Ocean's Eleven

In the history of the Academy Awards, only two film-makers have been nominated for Best Director twice in the same year. At the 2001 Oscars ceremony, Steven Soderbergh equalled the achievement of Michael Curtiz when he got the nod for both Traffic and Erin Brockovich. However, unlike the great Curtiz in 1939, Soderbergh actually walked away with a statuette.

For most directors, such a record would mark a clear career pinnacle. Not so for Soderbergh, who had won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film festival – at the tender age of 26 – for his debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape, pretty much revitalising American independent cinema in the process.

And Soderbergh’s biggest hit would come the year after his success with the US’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, when his star-studded remake of the lackadaisical Rat Pack heist caper Ocean’s 11 knocked Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone off the top of the box-office charts.

The workaholic Soderbergh began casting Ocean’s Eleven while he was still shooting Traffic. George Clooney was already in place as Danny Ocean and the pair proceeded to go after the biggest stars in Hollywood. But the process was much less smooth than the story’s recruitment montage, perhaps in part because many of the stars they wanted would have to take a substantial pay cut to keep the picture on budget.

At various times Bruce Willis, Ralph Fiennes, Mike Myers, Alan Arkin and Ewan McGregor were all circling the picture. Johnny Depp and Mark Wahlberg both passed on the role that would end up with Matt Damon, while the twins were almost played by Luke and Owen Wilson before the brothers signed on for The Royal Tenenbaums.

In the end, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts joined Clooney and Damon in the glittering line-up. And they had the time of their lives on set, hanging out between takes and putting up with Clooney’s infamous pranks.

Soderbergh, meanwhile, had a less breezy time – it’s a complex picture, all set-ups and pay-offs, and even though he had worked in trickier conditions on Traffic, he’d never had to choreograph to the degree required here, with intricate heists that needed to be understood without being over-explained. But this is the way Soderbergh works, challenging his abilities with a project he doesn’t know how to pull off and – more often than not – landing it perfectly.

With Ocean’s Eleven, he crafted something stylish but not stylised, applying exactly the right amount of flash to make it glamorous and exciting without getting in the way of the stars at the centre. This is a soufflé picture – enormous amounts of labour going towards a final product that appears almost effortless. As Soderbergh told the DGA, ‘I didn’t want anybody to feel me sweating, even though I was sweating a lot.’

To a public still reeling in the aftermath of 9/11, this piece of pure entertainment seems to have been a welcome salve – it was the fifth highest grossing film of the year worldwide, and the highest ever to that point for Clooney, Pitt, Roberts and Soderbergh.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Soderbergh next spun this film’s success into another big swing into a genre he’d never explored before – an adaptation of the sci-fi novel Solaris. He also executive produced fellow indie darling Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven and helped up-and-coming director Christopher Nolan get into the room at Warner Bros, for Insomnia – showing that he was prepared to lend some of his new-found Hollywood capital to his friends

This article originally appeared in Total TV Guide on

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