Clooney vs. the
Far Right

Clooney vs. the
            Far Right

At another point
in our national history, George Clooney wouldn’t be a
hero. We’d know him simply as a gifted filmmaker with
a nose for ideas and a knack for exploring them
on-screen—an A-list actor who’s fast
moving beyond his bread-and-butter career to take up a
lasting role behind the camera.

But in his
soft-shoe way, Clooney has for some years now been on a
hero’s journey, and gays and lesbians have
always been invited along. He’s a showbiz Robin
Hood—bewitching fans of all sexes in blockbusters
like Ocean’s Twelve, then using his
clout to make personal films for himself and
opportunities for others. Through Section Eight, the
production banner he shares with Steven Soderbergh, Clooney
has lent his support to gay directors like Todd Haynes
(Far From Heaven) and John Maybury (The
). Actually, Clooney’s second directorial
feature, Good Night, and Good Luck, offers a yeasty
gay subtext. But he doesn’t milk it. As with so
much of his work, it’s only there if you look.

that’s most appealing about Clooney comes together in
this pared-down, black-and-white trip back in time to
the 1953 battle between legendary TV newsman Edward R.
Murrow (David Strathairn) and Communist-obsessed
inquisitor Sen. Joe McCarthy. Clooney, who cowrote the
script and who also costars, doesn’t dumb down the
history. Exposition comes and goes under bursts of
overlapping dialogue. The action races.

McCarthy, one of
the great American scenery chewers, is not portrayed by
an actor but seen via actual TV footage. And in scenes from
1954’s famous Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy
is flanked by another infamous name: attorney Roy
Cohn, the senator’s closeted but antigay right-hand

on-air challenge of McCarthy started to wake the American
people up. But it was the fallout from Cohn’s
machinations on behalf of an alleged boyfriend that
went on to discredit and destroy McCarthy. Good
Night, and Good Luck
takes us back to the moment
when it all came down.

It’s well
known that Clooney is the son of a newsman. He likes to talk
about the respect for journalism he was raised with, the
obligation to “speak truth to power.”
And although Clooney refers to himself as a “big
old liberal,” he didn’t make this stuff up.
His reporting is as deadpan as his own way with a

Clooney is a lot
of fun to talk to. He’s canny and all, but he
doesn’t feel handled. He’s not afraid to
speak up. That shouldn’t be rare, but it is. It
shouldn’t be unusual to hear a male star say
“I think you”—meaning
gays—“should feel hopeful” about the
prognosis for gay rights in America. But it is. Maybe
Clooney shouldn’t be a hero. But he is. In times like
these, what can you do?

What a movie.
We’re really proud of it.

The film goes back in time to the moment when Edward R.
Murrow took on Sen. Joe McCarthy. In doing this
movie now, who are you taking on?

I say this in every interview, so I’m not
just picking an obviously biased place to say this,
but I’ve been a big old liberal my whole life,
and I’m hard-pressed to find when [liberals] have
been on the wrong side of social issues—to lose
the moral argument. Without the liberal view
we’d still be burning witches at the stake, and women
wouldn’t be voting, and blacks would be sitting
at the back of the bus, and we’d be in Vietnam,
and McCarthy’d be in power. It’s not to knock
a conservative point of view, but I don’t
understand how we lose a moral argument. And so I
found that it was a good time, rather than for me to try and
preach—I’ve seen many of my friends who are
actors do that, and I find that to be ineffective at
the very least. I find myself turning the TV off at
times, because I go, “Ugh, don’t do it,
don’t jump!”

I found if you can keep something in a historical
reference, then you’re at least able to raise a
debate. And the debate should be as simple as this:
This isn’t a Right-or-Left, red- or blue-state issue;
these are constitutional issues. It was the Republicans that
took McCarthy down, not the Democrats. And ultimately
the questions are, too, about the responsibility of
the fourth estate. Are you going to step up and ask
difficult questions of power? My father’s an
anchorman for 30 years. He went after Jimmy Carter
when the OPEC nations raised the price of oil, and he
went after Gerald Ford when he pardoned Nixon. The
responsibility of the fourth estate is to constantly
question authority. Because we know over the history
of time, without that challenge, then power corrupts.

