George Clooney was the big news at the 38th Telluride Film Festival.
This annual event is usually not about stars and in my 14 years there, I haven’t seen such a fuss made about anyone. Telluride regulars are pretty laid back when the celebrities walk about town; there’s a noticeable absence of paparazzi and autograph hounds. That’s why movie people like to come to this gorgeous mountain area. But when Clooney’s limo passed one theater where passholders were lined up, a large roar went out. At the special tribute for the actor, which featured a montage of clips from his films and the awarding of the Silver Medallion for excellence, I sat next to two little girls who were swooning over him. Ten and twelve, with long blonde hair and a degree of sophistication, they had flown to the festival from Nebraska with their mom in their grandfather’s plane.
Documentary maker Ken Burns, referring to the secrecy of the program, which is not announced until opening day, said “we come here as an act of faith.” In introducing Clooney, he said, “he’s a real movie star, also director of four extraordinary films, and a screen writer, has a social conscience, and he is a nice guy. He once had a pig for a pet; he likes bulldogs, and he is someone who has made a lasting impression.” Burns is a regular at the festival and has a house in Telluride. “What else is there to do on Labor Day weekend?” he asked me during an interview a couple of years ago.
I attended two events that featured Clooney: the Q&A after the first showing of “The Descendents,” and then his special tribute the next day. He is indeed funny, down to earth, quick on the trigger, and accessible. At times, his language can be a bit irreverent but he’s certainly natural and unaffected. And what a smile!
Fun is his goal, he says, telling the tribute audience that working on TV with Roseanne was “crazy fun; for five years on ‘ER’ we just laughed; with the Coen brothers, we laughed constantly — they don’t rehearse, the set is easy and fun, there’s no ego involved.”
At the Q&A after the first showing of “The Descendents,” Clooney, in navy sweatshirt and jeans, and tan suede boots, appeared on stage with newcomer Shailene Woodley, who plays his older daughter, wearing a white sweatshirt and blue capris. He said there was a real family feeling on the set. Clooney told Shailene and Amara Miller, another newcomer who plays the younger daughter: “You better treat me like your father!” When asked what was the most difficult part of that film role, he replied that he was terrified about working with a small child.
In a reprise of his life, Clooney said he grew up connected to music, news, and broadcasting. His dad hosted the Nick Clooney Variety Show, a live TV production in Cincinnati, and “I played characters,” Clooney said. “A leprechaun at 12, the Easter Bunny, and I had this roomful of costumes to play with.” His aunt was the famous singer Rosemary Clooney and his uncle was actor Jose Ferrer, but Clooney didn’t meet Ferrer until he was 20.
He grew up in a small town in Kentucky and the family was “mostly broke.” “My mom made my clothes, dad lost jobs a lot, we’d go from a nice house to a trailer.” He watched a lot of old movies from the ’30s and ’40s. Early ambitions centered around baseball, but he wasn’t good enough to make the first round of cuts for the Cincinnati Reds, so he studied broadcast journalism for a while before leaving for LA in a beat-up Chevy, with $300 in his pocket and the dream of becoming an actor. His leading role as Dr. Doug Ross on the TV show “ER” for five years led to a string of movie offers.
“Success is such a fleeting thing,” he said. “I appreciate it when things go well.” He is enjoying his role as director. “Acting is great fun but the director does everything,” he said. “Sets, crews, the whole thing. I like being the boss.”
“The Ides of March,” his newest film, is about “what you’ll trade for success,” he said. It’s based on a play that was off-Broadway, “Farragut North.”
“Do the ends justify the means?” it asks. “This is a political drama,” Clooney said, “a cynical story about a guy running for the Democratic nomination but when Obama was elected and the country was hopeful, it seemed like a bad time to make a cynical movie, so we delayed the release.”
And next year will see the release of “Gravity,” “in which I float into space with Sandra Bullock,” he revealed.
“It’s hard to watch yourself age on screen,” he said, referring to 15 years of movie making. When asked how he chooses scripts, he said, “I choose movies I’d like to see; I’ve been very lucky.”
A friend at the festival reported the following: “I was standing next to George Clooney after the Sunday morning tribute. It appeared that every woman wanted to have her picture taken with him. George was very accommodating . . . including looking at the phone images and stating that perhaps they needed to take another photo with him. In the middle of all this, some woman asked for a lock of his hair. George immediately said that he ‘just bought it’ and then proceeded to bow his head for her to pull (yes, pull not cut) some hair out of his head. Very weird.” In this writer’s opinion, this was so “not Telluride.” Previous guests, including Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Clint Eastwood, Penelope Cruz, and this year’s Glenn Close and Jennifer Garner were not given this kind of attention.
