Let me state right away that I hate the whole idea of the Academy Awards. Treating any sort of art form, even a highly commercialized one like cinema, like a sporting event strikes me as both counterproductive and counterintuitive. But hey, that’s just me. Fact is, most people love the glitz, glamour and showmanship of the ceremony, despite its inherent politics, pretentiousness and pettiness. So, given that sad but steadfast reality, this year I’m breaking my own iconoclastic tradition and publicly proclaiming my support for the nominee in at least one category (actually three), partly because I need to write a new column and have nothing else pressing to report or review, but mostly because I think nice guys deserve to finish first for a change, even if that nice guy is George Clooney and he’s in the enviable position of being able to finish whenever he damn well pleases. As it were. On top of being dashing, handsome, charming, talented, and Rosemary’s nephew, Clooney radiates a strength of character and sense of genuineness that is not only rare for such a famous movie star, but for anyone so fortunate, in any field or industry. Even though he’s already about as successful as any person can possibly hope to be, he retains a relatable sense of sincerity, at least as conveyed via the roles he chooses, that makes you want to root for him – not just his character, but for him. That is a unique quality and a coveted commodity filmmakers line up to exploit.
Nobody has matched persona to part more aptly than writer/director Alexander Payne (Sideways, 2004; Election, 1999) has in The Descendants, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, whose star, our man George, is once again being showered with praise from peers, patrons and pundits alike. As much as I hate playing the favorite, I’m adding my tiny voice to that celebratory chorus. No performance has so moved me in a long, long time. One brief but heavy deathbed scene in particular was the most effective piece of acting I’ve ever seen by Clooney – or anyone else this year, for that matter, hence the crux of this piece. It’s one of those iconic movie moments that will stay with me forever, because it touched me not just as an audience member, but as a fellow human being. That alone warrants accolades and deserves to be officially awarded, not just rewarded. I mean, if they’re going to do that sort of thing anyway.
Years ago, I earned considerable (and personally perplexing) notoriety for “protesting” Steven Soderbergh’s hit 2001 remake of Ocean’s 11, even though I’ve always really liked Clooney, who played the Frank Sinatra role of Danny Ocean, and who was already earning his reputation as a risk taker (especially after Batman and Robin, 1997). I also liked his Dean Martin stand-in, Brad Pitt. Julia Roberts, not so much, especially after she publicly dissed the original. The point is, I hereby absolve George of his (cough) “sins,” trying to upstage Sinatra and replicate The Rat Pack (even though he was really just being his own effortlessly cool self). If anyone could pull it off, he could. But he was meant for greater things anyway, and I’ve become a big fan of his over the years, admiring his eclectic body of work as well as appreciating his accessible personality and outspokenness on important global issues that both warrant and benefit from his high profile platform. The Descendants has made him one of my favorite contemporary actors, along with Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, and Mickey Rourke. That’s why I’m bothering to offer him a hand he doesn’t need at all, but which I feel the need to offer anyway.
Payne achieved a similarly dramatic catharsis when he cast Jack Nicholson in the tremendously touching portrait of aging loneliness, 2002’s About Schmidt, wherein Smilin’ Jack magically transformed from an eternal hipster to a poor old schlep, cast completely against type, yet perfectly cast at the same time. I couldn’t have pictured anyone else in that role, and it’s the same case here. Clooney’s committed bachelorhood is as much a part of his mystique as his old school good looks, passionate political activism and proven acting chops, and while speculations on his very public personal life make for juicy celebrity gossip column fodder and augments his complementary images as both a man’s man and a ladies’ man, it could possibly undermine his credibility as a serious thespian, given the superficially shallow nature of this sort of swingin’, allegedly carefree lifestyle. But it doesn’t. Whether it’s his conflicted solider of fortune in Three Kings (1999); his deceptively simplistic retro leading man turn in Soderbergh’s experimental 1940s throwback The Good German (2006); his lauded role as the tormented “fixer” in the emotionally complex thriller Michael Clayton (2007); his globe-trotting, world weary “executive hit man” in Up in the Air (2009); or now especially as the about-to-be-widowed lawyer/prime real estate heir in The Descendants, Clooney expertly conveys contextual conviction, often via his most effective tool as a star, his eyes, two of the most intensely expressive peeps in the history of the biz, right up there with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Marty Feldman. I have no idea what depths of sadness in his own soul Clooney plumbed to communicate his character Matt King’s complex and contradictory emotions, as he grapples with the impending death of his beloved wife simultaneously with the revelation of her heartbreaking infidelity, but it doesn’t matter. It works. I believed him. And I cried along with him. And I’m a guy.
The rest of the supporting cast is composed of veteran professionals (Beau Bridges, Robert Forster), promising upstarts (particularly Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as his daughters), and amateurs obviously chosen for their authenticity, though the breathtaking backdrop of Hawaii itself is Clooney’s true costar, and the only one whose beauty and charisma isn’t diminished by his naturally commanding presence. The movie itself is very good, as good as you’d expect from someone of Payne’s calibre, though for my money the dialogue is sometimes clunky and the plot line is way too predictable, and overall it suffers somewhat from overly self-consciousness quirkiness, a common “indie flick” affliction (especially the precocious teenagers whose character arcs are meant to eventually endear us despite their off-putting obnoxiousness). But in the end, I wound up loving this movie because of the sheer gravitas of its real protagonists, Clooney and Hawaii, both exuding scenic isolation. The Descendants is all about love and death, two secretive subjects that are often creatively depicted and dissected, but rarely so artfully.
I won’t rattle off all of Clooney’s competition in the category of Best Actor this year, because I don’t feel like looking up the list again, but I do know one of them is his Ocean’s 11-13 pally Brad Pitt in the excellent sports pic Moneyball (read my review here), and Jean Dujardin in The Artist (my pick for Best Picture; read my review here). Both are outstanding in their respective roles, but Clooney is favored to win, and for once, I see eye to eye with the Academy. If they also award Michelle Williams for her incredible job in My Week with Marilyn (read my review here), I might even forgive them for snubbing or just plain ignoring so, so, so many brilliant films, performances, screenplays and directors over the years. But probably not.
The Descendants is now playing at the Piedmont and other Bay Area Theaters. The Academy Awards will be broadcast Sunday, February 26 on ABC.
Will “the Thrill” Viharo is a pulp fiction author and B Movie impresario.