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By Dave Karger | Jan 14, 2006
'Luck' is on his Side
Oscar nods look likely for triple threat George Clooney -- The director of ''Good Night, and Good Luck'' and star of ''Syriana'' talks about his good fortune and being provocative
It's the day before the announcement of the Directors Guild Award nominees, and although George Clooney is considered a sure thing for directing Good Night, and Good Luck, he won't exactly be waiting by the phone for the 10 o'clock news.
''Here's what I'm doing tomorrow. You'll enjoy this,'' he says. ''I'm getting a colonoscopy at 9 a.m. I scheduled it when I knew that the DGA nominations were coming because I figured any news is good news after that. 'Well, you didn't get a nomination.' 'Well, how's the colon looking?''' Plus, there's a bonus: ''I hear they drug you up.''
There'll be no need for any sedation when this year's Oscar nominations are revealed on Jan. 31 — Clooney's chances are as clear as a healthy GI tract. The 44-year-old actor-filmmaker, who won a Golden Globe for O Brother, Where Art Thou and received two Emmy nods for ER but has never been short-listed for an Academy Award, is well on his way to earning three nominations this year: Along with being recognized for co-writing and directing the crackling history lesson Good Night, and Good Luck, about CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow's televised tussle with anti-Communist senator Joseph McCarthy, he's also a likely Best Supporting Actor nominee for Syriana, the hot-button oil-industry exposé Clooney also exec-produced. In other words, get him a tuxedo: stat!
Having recently wrapped The Good German, which marks the fifth time he's been directed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh, Clooney has been home in Los Angeles getting his ''oil changed,'' as he puts it: ''I went to the dentist, which I was way late on. Friday I'm doing Lasik surgery on my eye.'' Over a lunch of spaghetti and meatballs at his favorite West Hollywood ''hang,'' we quizzed the politically aware (and unapologetically liberal) filmmaker on his two attention-grabbing — and awards-grabbing — projects.
EW You've never attended the Oscars before. But certainly you've been invited as a guest, right?
CLOONEY They've asked me to present. But that seems like me trying to force my way into a party that I wasn't invited to. I think you go to the Oscars when you're nominated.
EW From your two films to Munich, The Constant Gardener, and even Brokeback Mountain, this year's awards will be dominated by political movies. Why do you think that's happening right now?
CLOONEY Film reflects society; it doesn't lead society. I don't think we're first responders. It takes us two years always. The best era of films was 1964 to '76. They were reflecting all the upheaval in America: the Vietnam rage, the civil rights movement, the drug counterculture, Watergate. All that s--- started playing out in film. You find there haven't been many political films made [recently]. For instance, Three Kings was a really political film, but it didn't hold political water in 1999, because there was no upheaval. It was just like, ''Oh, yeah, that was Iraq; that's done.'' But if you look at it now, the shift in [U.S.] policy made everybody in the world go from [saying] ''We're all Americans, we've all suffered'' to ''What the hell are you doing with all this 'capital' that you've just earned?'' And you start to see some of that outrage play out in cinema. I thought The Constant Gardener was fantastic. That guy's the real deal, [Fernando] Meirelles. What's great about Hollywood in general is that when we get told we can't do something, we tend to be pretty good at going, ''Hold on a minute.'' Brokeback Mountain is a perfect example of that, where it's like, Let's take the most protected cinematic characters — the cowboys — and turn 'em on their ear.
EW Still, you seem to be the only filmmaker willing to admit that your films are political. For everyone else, that's a dirty word — instead they say their movies are about ''people,'' or ''relationships.''
CLOONEY Murrow talks about scandalizing something because for the moment it's unpopular. And it is for the moment unpopular to say that something is political. What you don't want it to be is polarizing. Good Night, and Good Luck certainly isn't a Democratic film or a Republican film. Because it was the Republicans who kicked McCarthy out. [McCarthy served in the Senate until his death in 1957, but a Republican-led censure in 1954 curtailed his influence.] We've gotten to a point now where everything is about how you sell it.
EW And so everyone is afraid the word will scare people away?
CLOONEY Sure, and they're probably right. It's the same reason that Rock Hudson couldn't come out and say he was gay in 1955. It would have scared people away. So in a way you go, He was right not to, because he would have lost all those opportunities.
EW When the recent Bush wiretapping story broke, was there any smug part of you that said, ''Yes! My movie is even more relevant now!''?
CLOONEY Yeah, sure there is. The wiretapping issue I thought was interesting because that fell very squarely in what Good Night, and Good Luck is talking about, which is the rights of the individual versus the protecting of the state. Are you willing to truly, honestly give away your civil liberties, and if you are, what is the union that you're protecting? That's what Murrow was talking about in 1954, and it's interesting that 50 years later it's exactly the same argument.
EW You decided to take your name off Good Night as a producer, leaving your friend and co-writer Grant Heslov as the film's sole producer. I believe that's the first-ever instance of someone not wanting credit for something in the history of the movie industry.
CLOONEY Did I work as a producer on the film? Sure. But not anywhere near the extent that Grant did. Every day I'd come in and say, ''Okay, here's our 15 problems with financing and our 10 problems with archival footage,'' and he dealt with them. And he deserves credit for that. Films are generally about people trying to grab credit where they don't deserve it. We have to [deal with] a lot of executive producers that I haven't met before. Anyone who's given us $300,000 gets to put their name on the film.
