Oh, auteur: The films of Steven Soderbergh
Oscar winner and blockbuster director, Steven Soderbergh never loses his indie edge. Here are 10 of his best to prove it.
George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (Universal Music)
Director Steven Soderbergh's independent sensibilities have served him well. Busting out of the underground with his debut feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, in 1989, he has been able to balance smaller, quirkier projects (Bubble, Schizopolis) with mainstream Hollywood fare (the Ocean's Eleven films, Erin Brocovich). His latest, Magic Mike, likewise boasts a handsome Hollywood cast that includes Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum, yet has the darker, smarter sensibility of an independent production. Here are ten of Soderbergh's biggest successes... whether or not they were box office hits.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Writer/director Soderbergh's debut film casts James Spader as Graham, an old friend of John (Peter Gallagher). Impotent himself, Graham derives his greatest pleasure from videotaping women talking about their sex lives. John is married to Ann (Andie McDowell) and also having an affair with Ann's sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). The film was a sensation at Cannes, winning the top prize (the Palme D'Or), and earned Soderbergh an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay. It was also Miramax's first breakout hit, establishing it as a purveyor of high-quality independent films. The title has inspired countless TV show episodes and headlines.
Out of Sight (1998)
Soderbergh continued to explore the experimental side of his artistry for several years after the breakout success of his Sex, Lies, and Videotape. His adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Out of Sight proved to be his first populist success, combining the box office power of emerging stars Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney with a crackerjack script by Scott Frank, who also adapted Leonard's Get Shorty to the screen. Clooney plays Jack Foley, a bank robber pursued by U.S. Marshall Karen Sisco (Lopez). The film's unique combination of action, romance and comedy made it a big hit.
The Limey (1999)
British icon Terence Stamp (Superman II) gives a furious performance in The Limey as Wilson, a British criminal newly out of jail who targets Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), the American record producer he suspects killed his beloved daughter, Jenny (Melissa George). What could have been a typical revenge drama becomes something far sadder and more lyrical in the hands of Soderbergh, screenwriter Lem Dobbs (Dark City), and editor Sarah Flack. Interestingly, Soderbergh uses footage from British director Ken Loach's debut, Poor Cow (1967), starring Stamp, in flashbacks of Wilson as a young father.
Erin Brocovich (2000)
Soderbergh provided movie star Julia Roberts with the role that proved her acting chops, casting the actress in the title role of his film Erin Brocovich. Brocovich was a real-life single mom with a penchant for provocative clothing who spearheaded a campaign against power company Pacific Gas & Electric, accusing them of polluting a small town's water supply and covering it up. Brocovich led a campaign to uncover the truth that resulted in a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the company. Soderbergh received an Oscar nomination for Best Director while Roberts won hers for Best Actress.
Soderbergh's pitch to be the new Robert Altman, in terms of simultaneous and interconnected storylines, was perhaps clinched with Traffic. The 2000 film, inspired by the British TV series Traffik and written by Stephen Gaghan (who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) follows the stories of an American judge (Michael Douglas) dealing with his daughter's drug dependency; Mexican detectives taking on the country's powerful drug cartels; and a high-level drug dealer's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) arranging the assassination of a witness against her husband. Soderbergh won a Best Director Oscar.
Ocean's Eleven (2001)
The third of Soderbergh's so far six collaborations with actor George Clooney was this remake of the 1960 Rat Pack caper flick. Clooney stars as Danny Ocean, a charming criminal who immediately starts planning his next caper upon his release from prison. His plan: rob Las Vegas' three biggest casinos all on the same night at the same time with a team of highly-trained pros, among them Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon). Andy Garcia stars as Terry Benedict, Ocean's nemesis and the owner of all three casinos. Soderbergh had had critical and financial hits before but none on the scale of this. Two sequels would follow.
Soderbergh's remake of Russian director Andrei Tarkovksy's 1972 film, itself based on Polish writer Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel, is a moving meditation on love, the nature of existence, and what it means to be human. Big questions, but Soderbergh, who also wrote the screenplay, and his cast, including George Clooney and Natasha McElhone (TV's Californication), make them relatable. Clooney stars as Chris Kelvin, a clinical psychologist asked to come to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris to deal with something strange: it turns out that Solaris can create replicas of the crew members, including Chris's dead wife (McElhone).
Benicio Del Toro's Best Actor win at Cannes in 2008 was well-deserved. His portrayal of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, honed by seven years of intensive research, was a well-rounded portrait which showed the lengths to which Guevara was willing to go in the name of freedom. The full 268-minute version debuted at Cannes before it was chopped up into two parts, The Argentine and Guerrilla. Part One detailed Guevara's role in the Cuban revolution that saw Fidel Castro overthrowing the repressive Batista regime; Part Two details his unsuccessful leadership of a revolution in Bolivia.
The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
Soderbergh's reunion with his Ocean's Thirteen writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien was the considerably less glitzy The Girlfriend Experience. In a clever bit of stunt casting, then-active porn star Sasha Grey was hired to play Christine, a high-priced escort who provides her clients with the so-called "girlfriend experience." Despite Grey's presence, there's little nudity and less eroticism, and Soderbergh's movie is more about faking emotional intimacy than showing sexual activity, using the anxieties of Christine's wealthy clients in the lead-up to the 2008 financial meltdown to explore that devastating phenomenon. Grey may never win an Oscar, but she's perfectly cast here.
Soderbergh reunites with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, writer of his movie The Informant! (2009), for this compelling look at a very plausible scenario in which a new virus causes the deaths of millions around the world. The ensemble film features Matt Damon as a young father whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and son are two of the first victims of a contagion that spreads quickly around the world, causing panic and revealing just how easily civilization breaks down when challenged. Soderbergh follows the medical officials desperate to identify the cause of the outbreak, the victims struggling to survive, and the desperate measures people will take to stay alive.