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On Thursday evening, the stars were out in full force to honor George Clooney, the 46th recipient of the AFI Life Achievement Award.
While Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts were noticeably absent from the proceedings (Roberts was intended to present Clooney with the award, but was unable to make it due to a scheduling conflict), the gala dinner and tribute at the Dolby Theater was still a star-studded affair with Clooney’s Ocean’s Eleven co-stars Don Cheadle and Andy Garcia in the house, as well as Cate Blanchett, Jimmy Kimmel, Laura Dern, Julianna Margulies, and more taking the stage to honor the man of the hour.
Roberts still joined by video, remarking on the wonderful coincidence that Clooney was born the same year the original Ocean’s 11 hit theaters. “That film is from the golden age of Hollywood, timeless just like you are. I love you so much,” she said while the camera panned down to show her holding a sign that read “Honk if you love
George Clooney Brad Pitt.”
Julianna Margulies movingly told the story of how she owed her career and role on E.R. to Clooney after he urged her to hold out for a series regular role despite her original fate in the pilot. Laura Dern hilariously recounted their time together making one of their first films, the never-released Grizzly II, while Jimmy Kimmel called particular attention to Clooney’s notorious reputation as a prankster. Kimmel regaled the audience with stories of Clooney’s practical jokes, including sending Brad Pitt packages labeled “the porn that you ordered.”
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But the night most particularly belonged to Clooney’s closest friends and family, who not only celebrated his work as an actor, director, writer, and producer, but more broadly as a compassionate and generous citizen of the world.
Fans can catch the broadcast of the ceremony on TNT on Thursday, June 21 at 10 p.m. ET, but here’s a glimpse of the five best moments from the evening.
1. Barack Obama’s video message
The 44th President kicked off the evening with a pre-taped video tribute to Clooney. He joked about their similarities, noting Clooney’s superiority in multiple arenas — “George who is exactly the same age as me, always looks better than me and does the whole grey hair thing better than me. [And he’s] maybe a little more debonair than me,” Obama said.
Obama then went on to set the tone for the evening, praising Clooney for his contributions to the world on- and off-screen. “I can nevertheless not deny what we all know — that he is a good man, a good friend, a good citizen, an outstanding maker of film,” concluded the former President. “For all the lifetimes you have portrayed and all the lives that your work has helped to save, congratulations on this lifetime achievement award my friend. It is well deserved. Now go work on that jump shot.”
2. Bill Murray sings a song and reads a poem
Bill Murray, who first met Clooney working on 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox before going on to appear in the Clooney-directed Monuments Men, took the stage to toast Clooney in his off-beat manner.
Ever the comedian, Murray began with a signature deadpan riff on Clooney’s relatively young age to be receiving a lifetime achievement award. The actor recently turned 57. “It happened to all of us, I’m sure, when we realized that the lifetime achievement award was being given to a 56 year old man,” joked Murray. “I know that all of you thought the same thing that I thought. George is dying. It’s fatal. We don’t know what what it is, but it’s progressing very quickly. So this isn’t really a lifetime achievement award, it’s a celebration of life.”
Murray then transitioned to praising Clooney, saying, “I don’t know what I regret most in my life, but I do know one thing is I regret not meeting George Clooney earlier in my life. George Clooney is the most decent person I’ve ever worked with in the movie business. He’s more thoughtful than anyone I’ve ever worked with.”
He also diverged from the more off-the-cuff speeches and tributes, choosing instead to sing a song called “Kentucky,” spelling out the words to the state where Clooney was born with lyrics that went, “That spells Kentucky, and it means paradise.”
Finally, after noting, “They gave me 9 minutes, so I’ve got another thing I’m going to do,” Murray ended with a poem from Kentucky poet laureate Wendell Berry and concluded that he can’t wait to see what Clooney does next.
3. Miley Cyrus performs “Man of Constant Sorrow”
One of Clooney’s most beloved projects is the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? where he portrays a bumbling idiot of an escaped convict. The film was notable for its soundtrack, produced by legendary music creative T Bone Burnett, and included the original tune “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” performed by the convicts on the run as part of an escape scheme.
Clooney revealed that both he and Burnett assumed he could sing because of his genes. (His aunt Rosemary Clooney was a hit recording artist in the 1940s and ’50s.) He could not, as he only discovered in the recording booth. Following this humorous pre-taped anecdote, Miley Cyrus walked out on stage to put her own twist on “Man of Constant Sorrow,” backed by a bluegrass band. Cyrus delivered a knock-out performance of the tune, while making room for banjo and fiddle solos from the musicians.
4. Family and friends honor Clooney, the man
AFI Lifetime Achievement tributes always include a host of starry faces sharing anecdotes and memories of their time working with the honoree. But the highlight of last night’s ceremony were the speeches from those closest to Clooney: his wife, Amal, speaking publicly about George for the first time; his father, legendary newsman Nick Clooney; and his close friend of over 30 years, actor Richard Kind.
Kind was the first to take the stage, cracking Clooney and the audience up with tales of the many pranks Clooney played on him over the years, including having wardrobe take in his pants to make him think he was gaining weight. Kind also spoke of Clooney’s lifelong love of cinema and how they used to dream about nights like this when they first met in the 1980s when cast as brothers on an NBC sitcom. “George and I would talk about nights like this and the people who were honored by AFI. This was our shared love, history of film,” he said. “We talked about [John] Ford and about Billy Wilder, and Bette Davis and we would talk about Spencer Tracy… And he loved it. He loved Inherit the Wind and Fail-Safe, the films of Sidney Lumet, and now tonight I’m looking at this – what the hell happened? Honestly what are we doing here? How have you got two 1-year-olds?”