So, then, what’s been happening lately, George?
Well, that’s the second part of this. [The film]
is also about bringing up the debate and discussing
the use of fear to erode civil liberties. We do this,
as you well know, every 30 years. Bomb us at Pearl
Harbor and we round up all the Japanese-Americans and stick
them in detention camps. We come to our senses and go,
What the hell were we
—usually led by the press. I see
actually some teeth in the press, which is nice to see
again. But in general, I find that it’s a good
time to address the idea that us imprisoning people without
the right to face their accuser, without a speedy
trial or Geneva convention rights—that’s
a union we’re protecting that I don’t

And I worry about that, Right or Left. That’s a
very dangerous place to go. [In the film] we tried to
deal with it in a fair way, saying it’s not
black-and-white; of course it’s complicated. Is
[alleged al-Qaeda bomb conspirator José] Padilla
a terrorist? Maybe. But either he is a criminal and he
gets a writ of habeas corpus, or he’s a prisoner of
war and he gets Geneva convention rights. Do you set
the guy free? I don’t know. Is that dangerous
to the state? Yeah, probably. So maybe you can’t.
But as Murrow says, there must be a place to protect the
state and the right of the individual at the same

And that to me is not me preaching; it’s me
asking that we keep talking about it.

I read that when
test audiences saw footage of McCarthy, they thought he
was some bad ham actor. [Laughs] That
happened a lot. It’s interesting how nobody—I
think not even 50% of the [test] audience—had
even heard of Murrow. Most of the audience had heard
of McCarthyism, but about 30% didn’t know who Joe
McCarthy was. A lot of people asked us who that actor was,
and said, you know, he was a little too much. [Anne
] That’s why I said we want to take
out a “For Your Consideration” ad for him
[seeking acting award nominations] in the trade

He sweated a lot too.
Well, you know, McCarthy’s problem
was—sort of like Nixon was during the Kennedy
debate—McCarthy was really good at quick sound bites,
but he really wasn’t good at the art of
television, as Murrow was. Murrow was handsome and he
was elegant, and he was as good a writer as Paddy
Chayevsky [of Network as well as many 1950s
teleplays]. On the other hand, McCarthy was bombastic
and only had a couple of explosive things to say, and
then he was always drunk. You watch the whole
28-minute, 28-second rebuttal from McCarthy [in which the
senator made a filmed speech on Murrow’s TV
news show, accusing the newsman of having Communist
leanings]—this is what took McCarthy down, you know;
people forget this. It wasn’t Murrow going
after McCarthy that got McCarthy in trouble. It was
when McCarthy turned around and accused Murrow of being a
traitor. This guy, Murrow, was at the top of the buildings
in World War II during the London blitz, reporting,
and we knew he was a patriot. McCarthy just
wasn’t prepared for television.

There’s also a gay story at the heart of
McCarthy’s fall because of Roy Cohn, correct?
There’s no question about it. Watching Point
of Order
[the 1964 documentary on the
Army-McCarthy hearings]—there’s some really
great things in it, but they’ll take scenes
from one piece of footage and tie it to scenes for
another day, so it looks like McCarthy is sitting there
ranting like Fredric March at the end of Inherit the
In fact that’s not what happened, and
it’s manipulative. So [cowriter] Grant Heslov
and I realized we had to go back to the actual initial
footage of the Army-McCarthy hearings and watch them
all the way through. And we did, all of them, 36
days’ worth.

Oh, God.
And I’ll tell you the most fascinating thing.
[Toppling McCarthy through the charges in these
hearings] is like getting Capone on tax evasion. Roy
Cohn—[J. Edgar] Hoover probably, but certainly Roy
Cohn—got preferential treatment for a young man
named David Schine to get him out of the Army. Clearly
something was going on [between Cohn and Schine]. At
one point [Army counsel] Joe Welch says, “Is he a
pixie?” And McCarthy goes, “I’m
not sure what a pixie is, but I’m sure you’re
an expert, sir.” And Welch goes, “In the
family of a fairy.” And McCarthy goes, “Uh,
uh, I don’t believe he was in any, uh—I
don’t know how to address that.” And
then all the senators start going “I’d like it
to be said that there are no fairies in the great
state of Arkansas” and “I’d like to
second that there are no fairies in the great state of
so-and-so…” And you watch
McCarthy’s face and you realize that he had basically
signed off on something that Roy wanted done. It was a
nothing thing, but he’d already gone after the
Army and accused ’em of being traitors. So Secretary
[of the Army Robert T.] Stevens and those guys were
like, Fuck you, we’re going to get you
whatever way we can.
Basically, they got McCarthy on
what may have been a favor by Cohn for another guy that Cohn
might have been attracted to.