EW Is it a true sign that your movie has entered the zeitgeist when The New York Times runs an item claiming you used an inaccurate font in your rendition of the CBS News logo?
CLOONEY Isn't that funny? That's why we had to be so careful with the facts. We wanted to beat everyone to all of the punches so that they couldn't turn around and get us.
EW Is that why you included the shot of Robert Kennedy siding with McCarthy?
CLOONEY Yes, it is. It was important that we had him in that shot, because [otherwise] someone's going to say, ''Oh yeah, well, Bobby Kennedy was on the Senate subcommittee.'' Because Bobby was a big anti-Communist guy.
EW So you were careful with the facts but not the fonts.
CLOONEY Exactly. The truth is, I doubt that we did [get the font wrong].
EW In all the interviews you've given lately, you seem pretty well-versed in current events. Did you bone up in advance of your press tour for these movies?
CLOONEY I'm the son of a newsman. My father used to quiz us when I was a kid. He'd come home and literally [give us] written quizzes about the news. I've always been informed, because I found that the times that I wasn't informed I was always embarrassed. What I'm learning more as I get older is that you never really learn much from hearing yourself talk and that you actually learn a lot more from other people.
EW Of your two films, Good Night is the one that's ending up as the bigger Oscar player. Do you think it's a safer movie than Syriana?
CLOONEY Yes. Because it's got the distance of time. Why Syriana is a balls-out film is because everything that's happening in that film is happening now. Even All the President's Men had a couple years of cushion.
EW A few months ago you told me that ''Syriana is going to make Good Night, and Good Luck look like a Frank Capra film.'' So I was expecting some huge Fahrenheit 9/11-size controversy when it came out. But that didn't really happen.
CLOONEY I think that the temperature in the country changed. When we were shooting, there was nobody that wanted us to make that film. Because anybody who talked about oil policies was a traitor to his country. What's happened in the last year, especially since Katrina, people are less able to wrap themselves in the flag and say ''For God and country.'' Which suddenly makes it less controversial, which is good. I'm happy it's less controversial because it means that people are actually having open discussions about things.
EW But I've also heard people say that Syriana is...
CLOONEY Too confusing.
EW Right. Could that also be why there hasn't been as much of a response as there was to Fahrenheit?
CLOONEY But if you think about it, [Fahrenheit] was at such a highly politicized moment and it was such a partisan piece. It's designed to inflame. We're not going [points his finger], ''Evil!'' We're saying everybody has huge flaws. We're making everybody culpable in certain ways, which I think is important. So it's less polarizing. Is it confusing? Sure. It's a grown-up movie. People go, ''Nobody understands some of the things you're talking about.'' And I go, ''Well, we had the same question on ER.'' No one knew what a supraventricular tachyarrhythmia was. But they got the overall sense of what was going on.
EW With all the acclaim you've received for Good Night, how do you see yourself balancing directing with acting going forward?
CLOONEY This is not an industry that's great to grow old in, and directing is a place you can. I've gotten a lot of offers to direct and not to star for the first time. After Confessions of a Dangerous Mind it was like, ''This is for you to direct and star in.'' I don't want to star in something that I'm directing. It's not fun to direct yourself. It's just a drag. I'd be talking to [Good Night star] David Strathairn [during a scene], and the camera comes in, and I'm like, ''Oh, the camera's in too soon'' in my head while I'm talking to him. You lose that connection. But now there were a couple dozen offers on the table [just] to direct, and you go, ''Oh, that's nice.''
EW Now that you're back in shape after filming Syriana and Good Night, is there a vain part of you that wants to see yourself looking good on screen again?
CLOONEY I actually don't have that nutty vanity. Some of the reviews of Good Night, and Good Luck would go, ''the doughy George.'' And the truth is, it wasn't that I'd put on weight, it was that I hadn't lost it from the other one yet! There is a part of you where you miss the leading-man part, but I'm not giving up on that. The Good German is a real old-fashioned lead.
EW What's it been like for you to conduct your first Oscar campaign this year?
CLOONEY The most surprising thing is that it is like running a political campaign. There's David Strathairn, who doesn't want to do anything for himself. He's like, ''I don't want to do anything.'' So my job then is to convince him that any attention we can bring to the film helps the film make money, and since everyone in the film is on the back end, that it could actually help a lot of other actors get paid — though the deals we had to make weren't first-dollar deals, so we're not going to see any money on the back end. But more than that, we'll have more people see it. So you have to balance getting it out there with selling your soul.
EW You'll likely get three nominations this year. But if you could only have one, which would you choose?
CLOONEY Well, let me think. Um, directing. But that's a really tough category — there are a lot of old pros in there.
At that moment, our waitress arrives with a pair of fortune cookies on a plate. Clooney grabs one and breaks it open. '''You'll never need to worry about a steady income,''' he reads. ''See? That means I'm going to get killed on the way out of here.''
If he was hoping a freak accident would get him out of that colonoscopy, he had no such luck. The next day, asked via e-mail how the procedure went, Clooney — who snagged a DGA nomination after all, by the way — replied with one word: ''Probing.'' For the moment, at least, his life and his work could be described the same way.
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