Presenter of the  46th Annual  American Film Institute Life Achievement Award Shirley MacLaine  told recipient George Clooney on Thursday night at the Dolby Theatre gala that ,yes, maybe he was too young to get a “lifetime achievement award” but that she observed he was a very “old soul”  so it was okay. As someone who has purported to have several lifetimes of achievement (including the  2012 AFI Honor) we should listen to her.

Clooney just turned 57 last month but he is more than deserving  having already packed an impressive career on TV and in movies in this lifetime , but also becoming one of our great humanitarians engaging the philosophy that one of the evening’s  on- stage participants Don Cheadle reiterated, “if they are going to put the cameras on me, I am going to put the cameras on them” referring to those far less fortunate suffering in Sudan and around the world. Bearing witness to that were pre-recorded remarks from President Barack Obama praising Clooney’s life.

This expertly staged and warm tribute proved he was more than deserving even if the emphasis on his TV work , especially in E.R.  (including a glowing endorsement

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from that series co-star Juliana Margulies) was probably more prevalent than in any AFI tribute I have been to,and I have been to a lot of them starting in 1982 when Frank Capra became the 10th recipient of this award. Since then I have noticed each of these very special evenings has taken on its own personality based on the recipient whether it was Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Taylor  or Mel Brooks and Jane Fonda. And just for the record , in terms of age Clooney is far from the youngest. Tom Hanks. Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg and several others were actually younger, and in fact Hanks was a full decade younger. Age aside, what I took away from this Clooney love-in was the importance of family. His mother and father Nick Clooney (who opened the show introducing his son) were sitting to his right on the dais, while his wife Amal was right there on his left and later would speak lovingly – and publicly – about her husband and the father of their one year old twins ( as of Wednesday) for the first time ever. There was much emphasis on those familial connections throughout the evening including stories of how George came from his home in Kentucky and stayed at Aunt Rosemary Clooney’s Beverly Hills mansion , giving him a taste of Hollywood he could never imagine.

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In terms of sheer star power it was more on stage than in the crowd with the tribute getting going with 2017 recipient Diane Keaton, confessing she didn’t know Clooney well, reciting five facts she learned about him from wikipedia including that he is a distant relative of Abraham Lincoln , had a pet pig named Max,  and appeared as one of Time’s 100 most important people three times. She was followed by Jimmy Kimmel who got his biggest laugh by informing that Clooney was the one who convinced Roseanne  to open a twitter account. That was about the closest anyone got to a reference to either Trump or his supporters except to say perhaps George should consider running for office.  Laura Dern was charming in reciting how the two show biz family offspring met while making an unreleased 40 minute movie called Grizzly II: The Predator  in Budapest which lost its funding half way through , leaving the two novice actors to bond while waiting for it ever to resume (it didn’t). She recalled him saying at the time, “when we get success we are going to use it to make a difference”.

Among the many TV stories Clooney shared in pre-taped interview segments was a hilarious one, impression included, about working with Buddy Hackett on an

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episode of Murder She Wrote. Continuing with the TV theme, Friends stars Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox came out to claim full credit for Clooney’s success on NBC’s E.R. ( after 13 failed pilots )  which followed the network’s must see tv comedy block on Thursdays and , they say inherited their audience. Bill Murray then came out to explain the real reason a “56 year old man ” is getting this kind of  award is because “George is dying” and this is a celebration of his life. He then used the rest of what he says was his “nine minutes” to lead the audience  in a song about Kentucky , and then recited a poem about the state. Shortly thereafter Miley Cyrus came out to do a terrific bluegrass rendition of the song “Man Of Constant Sorrow”  that Clooney admitted previously on tape that he didn’t really voice in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou,  even though coming from a family that included Rosemary Clooney he thought he could sing.

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Julia Roberts was originally slated to present the actual award live but instead appeared on tape for a tribute, while Clooney’s old friend and co-star on failed pilots Richard Kind made some remarks about the star’s early days followed by father Nick who brought his George to tears when he said that at age 84 he would like to grow up to be like his son. At this point different co-stars like Anna Kendrick and Cate Blanchett talked about working with him in movies like Up In The Air  and The Monuments Men, and there were also clips from his Oscar winning role in Syriana, highly emotional and powerful scenes from The Descendants , and most impressively his acting , writing and directorial triumph about CBS newsman Ed Murrow, Goodnight And Good Luck which seeing it again in these short clips only reminded me this is a movie that still stands tall as a powerful reminder of just how far the media has descended in the era of Trump. It should be re-released and required viewing in the era of so-called “fake news”.

The real highlight of the evening was the heartfelt and moving speech from Amal Clooney who earned a huge standing ovation for her words about how generous and

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gentlemanly her husband is. She also quoted Walter Cronkite who noted he had met his fair share of movie stars but not many with the same level of character and class.    MacLaine admitted she was a last minute fill-in for Roberts and related her own Ocean’s 11 stories as someone who was there with the rat pack during the making of the 1960 original that led to Clooney’s trilogy of Ocean’s films starting in 2001. In an almost sermon like presentation MacLaine admitted she didn’t really know Clooney well but was impressed with his work and life and hoped he would continue directing. She mentioned that more than once in bringing him up to the stage. Clooney himself was warm and reassuring while saying good things about the seismic “overdue changes” in the industry without getting specific except to say he was proud to be part of this community and industry. He ended his remarks by appropiately saying , “good night and good luck”.

 

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I caught up with the man of the hour and his dad at the dinner break and asked if he had seen Ocean’s 8 yet which he said he hadn’t and wanted to know how it was. I told him they killed off his character Danny Ocean by having his sister Debbie , played by Sandra Bullock , talk to him at his resting place in a mausoleum saying, “you better be in there”.  He laughed and said if the movie is a success he can probably find a way to bring Danny back to life, and that the next one should be directed by a woman.   Clooney told me he was very happy to be receiving the AFI honor , and obviously was thrilled to have his parents there with him. I told Nick Clooney I worked at AMC network where he was the great movie host for years before the network set off in a new direction.  Along with TCM’s Robert Osborne he was the best to ever do the job.

As usual AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale got things off to a smooth start, along with AFI Board Of Trustees Chairman Sir Howard Stringer. Oscar nominated

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Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Mudbound, Black Panther)  received the 28th Franklin Schaffner Award early in the evening. I actually sat at the same table with the great director Schaffner in whose honor that award is named at that first AFI event I ever attended all those years ago. It never gets less than thrilling to be there.  Overall it was a great night for family in Hollywood , and a really great night to celebrate a star who may still be in mid-career, but fits in nicely with 45 luminaries who preceded him.

The show was taped for broadcast and will air on TNT June 21, and later on sister network TCM.