After extremely successful film festival launches in Telluride and Toronto, Warner Bros. thriller and big Oscar hopeful, Argo (10/12), finally hit Hollywood last night with a West Coast premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theatre. And a big postparty bash at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool drew not only the cast and key creatives from the film but also the real people behind the 1979-set Iran hostage drama. They included Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who came up with a novel plan to rescue six American hostages stuck in the Canadian embassy in Tehran by creating a fake Hollywood movie for which they posed as members of the production team. Ben Affleck directs and stars as Mendez in the film which he also produced with Grant Heslov and George Clooney (who initially optioned the material and was originally planning to direct and star himself before he got busy on other projects and Affleck came aboard).
I talked to numerous Academy and HFPA members who were invited and reaction, in a word, was ecstatic. As he was leaving the party, Affleck, getting lots of praise from the crowd, said the reaction made him happy. It should. Warners was smart to specifically invite a big contingent of awards voters and bloggers for the launch. It’s a strategy Harvey Weinstein perfected with his premieres and it makes a statement, ‘we know what we have and we are in this for the win’. Since the fests, Argo has been at, or near the top of most pundits’ likely Oscar nominees.
Alan Arkin plays the real Hollywood producer hired to make the “fake” movie seem real and got big laughs along with co-star John Goodman throwing out cynical lines about the profession that played particularly well with this industry-heavy audience. Argo ultimately is a movie that will likely make those in the normally jaded movie business proud that what they do actually made a difference in a major world event (eventually all the other 52 Americans held hostage by radical Iranians for 444 days were released on the last day of embattled President Jimmy Carter’s term in office). That aspect could play well into heightening its Oscar chances as it rolls out for the long season.
After Toronto, this was the second time Mendez had seen the film that revolves around his novel idea to fake a movie in order to get the hostages out and when I sat down with him and his nephew at his table he told me it was even better now.” To see this kind of five minute ovation and the reaction it got here in Hollywood is remarkable but it’s stranger than strange,” he says of seeing the real movie made about his fake movie. He explained the whole operation was classified and kept top secret for nearly two decades before President Clinton declassified the info in 1997 and a Wired Magazine article let the world know about this heroic event. As for the rights to his tale, Mendez says both George Clooney and Brad Pitt were vying for it through their respective studios Warners and Paramount. “I got a call in the middle of the night and it was George Clooney on the line from Romania telling me of his interest in my story. The middle of the night. It eventually got down to people from Warner Bros and Paramount offering money. I finally said ‘double it’ and Warner Bros did,” he says adding that Clooney had originally intended to direct and play him but eventually Affleck got involved. “I was thrilled with Ben. I think he did a great job with the film.” He says the name of the fake movie came about after he kept repeating a knock-knock joke with his colleagues. “Knock Knock. Who’s there? Argo? Argo Who? Argo fuck yourself”. It’s in the real movie too.
Many of the actual hostages were also on hand including Lee Schatz who was seeing the movie for the first time. He was looking around the party for Rory Cochrane whom he had never met even though the actor plays him in the film. Schatz says it was eerie watching the film because at the time the six diplomats were ensconced in the Canadian embassy and really sheltered from what was going on outside. He said he gets to invite several friends to the Washington D.C. premiere next week and one of them will be his office desk mate who knew nothing about what really happened to him for 20 years because of the classified mission. He thinks it was wise to keep it quiet all those years because it gave the CIA the option of using this ploy again somewhere if needed. Publicizing it then would have obviously killed that option.
I told Clooney after being on the circuit last year for The Descendants I actually thought he was going to get a year off from the Oscar season madness. He just laughed. Now as producer of this sure-bet Best Picture contender he and partner Grant Heslov are back in the thick of it. He’s enormously proud of the movie and the job Affleck did. As a producer Clooney seems as busy now as an actor. “We are shooting August: Osage County in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It’s going great. John Wells is directing,” he says of his former E.R. executive producer. They are making the film in a house the production bought there, rather than a soundstage which is normally how this kind play-turned-movie might be done. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are among the all-star cast and Clooney says it was tough for Wells, working with its Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts to condense from the play’s 3 1/2 hour running time and to “open up” as a movie. The Weinstein Company will release in 2013, likely putting yet another Clooney project back in the Oscar race next year.
Argo co-star Bryan Cranston was also there soaking up the attention for his dead-on performance as Mendez’s CIA boss. Despite having Breaking Bad and all the Emmy attention happening right as this movie was launching the busy Cranston said, ” I am just so proud of everything about this movie. I would go anywhere and do anything for it.” His daughter Taylor was with him and as a USC sophomore she is following in his footsteps getting into the acting game. She’s in a production there of the sexually-charged French classic, La Ronde but doesn’t think she wants her Dad to see this one.