There was a time—call it the majority of the ’00s—when George Clooney starred almost exclusively in movies directed by himself, the Coen Brothers, or, most often, Steven Soderbergh (or, barring Soderbergh’s availability, someone else associated with a past Soderbergh film). It makes sense that Clooney would do more movies with Soderbergh than with any other director (currently six, though his self-directed performances are closing in with five). Soderbergh restarted and boosted Clooney’s big-screen career—somewhat paradoxically by directing him in what was, at the time, his lowest-grossing movie as a post-ER leading man. Despite its middling box office, Out Of Sight capitalized on the movie-star promise Clooney had shown in earlier roles. Soderbergh did his best to limit the actor’s recognizable tics (like his incessant head-nodding) while still emphasizing his classical movie-star charisma. In the long-term sense, he turned Clooney into a star.
But with his own directing career ramping up, it also made sense when Clooney parted ways with Soderbergh—unofficially and seemingly amicably, but clearly separated nonetheless. They dissolved their Section Eight production company in 2006, and Ocean’s Thirteen capped off a trilogy (representing half of their mutual output as director and star) the following year. The pair hasn’t reunited since; Clooney continued to direct while branching into collaborations with Anton Corbijn, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, and Alfonso Cuarón, while Soderbergh continued full speed ahead without him, averaging at least a movie a year until his retirement from feature directing in 2013.
Soderbergh probably didn’t need a replacement movie star to keep his creative juices flowing, but it couldn’t hurt his productivity to have a famous face helping his movies actually get made at a pace that might shame Woody Allen. To that end, he did a run of movies with another member of Danny Ocean’s gang: Matt Damon. In fact, technically speaking, Damon has become Soderbergh’s most frequent onscreen collaborator, appearing in seven movies for the director counting Behind The Candelabra, which was an HBO movie in the U.S. but released as a theatrical film abroad. Clooney probably still wins on screen time; he’s front and center for all six movies he made with Soderbergh, while Damon plays a more supporting role in the Ocean’s films and only does a cameo in Che. But given how closely associated Clooney and Soderbergh have been, it’s strange to consider that they didn’t work together at all during that final stretch—and that Damon was there for the director’s (hopefully unofficial) swan song. The Soderbergh/Damon collaboration may well have been a simple case of mutual admiration and enjoyment; both of them have re-upped with plenty of collaborators. Intentionally or not, though, their work together signals where both of their careers were about to head.
Clooney and Soderbergh clearly complement each other: The surprisingly brainy movie star’s game gets upped by the surprisingly stylish brainiac, who gets an infusion of old-fashioned sex appeal. Damon, while in possession of undeniable charisma, is a bit more opaque. He established enough of a persona in Good Will Hunting—the troubled but brilliant almost-golden boy—to shamelessly reprise it less than a year later in Rounders. But the films that became his movie-star calling card, the Robert Ludlum-inspired Jason Bourne series, trade on a certain blankness. There’s a dash of Will Hunting’s unexpected prodigy vibe to Jason Bourne, an amnesiac assassin who (at least initially) surprises himself with displays of virtuosic fighting and feats of athleticism, but Bourne by design can’t show too much personality. In his signature role, Damon essentially rebuilt his star persona from the ground up, growing from mysterious cipher to confident action hero. It’s a development given a comic flipside in his first three films with Soderbergh: the Ocean’s trilogy, which came to its conclusion the same summer as the initial trilogy of Bourne pictures.
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Ocean’s Eleven first introduces Damon’s Linus Caldwell as another Hunting-ish figure: a prodigious pickpocket and son of an accomplished thief, recruited by Clooney’s Danny Ocean to run with the big boys (represented, naturally, by Clooney and Brad Pitt—playing a sort of movie-star old guard, even though Clooney has only been a star a few years longer than Damon). In Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen, though, Linus evolves (or devolves) into a de facto little brother for Danny and Rusty (Pitt), desperate to be included in the big heist plans and fighting his way through their chummy shorthand. Ocean’s Twelve is deliberately obscure and arch enough to make the frustrated Damon more an audience surrogate than his own comic character, leaving Linus to come into his own during Ocean’s Thirteen. His subplot has him angrily fielding calls from his father, who has doubts about Linus’ insistence on using a fake nose for his portion of a casino-robbing con. “The nose plays!” becomes his mantra; Danny and Rusty agree, but possibly out of politeness—they don’t seem particularly invested. Linus also volunteers this large-nosed alter ego to seduce the casino owner’s right-hand woman (Ellen Barkin), but the movie doesn’t give Damon a fizzy romantic angle like Clooney and Julia Roberts in Eleven or Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Twelve; he lacks their impeccably cool detachment. The big linchpin moment he fights for (key to the theft of some diamonds) still positions him as a goof—as the movie’s handsomest comic relief, fake beak notwithstanding.
