For a star with two rival movies at TIFF, George Clooney is not a man at war with himself. While hanging with George at The Soho House in Toronto the other night, he was the picture of grace and generosity, as proud as a parent with two successful children. In this case, the kids happen to be a pair of Oscar-bound multimillion dollar movies: The Ides of March, which he also directed, and Alexander Payne’s The Descendants.
Clooney, a Clark Gable-Cary Grant cocktail, has been down the red carpet before. Only two years ago Up in the Air rose out of Toronto as the Oscar front-runner. It appeared unbeatable. And then, months later, Clooney lost to Jeff Bridges, and The Hurt Locker pulled ahead as best picture. At Soho House, Clooney acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining momentum in the front-runner spot. the danger of what I call “red carpet rash.”
Holding an old-fashioned glass and encircled by admirers, young gorgeous women, and seasoned film journalists, he told me — and Baz Bamigboye of the Daily Mail, Roger Friedman of Showbiz411 and Manhattan salonista Peggy Siegel — that The Descendants had received the warmer reception at Telluride the week before, but the pendulum had appeared to swing in Toronto. Here, March was receiving the better buzz. The mercurail element of audience response bemused him, bringing out the dimples and those crinkly laugh lines by his eyes — and a shrug.
Clooney talked generously about his brilliant director, Alexander Payne, who had hugged well-wishers on his way out of the party nucleus, bound for a quieter floor, plugs conspicuous in his ears. Clearly, not the social animal George is, or as capable of grace under pressure. Clooney praised his young co-star Shailene Woodley, who plays his candid teen daughter. He admired how together and mature Woodley was at nineteen, some thing that came across when I interviewed her recently for an upcoming Marie Claire profile. He praised the actress that played his wife in the film, who spends most of the movie in a coma, which is apparently harder than it looks.
It’s definitely a trip to stand in that golden circle around Clooney, knowing that I’ve arrived at the epicenter of the party, and the epicenter of the film festival social scene at that moment. Not the least of it is that the actor is genuinely charming. He creates a glow of fun and convivial conversation around him. He wants to talk and engage, not parrot, not platitude. He appears completely in the moment, showing no fatigue or anxiety, unencumbered by a Blackberry. He’s also quick with a barb. We shared a laugh about a New York Film Critic Circle colleague who got up his nose two years ago at the NYFCC awards that we both attended. (At the cocktail party that night, Clooney had asked me if it would be OK to rib Rex Reed on stage about a pissy comment the critic had published about the actor; I assured George he wouldn’t lose the sympathy of the room.)
Standing in that inner circle is like being one of the boys in the best boys club around. And, as we paid court, stars sifted forward to pay their respects: Alexander Sarsgaard of TV’s True Blood and the controversial film Melancholia — tall, blonde and handsome — extended his hand for a shake. Even he was a bit awed to have stepped up into the light. After Sarsgaard turns away, Clooney cracks some thing like: does he have to be so tall? It’s a jest that playfully acknowledges a human jealousy. (Or that handsome, I could have added.) Shame director Steve McQueen approaches, introduces himself, and then retreats, with a gravity antithetical to the circle.
Then, it’s time to cede my spot in the George oasis. His beautiful blond handler suggests he migrate up to a new level of the party, another floor that’s currently empty with a pool table, where co-star Ryan Gosling awaits. George says goodbye warmly, taking my hand, and I touch his arm with my other hand and say, “I’ll see you in New York at the critics circle.” I have not belabored the point that his performance in The Descendants, my favorite of his two movies at the festival, touched me deeply. I’m confident it’s put him in the Oscar race and I murmur, “best actor.” He crinkles a smile.
On the way out, I see Keira Knightley in a different frock from the Elie Saab she was wearing when we chatted at the Sony Pictures Classic dinner for A Dangerous Method only a few hours before. (I’ll tell you what we talked about in a later post). Then I floated downstairs, passing Jimmy Kimmel on his way up. I stepped out on Duncan Street, past the bouncers and the crowds of locals restrained by velvet ropes. They were hoping for a celebrity sighting, but got me, a woman in a white dress from Anthropologie and discount shoes, a happy woman, but no celebrity. I leave that to George.