After the showing of “Albert Nobbs,” I talked with Glenn Close in the rear of the auditorium. She wore a tailored jacket and fitted pants. I told her that I’d enjoyed her recent talk at Princeton University where she was introduced by her friend, Shirley Tilghman, university president. I asked her how she could put aside her vanity (she is strikingly attractive with long blonde hair) to play the role of a male butler. It wasn’t an issue, she indicated. When I asked how she learned to move as a man, she replied that she watched a lot of Charlie Chaplin movies.
This film is the result of 20 years of effort for Close. She starred in a version of the story off Broadway in the ’80s. She was a writer on the screen play and is one of the producers.
Even celebrities are sometimes celebrity-crazy. Festival founder Tom Luddy told us at a press briefing that uber-chef Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse and the Slow Food movement) has been coming to Telluride for years and that this year both Jennifer Garner and Glenn Close were awed by her presence. At the screening of “A Separation,” Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director said: “Since adolescence I have worshipped a filmmaker and tonight he is here in the audience — Werner Herzog.”
“This festival is truly different in that people can reach each other and see each other’s films,” Farhadi said. “And I will plan my life in the future so I can come back.” Herzog, also a regular, was here this year with his documentary “Into the Abyss,” an inquiry into the death penalty. And Waters brought “Bitter Seeds,” a documentary about genetically modified seeds in the Indian market and the disasters that move brought to the farmer.
Joseph Sedar, the director of “Footnote,” said, “over the past few days I have come to understand how fortunate I am to screen a film here. I appreciate the involved audience and all the discussion after the film.”
Tilda Swinton practically ran up on stage from the back of the auditorium to introduce “We Have to Talk About Kevin.” “This is the rare festival where you can see your friends’ films,” she said. “This is my first time here; I’ve spent years trying to come.” Her director in the new film, Lynne Ramsey, echoed Swinton, saying, “it’s all about this wonderful audience.”
Viviana Garcia Besne, the great granddaughter of the tycoon who founded the Mexican film industry and created a dynasty of film makers and theater developers, was on hand with her documentary, “Perdida,” a production that involved six years of family interviews and research. “Growing up inside this privileged family, this film changed my life,” Besne said. “We each have to look for our own story and this one covers the 100 years of my family.”
My own lifelong interest in analytical psychology added to my pleasure in watching “Dangerous Method,” the Jung/Freud story. And later, at another theater, I met an Arizona psychoanalyst and his wife, a psychoanalytic nurse, who also enjoyed the film and thought it was quite authentic.
Word on the gondola and everywhere else is that Kiera Knightley (“Dangerous Method”) and Glenn Close (“Albert Nobbs”) will be Oscar candidates for best female actor.
Jennifer Garner said she likes this festival because filmmakers can bring their families — she is a mom of two with husband Ben Affleck, and she was showing the telltale baby bump.
“Every writer wants the screen to show the images they see in their mind,” said David Shamoon, writer of “In Darkness.” “In this film, the images practically explode off the screen.”
A luminary from the worlds of theater, opera, music and film, Peter Sellars is always present at Telluride. One year he bragged about finding his shirt at the “free box” off the main street of town where people drop items to be recycled. I sat behind him and his friend, guest director from Brazil, Caetano Veloso, at “Aniceto,” a romantic and mesmerizing Argentine film that is a combination of dance, opera, and theater. Their warm friendship was obvious.
I missed Laura Linney this year, usually the unofficial face of the festival, introducing stars, hostessing, and participating in panel discussions, interviews, and “conversations.” Linney, who married a local several years ago whom she met when she was honored here, also has a house in town. But her professional schedule is pretty busy these days.
Related gossip: Another big event in the area over the weekend was the wedding of Ralph Lauren’s son, David, to President George H.W. Bush’s granddaughter, Lauren. Ralph Lauren has a ranch about 20 miles from town — some 20,000 acres abutting a national forest — and he is a regular supporter of the film festival. Bush will now go by Lauren Bush-Lauren. Our van driver from the airport told us that the entire fleet was made available for the wedding events and that everyone involved had to sign a confidentiality agreement. We did hear that one entire hotel up on the mountain was reserved for guests and that many secret service people were around.
I heard that George W’s twins, Barbara and Jenna, were on my flight from Newark — in coach. When we arrived at Montrose airport for the first leg of our flight home on Tuesday morning, our van driver pointed out Lauren’s plane on the runway. While George W. and Laura were there to celebrate his niece’s wedding, the senior Bush and his wife, Barbara, were not in attendance (health reasons — the altitude — both are in their 80s) but “visited” with the guests via Skype.