LE CAP D'ANTIBES, FRANCE — LE CAP D'ANTIBES, France - George Clooney has been here before. A big-budget action movie that he stars in, "The Perfect Storm," will open June 30 against stiff competition, "The Patriot," with Mel Gibson.
Clooney wears a psychic scar from his last popcorn war. In 1997, Clooney's "Batman & Robin" took on Julia Roberts' romantic comedy "My Best Friend's Wedding." "Batman" won the first weekend, then, Clooney says, "My Best Friend's Wedding" stomped "Batman & Robin."
Clooney is convinced "The Perfect Storm," an adaptation of Sebastian Junger's book about a doomed fishing expedition, will perform differently.
"This is the kind of action film that's based on a real story that has a very tragic ending," he says during the recent Cannes Film Festival. "It's not a man in a rubber suit crying because his parents died several years ago."
The morning sun is already baking the French Riviera. Clooney sits in a cabana overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, wearing a gray sweater, a hint of stubble and a palpable confidence.
Clooney's visibility was already rising with turns in "Out of Sight" (1998) and last year's "Three Kings." But in this year's festival, Clooney transcended his matinee-idol looks and growing resume. He became a global attraction.
He charmed the Cote D'Azur with aw-shucks civility. He showed just enough of a good-time side with late-night party forays. And, he proved yet again that he could act, doing a Clark Gable number as a chain-gang escapee plotting to return to his wife in Joel and Ethan Coen's Depression-set comedy, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" which premiered at Cannes.
"Gable is probably rolling in his grave," Clooney says.
The subject turns to "The Perfect Storm," which will debut two days after "The Patriot." Clooney, who plays the Andrea Gail captain, tries to dream up a promotional campaign.
"Everybody dies in the end," he says.
All kidding aside, if audiences want to watch any actor right now, even one swallowed by an angry sea, it is Clooney. He parlayed his role as the playboy doctor Doug Ross on television's "ER" into an A-list feature career. Now Clooney will test his popularity against Gibson.
"In truth, if you and I were sitting at a bar and having a drink, I'd say my guess is that opening weekend, Mel might take us," Clooney says. "He hasn't done a movie in a long time, and it's a big film, and I hear it's truly wonderful, and I will go see it. But there is room for two or three or four films in the summer. ... I think we'll be standing."
Clooney is waiting for a spiced-up rewrite on the remake of "Ocean's Eleven," a bank caper film that originally starred the Rat Pack in 1960. He will appear this fall as the slow-witted yet fast-talking Ulysses in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The film got mixed reviews at Cannes, but Clooney's performance was well-received.
"You have to be pretty smart to play somebody dumb," said Joel Coen, the co-producer and director. "There's long takes with reams of dialogue. George pulls it off effortlessly."
Off screen, Clooney continues to play the lovable yet elusive ladies' man. Clooney, 39, divorced from actress Talia Balsam 11 years ago and broke up a three-year relationship last year with a French law student named Celine Balitran. Since then, he has been playing the field, a bachelor with his very own Rat Pack. His buddies come and go at his Hollywood mansion, depending on the status of their love lives and careers.
Clooney's only permanent housemate is Max, a 160-pound pet pig. Max stayed home while Clooney reveled in luxury at the Hotel Du Cap Eden-Roc, a cash-only, $1,700-a-night hotel about 5 miles from Cannes and a world away from the Kentucky tobacco fields where Clooney grew up.
Clooney emulated his talk-show host dad, Nick, by smoothing over his backwater accent. He occasionally did guest spots on his father's show when he was 5 years old, but did not explore show business again until he moved to Los Angeles at age 21. His aunt Rosemary, the famous singer, gave him $300 for the trip.
Clooney's good looks and swagger got him gigs, but nothing was sticking. He slogged through a slew of pilots and then played supporting roles in "The Facts of Life," "Roseanne," "Sunset Beat" and "Sisters." If you don't remember what his characters were, well, they were unmemorable. Only when he donned the stethoscope of the flawed but fabulous Dr. Doug Ross on "ER" in 1994 did he finally find the prescription for success.
And he has apparently kept his ego in check.
"He's really a gracious guy," said John Turturro, Clooney's co-star in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "He has a very boyish quality. He's more like a young colt. He loves to fool around, and I think overall it's a good thing as long as you're serious about what you're doing, and he is."
In his quest to improve on his craft, Clooney looks to the old-timers.
"Spencer Tracy still kills me," he says. "And Paul Newman to this day is still a favorite and not just because of what he did, but because he started out and wasn't so good. He became a great leading man, and as he became older, he sort of reinvented himself."
But role models will not be able to help Clooney now that the showdown between "The Perfect Storm" and "The Patriot" is finally here. In fact, Clooney will not be able to help Clooney.
"I don't know if it's more pressure on me," he says. "Once I'm finished with a movie, my job is done."