a plane and called up the boys."
They arrived at the synagogue like the Magnificent Seven sitting shiva. "Richard was in the middle of talking about his father," Clooney recalls, "and he looked up, having no idea, and saw his seven best friends sitting in the back row in black suits. And he broke down and he stopped, then he said, 'My best friends are here.' Those are the moments you're so proud of, so proud to be a part of it."
The desire to be part of it compelled Clooney to study the lives of such bygone hipsters as Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, and on the wall above his bar is a framed picture of the Rat Pack outside the Sands Hotel. Next to the picture is a dartboard, where Celine Balitran--the young French woman Clooney met during a break from filming "The Peacemaker"--plays a game of "arrows" with Hinkley.
Balitran, who was a law student in Paris and tried teaching here before work permit problems forced her to become a Ford model, stops by the house in the mornings and feeds Max. "I never thought I would be spending so much time weez a peeg," she says somewhat forlornly.