Last year’s AFI Life Achievement Award winner Diane Keaton cooed over George Clooney’s 18-year relationship with a pig. Laura Dern recalled being stranded in Budapest on their first movie, the never-released “Grizzly II: The Predator,” waiting for plane tickets home. Julianna Margulies thanked Clooney, who just turned 57, for tipping her that her “E.R.” character tested well enough to possibly come back to life, something she did not hear from her own agent.
“You’re the real deal,” she said, choking up, reminding the black-tie crowd that “E.R” arrived after 13 failed pilots. “The most important lessons I learned in this town I learned from George.” Richard Kind described George’s foundation as “the boys,” a motley crew that has hung together for three decades and were led by Clooney — before “E.R.” hit — to spend three days cleaning up East L.A. after the riots.
Yes, George Clooney is a good guy who is also a Hollywood actor, writer, director, and producer (and kisser, per Margulies). And as his wife Amal Clooney reminded us, he has been Oscar-nominated in all of those categories for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “The Descendants,” “Syriana,” “The Ides of March,” “Up in the Air,” “Michael Clayton,” and “Argo.” “He is the person whose smile makes me melt,” she admitted.
However, Clooney does not sing. (Clooney lip-synced “Man of Constant Sorrow” in the Coen Bros.’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and the song won the 2001 Country Music Award for Best Single, but bluegrass vocalist Dan Tyminski did those vocal honors.) At the Dolby Theatre, Miley Cyrus performed Dick Burnett’s classic folk song.
Among those who came to pay tribute were studio chiefs (Warner Bros.’ Kevin Tsujihara, Paramount’s Jim Gianopulos, Disney’s Alan Horn, and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos) and Clooney pals ranging from Bill Murray (who almost took off for Mexico before the event, thinking it was the next night) and Oprah Winfrey to Cindy Crawford and her husband, Clooney’s fellow tequila mogul Rande Gerber.
Thanks to the $1 billion sale of their Diageo Tequila company and starring in lucrative commercials, Clooney can afford to donate his time to humanitarian causes (he’s a U.N. Messenger of Peace and won the Nobel Laureates’ Summit Peace Award) as he seeks to “repair the world,” said “Oceans” costar Don Cheadle, who lauded him for insisting on “taking the cameras where they should be” to places like Sudan.
That money also means he can play with his kids or make whatever movies he wants, sticking to that hard-to-nail middle ground between franchise tentpoles and indies. “The only game in town for me is that place,” he told me last night. “We have to maneuver. It’s hard.”
At the moment, Clooney’s producing, starring in, and directing two episodes of the Hulu adaptation of Joseph Heller’s anti-establishment classic “Catch-22,” co-starring Kyle Chandler and Chris Abbott. He loves the expansiveness a series provides. “We’re flying in 75-year-old B-25s from California to Sardinia,” he said. “This is the golden age. What I care about is the content and not the delivery systems. There should always be a giant cinema, it’s always going to exist. You still have to go out. It feels more like events now.”
Original “Oceans” star Shirley MacLaine, filling in for a missing Julia Roberts, advised Clooney to direct more. Cate Blanchett, who starred in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German” as well as Clooney’s “The Monuments Men,” suggested gently that his best directing effort, “Good Night, and Good Luck” has only gotten better (and more timely).
Jimmy Kimmel snuck in a raw note of truth when he lambasted “Leatherheads” and “The Monuments Men” — “it was so bad it had me rooting for Hitler” — and reminded everyone of Clooney the prankster who puts gravel in people’s suitcases and sends friends fake Barack Obama letters. “Truth is, he’s the Joker,” said Kimmel.
Obama himself introduced the event via video, calling Clooney a good friend, a good man, and a good citizen.
Clooney has always been a master of self-deprecation, so there was plenty of ribbing about his roles in “Batman and Robin,” “Return to Horror High,” and “Return of the Killer Tomatoes!,” and recognition that when “Out of Sight” came around, both he and Steven Soderbergh needed a hit.
But the star of the show, who joined his son on the dias and on the stage Thursday night at the AFI Life Achievement Award show that will air on TNT on June 21, was Nick Clooney. Clearly this Kentucky journalist and broadcaster put his son on the right path from the beginning, setting an example that George tried to live up to even as he donned the trappings of a major movie star. As he accepted the AFI Award, Clooney thanked his parents, with emotion. “I love being part of this industry, and this country,” he said. “And I am proud to be the son of Nick Clooney and Nina Bruce. I thought you couldn’t have it all.”