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[whitespace] 'Ocean's 11'
Shades of the Past: George Clooney and Brad Pitt try to evoke the swinging early '60s in 'Ocean's Eleven.'

Vegas Cool

Steven Soderbergh's remake of 'Ocean's 11' only hints at an era long lost

By Richard von Busack

IN THE BEGINNING was Bogart, who first banded together the Rat Pack, whose heroic drinking and indifference symbolized a brief patch of jet-age elegance. Ocean's Eleven, a modern version of Ocean's 11 (1960), the ultimate Rat Pack movie, tries to recapture that era's laconic style.

On the whole, you don't expect a remake to have any aesthetics of its own, any relaxation or any sense that it was anything but a chore to make. And in all three categories, Ocean's Eleven stands out. Steven Soderbergh's Las Vegas is busy but weirdly serene; the director's customary use of ambient noise and available light makes the interior of the targeted Bellagio casino look like the background for romance, instead of a heist caper.

Indeed, what's being contended for isn't money, but a principle--that old movie idea that a woman ought to be with a man who loves her more than he loves money. Julia Roberts is sweetly restrained in the pivot role of the woman contended for by con (George Clooney) and casino owner (Andy Garcia).

Rather then punching the film up, however, Soderbergh punched it down; he made it low-key, despite the robbery sequence, alive with beautiful little chrome gadgets that look more like jewelry than the plastic-looking gems Clooney's Danny Ocean uses to bamboozle his way into the casino's vault.

Soderbergh includes a rarefied moment of the burglars gathered in silent post-robbery awe admiring the Vegas fountains as Debussy's Claire de Lune plays. It's a classy, heartfelt movie--cool in different ways than Sinatra and the Pack were. In the lead, Clooney is still bidding to become the kind of romantic icon that's near extinct in the movies today: a lead actor who is masculine, self-assured but "crumbly," to use Mary Astor's words in an article she once wrote describing Bogart and Gable.

Pack Mentality

The spirit of the original Rat Pack is a reflection of Bogart's own refusal to kowtow, but dimmed and diluted and cooled to contempt. As Jeffrey Meyers notes in his biography Bogart, after the actor had fathered a couple of kids, his wife, Lauren "Betty" Bacall, urged them out of the canyons and into a 14-room French Colonial job at 232 S. Mapleton Dr., Holmby Hills, between Beverly Hills and Bel Air.

"I could have put a down payment on an entire country for the dough this joint set me back," Bogart groused. His new neighbors were a crowd Bogart characterized as "all the creeps ... all the millionaires." And also Mr. Art Linkletter.

Like anyone else who feels that their cool credentials are in doubt, Bogart began acting up. To anger the stiffs, he kept three noisy dogs and had a group of bored pals--later known as "The Holmby Hills Rat Pack"--over for drinks on a regular basis. Among them was Frank Sinatra ("I think Betty and I must be parent substitutes for him, or something. ... He's always around here," Bogart said.)

Visitors included screenwriter Charles Lederer (who wrote Ocean's 11) and the composer Jimmy Van Heusen, who wrote Ocean's 11's pattery, jingly title tune (about crap-shooting, it seems).

Bogart died hard of cancer, and some thought that Sinatra was more than just a friend to Bacall, even before her husband had died. Bacall and Sinatra announced their engagement a year after Bogart's death, but it was broken off fast.

Sinatra headed into the desert to start an engagement at the Sands Hotel. On Jan. 28, 1959, shortly after Sinatra led the orchestra for Dean Martin's album Sleep Warm, Martin joined Sinatra for the first time onstage. It became a regular feature, with guest bits by Sammy Davis Jr., an all-purpose R&B singer/dancer; the dry comedian Joey Bishop; and Peter Lawford, an aging juvenile actor who had connections to the Kennedy family.

The group performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, where JFK was nominated. That on-again, off-again act lasted until, in a fracas with the Sands management, Sinatra went to Caesar's Palace.

Ocean's 11 was filmed during the days in Las Vegas to coincide with the night-time schedules. Indeed the film does look like musicians serving time at a day job. The exceptions are Caesar Romero, convincing as he tells how he came up the hard way, and Akim Tamiroff, very broad in an inside-joke lampoon of the then-head of 20th Century-Fox, Spyros Skouras.

And Richard Conte is the most serious character as the weak-hearted member of the team, though, the way the film is written, we're never sure whether he suffers from cancer ("The Big Casino") or a bad ticker.

The pool-table scenes in the original give a sense of the Rat Pack's act. It's a taunting boy's world, with lots of one-upmanship, in which women are just window dressing; it's hard to imagine a lady today who'd get a laugh at Dean Martin's exasperating little joke about enslaving women. On the basis of the film alone, it would be hard to guess what the appeal of the Rat Pack was, beyond the glimpses of the old Vegas, where people wore tuxes instead of Jack Daniels T-shirts, and you could get some fresh air and desert solitude to go with your night life.

If you don't count a too-brief drunk scene by Rat-ette Shirley MacLaine, the original Ocean's 11 is Dean Martin's movie. As his biographer Nick Tosches notes, getting Martin's attention wasn't easy ("One take's all you're gonna get out of ol' Dino"). And yet Martin was clearly the most cinematic of the 11 here. Sinatra's acting in From Here to Eternity and The Manchurian Candidate is distinguished, yes. It's fascinating to watch that icy, suspicious quality overcome by the yearning songs he would sing.

But Martin's effortless self-amusement is eminently more fun to see and see again. Ask yourself: Onscreen, who was the real heir to Bogart, Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra? Watch Martin squint at a weird modern painting in Ocean's 11, and you have the answer. Passages in The Big Sleep match up in blithe spirit and intention with the infernally watchable Matt Helm movies, in which Martin played a lazy, dissipated secret agent.

The Rat Pack's overaged swinger brotherhood, on the other hand, decays in to the execrable Salt and Pepper films, where Sammy and Peter Lawford slouch around in Swinging London. The way of the swinger ended with the age of sincerity the 1960s hauled in. Bogart himself understood the value of the sincere, in the way he'd let a little flash through at the finale of his movies--a moment of fleeting compassion for Mary Astor's pretty neck in The Maltese Falcon, the moment of renunciation at the Casablanca airport.

Too much sincerity is toxic, and we live in a cripplingly earnest era. It's easy to see why fans look back to a time before there were psychiatric buzzwords to describe almost pathologically carefree behavior. Primarily, I wanted to see Ocean's Eleven to see George Clooney, a serious bachelor performing in what is now an anti-Hollywood style.

Today's romantic leads come in three flavors: the ones suspicious of women (Michael Douglas), the ones who hold them in awe (John Cusack, in his mushier roles) and the ones who are such beauties themselves that they scarcely notice a woman (Brad Pitt and, in a sense, Sinatra). In taking over the role of Danny Ocean, Clooney balances the right amount of gravity with his carelessness. He points a route back past the Rat Pack to the style of Bogart, an original style worth retrieving.

Ocean's Eleven (PG-13; 116 min.), directed and photographed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Ted Griffin and starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Andy Garcia, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the December 6-12, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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