Amazon’s “The Tender Bar” is George Clooney’s eighth film as director, with William Monahan scripting from J.R. Moehinger’s book about a family that spans the years, with Daniel Ranieri, then Tye Sheridan as J.R. and Ben Affleck as his Uncle Charlie.
It’s certainly an Oscar contender; it’s also a personal film for Clooney, partly because of the subject matter but also because of the production itself.
“We wanted to do a smaller movie because it was during the pandemic,” he tells Variety. “All these actors showed up with their hearts open. So you have Lily Rabe, Chris Lloyd and everyone swinging for the fences, which was really fun. In the middle of that was Ben, who doesn’t usually get these kinds of roles and was so excited. I was proud to be a part of this, to be a witness to an actor getting his teeth into a really good part, because it doesn’t happen often.”
The film begins in 1973, when J.R. is 11 and trying to deal with his absentee father. Clooney grew up in Kentucky with a stable dad and mom, but “I was the exact same age in 1973,” he says. “Music and smells can really take you back to a moment. When I read the script, the first thing I did was go to music. I’d pull up songs from that time; it really helps you remember where you were and how you thought.”
Clooney also talked with Variety about some creative influences from his youth.
TV and Movies
“There were only three networks, and UHF would run old movies. I got to watch a lot of Spencer Tracy, Montgomery Clift, guys I adored when I was young. Watching ‘A Place in the Sun’ at age 12 changed my idea of storytelling. He died at the end!
“I look at 1964 to 1976 as the most exciting time for American cinema. In 1964, there were ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and ‘Fail Safe,’ then 1976 had ‘All the President’s Men,’ ‘Network,’ ‘Bound for Glory.’ There were Ashby, Coppola, Scorsese and other filmmakers who were running the asylum. I got to learn about storytelling in a very different way than the generation before me.”
“I was very lucky because my aunt was Rosemary Clooney. When I was 12, I’d listen to Led Zeppelin like everybody else, but I’d also listen to Rosemary, Nat Cole, Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I had a lucky upbringing, lucky not to be pigeonholed.
“I lived in Kentucky and Rosemary was a big star in Hollywood. Years later, I was her driver and got to see the second act of her career, as a proper jazz singer. She was really respected and loved.
“I asked ‘How are you a better singer now?’ and she said, ‘I don’t have to prove I can sing anymore. I can just serve the music.’ That’s been a great lesson in acting and directing. You don’t have to show off, you just have to serve the material.”
J.R. says in a voiceover, “When you’re 11 years old, everyone wants an Uncle Charlie.” For Clooney, it was his father’s Uncle George, after whom he was named.
“He had everything in the world going for him but he was a bad drunk, and ended up an alcoholic for a good portion of his life. During summers, I would live with him above a bar, which my mom always called the Bucket of Blood.
“The difference between this and the film was everybody sounded like they were from Kentucky instead of Manhasset. But the mentality was the same: people drinking at noon in a dark bar, the regulars who tell stories and are funny and supportive of one another. My uncle was that character. When you’re a kid, that’s exciting.
“I related to the guy, because I really loved my Uncle George. He was also the funniest person I ever met. At the end he got his act together.”
Though J.R. is looking for a father figure, Clooney had a Rock of Gibraltar dad. One of the things he inherited: Clooney is known for his activism, always ready to help people when they need it.
“My dad was a good advice-giver. He was, and still is, always about integrity, to fight people with the power and defend people without the power.”
“If you went through the ’60s and ’70s and you weren’t part of something — leaders who we thought would change the world were murdered, and there was the civil rights movement, women’s right, the antiwar movement — if you weren’t part of activism in some way, you weren’t living in that period.
“My mother and dad taught me I had to fight anyone who uses the N word. I’m not a fighter and would always get beat up, but it was a lesson: Even if you can’t win the fight, you have to join the fray.
“In Darfur, many years later, my dad and I were losing arguments most of the times. We couldn’t get the bad guys arrested, we couldn’t end the genocide. So we were losing, but what mattered was being in the fight.
“Failure is part of the process. Most people look at failure as the end, but I see it as part of the process of the long arc of history bending towards justice.
“We have to remember: When we look at how the world is going now, Everybody panics ‘This is the end!’ No, this is a moment in time, and the know-nothings have gotten loud. But it won’t last forever and we’ll get through it. We will eventually find our way to a better republic but it will take time.
“I’ve found that in work, in activism in general: If you pick good fights, you’re not gonna win them, but you gotta have your feet in there, fighting for what you believe in, hoping that logic and good sense take over.”