The art of being a movie star includes good timing. Take the American Cinematheque Tribute to Bradley Cooper on Thursday night. These events usually burnish star luster, as in the case of recent recipients Amy Adams, Matt Damon, or Matthew McConaughey. But when such a tribute unfolds at the height of an Oscar campaign, it can move the needle. “A Star Is Born” scored Best Director and Actress at the National Board of Review this week, which reflects the movie’s current status as the frontrunner for Best Picture, Actress, and Actor at awards site Gold Derby.
These events are carefully curated. Warner Bros. put this event in motion two years ago, with the fall 2018 release date of “A Star Is Born” in mind. And while Cooper self-deprecatingly mocked the huge posters and program covers all around the Beverly Hilton ballroom — in George-Clooney style — when I greeted him at his table, he nonetheless played along with the evening’s proceedings like a pro. (This is why charismatic actors have an advantage in awards season: They impact a room.)
The focus of the evening was designed to elevate Cooper as a director-auteur with heart, and remind everyone that “Coop” is not only a major talent but a really good guy. His “Alias” costar Jennifer Garner told him he was welcome to come over for dinner any time. His childhood friend Brian Klugman (“The Words”) remembered the “dangerously talented” sixth-grade Cooper asking the awkward girl their friends made fun of to dance. His “Elephant Man” costar Patricia Clarkson loved starring opposite him on Broadway, even in her most uncomfortable (naked) scene: “You recreated yourself anew,” she said. The wife and best friend of “American Sniper” subject Chris Kyle testified to his sincerity and honesty. His “Hangover” co-star Zach Galifianakis said they used to hang out in his trailer talking about how much they loved their parents.
And, after Oscar-winner Sean Penn presented him with the award — “Human stories of scale can still be told by actors of such outrageous honesty” — Cooper thanked his parents for giving him a head start by showering him with their love. Clearly, a meticulous attention to detail and a strong work ethic have paid off for this actor who hovered in the editing room as far back as “Alias.”
A lengthy sizzle reel showed his maturation from TV actor (“Kitchen Confidential”) to workaday costar (“Failure to Launch,” “Yes, Man,” “Limitless”) to a man who earned three Academy Award nominations in a row (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” and “American Sniper”). “He has a gift for capturing what’s human,” said his three-time director David O. Russell. “He has a childlike wonder and curiosity that is infectious.”
“A Star Is Born” will take Cooper even farther into Clint Eastwood/Robert Redford territory — unless the Academy Director’s Branch, represented at the tribute by Michael Mann (who supported Cooper early in his career, even while turning him down for roles), sees fit to deny him as they did Ben Affleck the year “Argo” won Best Picture. Sometimes, being too successful can be a liability in the Oscar race. But so far, so good.
Of course Cooper’s co-stars are also invested in the Oscar race, although Elliott is still coping with more immediate concerns like his hillside Malibu home, once threatened by fire, now facing possible mudslides after recent rains. Deep-voiced Elliott (without teleprompter) and Lady Gaga (with) also expressed their love and devotion to Cooper.
“Clearly, everyone is in love with you,” Elliot said. Gaga turned on the waterworks as she thanked her director, who cast her after a concert where she sang “La Vie en Rose,” for pushing her to connect with her true self. “I ran from Stefani for a long time,” she said. “I put on a superhero cape and called myself Lady Gaga. You challenged me to deep dive into a place where I had to see her again, be Stefani again.”
“I’m so grateful to you, not just for making me a better actress,” she continued, “but I’ve been able to call on you as a friend and cry and be myself and have you never ever judge me and still respect me as a professional. I’ve never had an artistic experience like this before.”
Warner Bros. producer Sue Kroll, a past winner of the annual Sid Grauman Award, pointed out that Dolby technology played a large part in “A Star Is Born” as she presented this year’s award to Dolby Executive Doug Darrow. Cooper used Dolby Atmos to enhance the film’s immersive live-music sequences. Darrow reminded Cooper that he insisted on playing the film in as many Dolby venues as possible, even during previews and at a screening on an island in Italy. Cooper laughed.
At the start of the event attended by such studio heads as Warners’ Toby Emmerich and Paramount’s Jim Gianopulos, American Cinematheque chair Rick Nicita paid homage to retiring Cinematheque chief Barbara Smith (who joined the organization in 1993 and was responsible for remodeling The Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard as well as expanding to the Aero Theatre on the West Side) for everything she has done over 25 years, reminding the room: “We need people to go to the movie theater.”