A good portion of Damon’s work with Soderbergh also veers toward the comedic. Damon hasn’t had a lot of success with comedy; his one collaboration with the Farrelly Brothers, the good-natured if not exactly gut-busting Stuck On You, was not a hit, and his other broad-comedy work has been in the form of cameos and/or Jimmy Kimmel appearances, giving the impression of an actor being funny only in small, unannounced doses. (Even his recurring role on TV’s 30 Rock, humorous as it was, felt this way.) A lot of these cameos derive their humor from what a serious-minded guy Damon comes across as in his early-career movies. Will Hunting has more of a comic side than many of his early characters, but his funny lines are framed as a charming defense mechanism for a wounded, brilliant young man. Since then, Damon has done plenty of action movies, but they’re usually on the sober side: the self-serious Bourne sequels, the geopolitical Green Zone, the grimness of Elysium’s heavy-handed social commentary. The subtext of Damon’s Kimmel or 30 Rock appearances remains the supposed surprise that such a serious guy could act so silly.
Soderbergh found a way to work that subversion of serious expectations, and Damon’s comic talents, into a star vehicle when he directed Damon in The Informant! It’s a movie that sounds, on paper, a bit like the kind of earnest social-issue drama Damon and Clooney often favor but, like Damon’s unreliable narrator character, turns out to be totally nutty. Damon plays real-life food-processing executive Mark Whitacre, who blows the whistle on his company’s price-fixing, only to be eventually revealed as an embezzler himself—one who hopes to rise further in his company’s ranks once the misconduct is exposed. It’s a sad story, but Soderbergh lends it a jaunty, deadpan wit without ever condescending to his players. Those characters primarily function as serious-faced foils to Damon, and Soderbergh fills many of those roles with comedians playing absolutely straight (Joel McHale, Tony Hale, Patton Oswalt, Scott Adsit, and even the Smothers Brothers), leaving handsome Damon with the comic exaggeration.
This doesn’t mean that Damon plays Whitacre as an utter goofball. He quietly flips his lid in a series of rambling voiceovers—a relatively rare instance of narration supplying a vital dimension to an actor’s performance, rather than just creating expositional shortcuts. The placidity of Whitacre’s musings, observations, and, eventually, self-justifying semi-confessions, form the growing cracks in the character’s façade; it isn’t until well into the movie that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns reveal that Whitacre suffers from bipolar disorder.
Even this revelation isn’t played for Oscar-grubbing sympathy; the movie makes a point to include a scene where a judge expresses his doubts that Whitacre’s mental health problems are responsible for all of his lies and stealing. At every turn, Soderbergh undermines Damon’s starriest qualities: his perceived decency, his handsomeness, and anything else that might make him appear larger than life. Beyond lighting The Informant! with his trademark late-period sickly yellow tint, he juxtaposes his star with evocations of more glamorous thrillers. His Whitacre is a fan of Crichton and Grisham, and at one point the film even frames Damon’s head out of focus as he looks up with awe at a movie screen showing Tom Cruise in The Firm (a later point of reference when Whitacre insists that he’s being framed and/or railroaded). This version of Matt Damon is no Tom Cruise; he’s not even Matt Damon.
Of course, polished up, Damon could easily play Cruise-type roles; he also did a Grisham adaptation back in 1997 when he starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s version of The Rainmaker. Of Soderbergh’s films, Contagion comes the closest to putting Damon in that position. It uses him as more of a classic movie-star everyman. Usually this translates into the relatable everyman who happens to be more handsome and charismatic than most actual men, and that’s true to a degree here. But Damon’s Mitch remains grounded. The movie’s prominent non-scientist character, Mitch is widowed by a fast-spreading virus early in the film, and the scene where he fails to comprehend what has happened is a plainspoken heartbreaker.
The way Damon plays his grief in that brief scene—stunned, helpless—is indicative of the movie’s general approach to his character. While Contagion continues to follow Mitch’s story thread after his wife has died, he doesn’t turn into a focal point in the search for a vaccine (despite, even, his seeming immunity to the virus). It simply observes a fairly smart and resourceful man trying to navigate through a ravaged, crumbling society. There’s less subversion in this character and performance, just as Contagion as a whole isn’t really a subversion of the global-disaster movie; it’s just an exacting, Soderberghian version of it. But again, Soderbergh has Damon underplay his star power—and the actor is convincing as an ordinary, non-golden, non-athletic guy. It’s training, essentially, for Damon to get through a thriller without any Bourne heroics: The nuance of a character actor with the responsibilities of a lead.
