Hollywood’s elite turned out Thursday night at the Dolby Theatre, home of the Oscars, to pay tribute to George Clooney, this year’s American Film Institute Life Achievement Award recipient. Faces in the crowd included Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, CBS’ Leslie Moonves and Paramount’s Jim Gianopulos, just to name a few.
Diane Keaton, last year’s AFI honoree, took the stage early to marvel at Clooney’s distant relationship with former president Abraham Lincoln and rib him over that “Killer Tomatoes” sequel he’s never quite lived down. Laura Dern remembered cutting her teeth with Clooney in failed horror project “Grizzly II: The Concert.” Jimmy Kimmel, returning to the Dolby stage for the first time since the 90th annual Academy Awards in March, regaled with stories of “rascal” Clooney’s infamous practical jokes, which have apparently included sending packages to Brad Pitt labeled “the porn that you ordered.”
“Friends” stars Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox went ahead and took credit for Clooney’s rise thanks to their hit NBC show being the lead-in for “ER” all those years ago. “Without us you’re ‘Chicago Hope,’ buddy,” Cox quipped. Meanwhile a teary-eyed Julianna Margulies told the story of her “ER” character’s original fate in the pilot (she was to die of a drug overdose), and how Clooney went to bat for her to stick around with a recurring role. Clooney — his wife Amal by his side, the pair flanked by actor Bill Murray and Clooney’s father Nick — was visibly touched by her comments.
In video packages filmed at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, where Clooney is in pre-production on his upcoming “Catch-22” adaptation, the Oscar-winning multi-hyphenate recalled how his cousin, the late actor Miguel Ferrer, coaxed Clooney out to the west coast for a stab at acting. Clooney also commended “From Dusk Till Dawn” director Robert Rodriguez for giving him a real break in movies and noted the wake-up call of 1997 superhero stinker “Batman & Robin,” which made him realize he needed to focus as much on the creative aspects of his projects as on his own work in front of the camera.
The clip that drew the biggest burst of applause from those gathered in the ballroom and the mezzanine above was Joel and Ethan Coen’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “I’ve played four idiots for them,” Clooney said of his work with the sibling filmmakers. “They saw in me the brilliance of my idiocy.” Miley Cyrus even stopped by with a back-up band wielding fiddles and banjos for a rendition of the film’s hit arrangement of “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Clooney’s ties to journalism (via his father’s newsroom background) and commitment to philanthropy through aid to Darfur, Haiti and post-Katrina New Orleans, among other causes, became something of a recurring theme. AFI trustee Howard Stringer even evoked Clooney’s 2005 Oscar-nominated biopic “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which centered on pioneering newsman Edward R. Murrow. Calling the drama “eerily prophetic,” Stringer deemed it a movie that “should be required for modern journalists, as well as modern politicians.”
Don Cheadle recalled something Clooney once told him about having a platform such as he does: “If they’re going to put the cameras on me, then I’m going to take them to where the cameras should be.” Clooney, meanwhile, spoke in the pre-taped material about his affinity for reluctant heroes and characters who stood up against the system in films like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “High Noon,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Verdict.”
“We learned to question things from my father,” the night’s honoree said of the elder Clooney, who offered his own toast near the end of the evening that brought his son close to tears.
And for the first time publicly, Amal Clooney also spoke about her husband. “Coming here I knew there would be lots of people who could speak to George’s talent,” she said. “So I thought I should say a few words about his character. He is a gentleman in every sense of the word and a way that seems so rare these days and perhaps outdated. Everyone who knows him will tell you he has not forgotten his Kentucky manners. On every set I visit his crews tell me he stands up for the most vulnerable.”
Other speakers included Murray, Richard Kind, Anna Kendrick, Cate Blanchett and, via pre-taped well-wishes, Julia Roberts and former president Barack Obama.
“I love being a part of this industry and community,” Clooney said when he finally took the stage to close out the night. “I’m very proud of the much overdue changes I’m seeing now, and above all I want to thank everyone who came out tonight to say such beautiful things … and Jimmy Kimmel. I love every rotten one of you.” Actress Shirley MacLaine presented him with the AFI honor.
Clooney is an eight-time Oscar nominee across multiple disciplines (acting, directing, producing and writing). He won the film Academy’s supporting actor prize for his performance in 2005’s “Syriana” and the best picture award for Ben Affleck’s 2012 thriller “Argo.” He and Amal welcomed twins almost exactly a year ago.
That was just another of Clooney’s practical jokes, Kimmel quipped. “On Amal’s uterus.”
Honored earlier in the evening with AFI’s Franklin J. Schaffner Award, for accomplished alumni, was “Mudbound” and “Black Panther” cinematographer Rachel Morrison. Morrison, who became the first woman ever nominated for a cinematography Oscar earlier this year, noted how when she attended the institute, there were six women in a class of 28, “which seemed progressive at the time.” She praised AFI’s commitment to closing the gap on 50/50 gender parity in its program. Diversity behind the camera “can only lead to beauty, acceptance and a more expansive world view,” Morrison said.
TNT will air “AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to George Clooney,” an hour-and-a-half edit of the evening’s festivities, on June 21.