How George Clooney and Julia Roberts quietly became the Tracy-Hepburn of our time
By Jason Bailey
They don’t share the screen until 49 minutes into their first film together, and it’s not an amicable conversation. She’s expecting her boyfriend, but the hand on her shoulder belongs to her ex-husband, and her first words to him (“What are you doing here?”) are loaded with a mixture of shock and residual anger. The irritation quickly takes over; there’s fire in her eyes, enough to dampen the twinkle in his. “You’re not wearing your ring,” he notes.
“I sold it,” she fires back. “I don’t have a husband, or didn’t you get the papers?”
“My last day inside,” he replies.
“I told you I’d write.”
Julia Roberts and George Clooney’s first scene together, in Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of “Ocean’s Eleven,” runs less than five minutes total, but they’re packed with barbs and pronouncements, insults and callbacks, relitigations of ancient arguments and (for him at least) flashes of longing. Tess (Roberts) is the reason Danny Ocean (Clooney) has assembled the titular crew to rob three high-profile Las Vegas casinos — all of which happen to be owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), Tess’ current beau. (When Danny meets Terry, he fidgets with his wedding ring absent-mindedly. Or perhaps deliberately.) The payday is huge, but it’s incidental to Danny; as he tells her during that strained first conversation, “I came here for you.” So Danny and Tess, and thus Clooney and Roberts, have to generate enough heat and chemistry underneath the snippy surface to justify everything else in the movie. It’s a tall order. They pull it off without breaking a sweat.
“Our scenes are really fun,” Clooney explained at the time, “because they’re like an old Howard Hawks film where they’re both going at each other and nobody wins. Which is the way it should be.” Roberts concurred: “The dialogue is so sharp and exacting, it’s like a 1940s movie.”
Such callbacks to old Hollywood were no accident. For years now, Clooney has been described as one of the last movie stars of the old-school mold. As GQ’s Tom Carson put it in 2007, “He’s shrewd, he’s virile, he’s merry, and the camera loves him with the devotion of a headwaiter rushing over to light a billionaire’s cigar.”
Roberts, with her million-dollar smile, gin-soaked voice and flowing mane of auburn hair, carries similar connotations of the do-it-all stars of the studio system. Writer-director Richard Curtis told Vanity Fair that he based her role in “Notting Hill” on Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, “neither of whom were available.” That Roberts could fill those very large shoes speaks to the potency of her throwback charm.
In their traditional movie-star qualities, the way their periodic collaborations complement their stellar solo careers, and their affectionate offscreen relationship, it’s become abundantly clear that Clooney and Roberts have quietly become the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn of our time. And the distinctive mixture of stifled sexual attraction and surface exasperation that Hepburn and Tracy explored in the likes of “Pat and Mike” (1952) and “Woman of the Year” (1942), and that makes Clooney and Roberts’ “Ocean’s Eleven” scenes so electric, is back in full force in their new vehicle, “Ticket to Paradise.”
They again play a divorced couple, though not nearly as freshly parted as Danny and Tess. David (Clooney) and Georgia (Roberts) split after five years of marriage, but have maintained contact to co-parent their now adult daughter, Lily (Kaitlyn Dever), giving them plenty of time to sharpen their grievances and fine-tune their double act of passive-aggression. For example: David, expressing hesitation over his daughter’s post-grad travel plans, pleads with Lily, “For once, you could back me up.” She doesn’t skip a beat before responding, “I could, but then I’d be wrong too.”
Of course, this is a big-studio romantic comedy, so the ice between them will eventually crack and then melt away. The joy of “Ticket to Paradise” comes not from its predictable plotting or razor-thin screenplay; it’s from watching them together, from observing how the sparks still fly, and (when the former flames get drunk and let their guards down, or during the end-credit outtakes) watching them crack each other up. The pleasure they take in each other’s company, both in and out of character, is infectious.
That playfulness is also present in their offscreen relationship. Though not as romantic as Hepburn and Tracy’s, it has similarly captured and tickled the moviegoing public and press. They both praise and roast each other, in interviews and at public events, a tradition that goes back to even before the release of their first film: At a dinner honoring her in March 2001, Clooney called Roberts “a confidant — someone you could call up day or night, and she’d have her assistant call me back.” In return, Roberts could smoothly deflate his Gable-esque persona, calling him “this great, wonderful, kind of goof of a guy. And the fact that he can make it go away when the camera’s rolling is a pretty funny trick that he does. He becomes very charming and suave when that’s just not the way he is at all.”
They would work together again, and quickly — the year after “Ocean’s Eleven,” Roberts would co-star in Clooney’s directorial debut, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” though they would share no scenes. And yet, by casting Roberts against her “America’s Sweetheart” type as a coldblooded femme fatale, Clooney coached her to one of her darkest and trickiest turns to date.
The genuine tenderness between them, undergirding even their tensest interactions, is ultimately what makes their co-starring turns so memorable. When the inevitable moment arrives to cross the romantic Rubicon in “Ticket to Paradise,” the machinery of the screenplay and the far-fetched nature of the moment don’t matter — they can just look at each other and sell it. It’s not just that these two great-looking people are gazing into each other’s eyes. It’s that we, as longtime viewers, are bringing our own affectionate memories and pop culture connotations to the interaction.
The entire film is informed by the mere idea of George Clooney and Julia Roberts, and of all they represent: the glamour, the beauty, the mischievousness and the shared, undimming delight.