The main focus of Kind’s speech was what an incredible friend and humanitarian Clooney has always been, even before fame. He spoke of their friend group that has endured over 30 years, a bunch known affectionately as “the guys.” Kind also told stories of Clooney’s dedication to service, from his hands-on role in building spaces for celebrities to sit during the 9/11 telethon to a time Clooney convinced “the guys” to go out with garbage bags, shovels, and rakes to help clean up the aftermath of the L.A. riots. “I honor the man, the citizen, the friend,” concluded Kind.
Clooney was visibly moved by a brief speech from his father Nick Clooney, who introduced his son via a “News on the March” newsreel at the start of the evening. “It is the solemn duty of elderly parents to totally embarrass their adult children any chance they get,” joked the elder Clooney at the start of his speech. He dryly explained how George’s invitation to join him on a trip to Sudan gave him “nightmares for all the rest of [his] life” before remembering the time the two were arrested at the Sudanese embassy in Washington, D.C. “For the first time in my life, I was arrested, handcuffed, thrown in jail, booked, for a reason I no longer remember. I don’t know why I still took his calls,” said the proud father.
He concluded by telling the story of joining George for a dinner at the White House where individuals were discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relationship with his father. “Someone quoted a poem, a fragment of the poem, ‘the child is father to the man.’ I liked that,” the elder Clooney said, gazing at his son with deep admiration. “It seemed to me that maybe there was something there. Perhaps even at the age 84, I might even yet, grow up to be my son.”
Rounding out the tributes from friends and family, Amal Clooney honored George’s “character in real life.” She called him a “gentleman in every sense of the word” and spoke of his enduring “Kentucky manners,” while telling a story of how he Clooney refused a jacket on a cold winter set until all the extras had one as well.
“The second thing is that George is incredibly generous,” she continued. “He is generous with his time. He finds out about people that have suffered the same health issues as him and he writes to give them advice. He helps young people pursue their passion for film. He’ll visit an elderly lady at our local nursing home if he thinks it will make their day. He has a big heart and he puts it into everything he does whether it’s making a movie, hosting a fundraiser, or quite often these days, pranking our latest guest using a nappie and a pot of Nutella.”
Amal also praised George’s commitment to political and humanitarian causes, including recently meeting with survivors of the Parkland School shooting to advocate for gun control. “George picks good fights,” she said. “Even before I knew him I admired George’s commitment to taking up causes like exposing corruption in Sudan before they were visible…He fights for what is right as a way of life. George shows us more what it is to have a moral conscience and how powerful it can be when combined with eloquence and courage.”
Lastly, she spoke to their personal connection and how his “incredible talent and character” also make him an “amazing husband and father.” She recalled how, at the age of 35 when she’d “become quite resigned to the idea that [she] was going to be a spinster,” George changed her life. “Very soon, it felt like no matter what happened, I would never want to be with anyone else.”
“Five years later, none of that has changed. He is the person who has my complete admiration and also the person who’s smile makes me melt every time. My love, what I have found, is a great love that I always hoped existed,” she concluded. “And seeing you with our children, Ella and Alexander, is my greatest joy in life. You fill our home with laughter and happiness and that’s even before the children grow up to learn their Da-Da is actually Batman, a talking fox, and friends with Mary Poppins. I’m so proud of you my love. Congratulations on this great honor you’re receiving tonight…When our children find out not only what you’ve done, but who you are, they will be so proud of you too.”
5. George Clooney accepts the AFI Life Achievement Award
The evening concluded with remarks from Clooney himself, as he accepted the award presented by Shirley MacLaine, a member of the original Ocean’s 11 cast. He began by telling a story of how friend and character actor James Karen pretended to be dying and requested obituaries from multiple friends. “He just wanted to know what everybody thought about him while he was still around. He got a bunch of people to do it,” Clooney explained. “That’s what tonight feels like for me.”
He spoke to his pride in being a part of the industry and how AFI started his career when he appeared in student films as a young actor, which enabled him to gain footage with which to secure an agent. “I love being a part of this industry,” Clooney said. “I’m very proud of the changes I’m seeing in this industry. They’re much overdue.”
Clooney continued the lovefest between himself, his parents, and his wife. “On top of being two of the funniest people I’ve ever met, my parents are two of the most ethical people you’ve ever met. And for me, their example was always due north,” he said. “They didn’t much care what you became, they cared who you became. Your character. Do you have compassion? Do you have empathy? I failed more often than I succeed in trying to live up to my parents example. But I tell you, it’s really worth the effort.”
“I thought you couldn’t have it all. I thought, if you had a successful career that you weren’t really going to be able to have one great love in life,” Clooney said. “Amal, people know about your intelligence, and your integrity, but they don’t know how much you are capable of loving and giving love and you make every single day — Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday — feel as special as tonight. And tonight is very special, and I will treasure it always.”
Clooney concluded with the words of newsman Edward R. Murrow, whose life he chronicled in Good Night, and Good Luck: “From the words of someone who is much more intelligent, which we probably need now more than ever, good night, and good luck.”