The Informant! and Contagion came together during a particularly fertile time for Soderbergh, and it’s telling to look at his non-Damon pictures from this period and beyond, as he entered his final-for-now days as a film director. Just before these two films, he put out The Girlfriend Experience, starring adult film performer Sasha Grey; just after, he made Haywire, with MMA star Gina Carano, and Magic Mike with Channing Tatum. These three movies comprise an unofficial body-commodification trilogy, where Soderbergh casts people best known for physical and sometimes non-acting work (fucking, fighting, dancing) in showcase movie-star roles. All three are terrific, as Soderbergh expertly constructs films around his leads, who function as self-imposed limitations on the filmmaker as well as objects of fascination. Each time, he pulls it off; he does such strong work with Tatum that the block of wood from Step Up turns into an unexpected actual movie star onscreen over the course of Magic Mike.
Soderbergh’s work with Damon feels like preparation for this process—not because Damon constrains his director with limited acting abilities, but because Soderbergh uses Damon to figure out how a young movie star could be molded and reshaped beyond the transformational clichés of serious acting. He explores this process more directly (and darkly) in his “final” film Behind The Candelabra, in which singer Liberace (Michael Douglas) remolds his lover Scott Thorson (Damon) into a distorted image of the young, handsome man we meet at the outset. Damon is enormously touching as the man Liberace tries turning into a younger version of himself, only to get cast aside after years of loyalty (and plastic surgery, and drug abuse).
At first, it seems strange that a director as talented as Soderbergh would finish off his career with the one-two punch of a throwbacky thriller (Side Effects, with his late-period muse Channing Tatum) and an oddball HBO biopic (Candelabra). But in light of the brilliant experiments that preceded them, Soderbergh’s 2013 films make a kind of sense as a finale; perhaps he reached the limits of what he could learn from toying with the Hollywood form. Many directors could be characterized as either analytical or playful. Soderbergh appears to fit the model of the former, but he’s actually both; he’s playfully analytical. His reimagining of Matt Damon isn’t quite so grotesque as Liberace’s mangling of Thorson; he rebuilt his star with the trust that Damon could survive a fake nose, an uncool-looking fake mustache, and many minutes of yellowish lighting.
Since Soderbergh recused himself from his particular brand of film experimentation and analysis (though, again, the idea that he’d never direct another feature seems unlikely), Damon has, in some ways, gone back to what works for him as a man with one foot in serious art and the other in post-Bourne star territory. He works with strong filmmakers, returns to his favorite collaborators, and makes Jason Bourne movies (after a long gap, a fourth is due this summer). Many of his current and upcoming projects pair off neatly: He did The Monuments Men with George Clooney and may appear in another Clooney-directed film soon; he took a dystopian sci-fi lead in Elysium and a dystopian sci-fi cameo in The Zero Theorem; and he played two different stranded astronauts in Interstellar and The Martian. The latter has become one of his biggest successes, scoring at the box office and netting Damon an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, his first since Good Will Hunting. The Martian features Damon playing his charisma straight—warm, funny, likable, no tricks.
Any number of talented actors probably could have played stranded spaceman Mark Watney reasonably well; the only truly unusual thing about Damon’s performance is that he has so rarely operated with this kind of unironic, all-American charm, even as it seems like second nature to him. Will Hunting and Bourne are close, but maintain currents of pain underneath. And his Soderbergh characters tend to puncture movie-star vanity.
Movie-star vanity can build up over the years, turning performers to cockiness, coasting, or fear of losing their hard-earned audience affection. As such, Damon’s work in The Martian may exist in part because of his work with Soderbergh, keeping him from either overdosing on his own persona, or leaving it stripped away like an amnesiac spy. Soderbergh didn’t turn Matt Damon into a movie star, the way he did with Clooney. In a lot of ways, he fought against it, with Damon as a willing co-conspirator against his own potentially golden image. But maybe Damon spent enough time dismantling his stardom, delivering great performances in Soderbergh’s subtle experiments, to grow comfortable enough to deliver an unmitigated star performance. It’s another reason to hope for Soderbergh’s return to theatrical features. George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Channing Tatum have all seen their careers altered for the better by Soderbergh. Surely there are more actors who could benefit from his ongoing experiments.
Next time: A studio workhorse guides the short career of a starlet.