To me, the story of Roy Cohn tells what self-hate will
do. You eat yourself away.
It’s really true, because you look at how young
and beautiful he was as a young man, and how over a
period of time, starting back then, the ideas that he
was [putting forward]—you know, there’re great
stories about Cohn and Joe Welch, who was the
prosecutor against McCarthy during the hearings and
who ended up becoming an actor later. Cohn and Welch
struck a deal, basically, with Welch saying, “You
leave this young lawyer at my law firm alone [by not
calling him a Communist], and we’ll leave this
[homosexual] issue out—”

About Schine?
Yeah. And Roy was like, “Great.” And then
McCarthy turned around in the hearing and started
going after this young lawyer from Welch’s firm.
And that’s when Welch turns up and says, “Sir,
I have done you no harm, and if I
have”—and he looks at Roy
Cohn—“then I apologize.” And you see
Roy Cohn shaking his head “no.” And then Welch
turns around to McCarthy and says, “Have you no
sense of decency?” That’s when Welch goes at
him. So it’s an interesting sort of interplay
when you watch all of the footage. I wish people had
time to watch it again, ’cause it’s really

I loved the Liberace scene in your film, with Murrow
asking him when he was going to get married and
Liberace saying he hadn’t met the right
person yet.
Oh, that was great, wasn’t it?

I guess Liberace spent his life doing interviews like that.
The reason we [included] that interview is sort of the
same reason we put a cigarette commercial in. We know
that we made cigarette smoking very attractive, so we
wanted to show sort of the lies that were perpetrated
then. In the same way, we wanted to show the Rock Hudson
world, how certain things could only exist if everybody
played ball in a really silly way. The problem with
doing this film in black-and-white and making it
really attractive is that you look at it and go, God, I
really miss the ’50s.
You can long for that.
And it’s hard to remember that that also meant
that if you were a gay black woman in the ’50s,
life ain’t so good!

That’s right.
There were an awful lot of bad things going on and
things that were hidden. We thought it was important
to show in a funny way that everybody was living a
secret life.

Who decided on Dianne Reeves as the jazz singer whose
sequences stitch together the dramatic scenes of
the film?
I did. Dianne did a tape of herself when she heard we
were gonna do the song “How High the
Moon,” and she sent the tape in on her own, and I
saw it and I was like, Well, that’s our girl.
She’s great. And a lot of the musicians, except
for Peter Martin, her accompanist, other than that,
those are all musicians that played with my aunt Rosemary

All the men in Good Night, and Good Luck are at
kind of a 1950s weight. Not to be indelicate, but
it looks like you didn’t really diet for
that part.
I had just been in Syriana, for which I had put
on 35 pounds, and had had some back surgery, so it
wasn’t at my peak form, that’s for sure.
[Ed. note: Clooney underwent several serious operations
after a blow to his head during the filming of
Syriana sent spinal fluid into his brain.]

It’s kind of disgusting you’re that
good-looking when you’re not at your peak
form. Women who are extremely keen get underestimated
because of their looks. Has that been a problem
for you?

Here’s the problem with answering a
question like that. That would be for me to assume
that someone would think of me that way. And I would sound
like a jackass any way I answered. I’m not saying
it’s a bad question, but I hate when I see
somebody who’s attractive going “Oh, I was the
ugly kid in school,” and I also hate when you
see somebody who’s attractive going
“It’s hard being attractive.”
I’ve had no difficulty in my career with
getting what I wanted done over a long period of time. If
that’s because of some other appeal than my
intellect, that’s probably true, since my
intellect has certainly been in doubt often. But for me
it’s certainly been helpful when I was younger
getting work. Is it a handicap? It’s a handicap
being an actor and trying to talk about political issues.
So is it a handicap? Not really. I believe in going to work
and doing your job and not worrying about that stuff.

It does take guts, though.
We did a panel the other day with Norman Corwin, this
beautiful, beautiful broadcaster, 95 years
old—he worked with Murrow. It was a bunch of
journalism students, and they got up after the screening and
they were all sort of excited, and this kid was like
17 years old, and he says, “Well, what happens
now if I want to do a tough story and they want to
paint me as a liberal or something?” And I was, like,
“Stand up again. How tall are you?” He
was, like, 6 foot 3. And I go, “Sit the fuck down,
you can take it, kiddo. How hard is it, somebody calls you a
bad name? People died for shit they wanted to get
done. Grow up!” So somebody wants to say
you’re this or you’re that, I say,
“Look, who cares? I’m not bright enough?
OK, you got me. I didn’t finish college,
you’re probably right, I’m probably not
bright enough, but I’m the one here right

Everywhere I look now, the comparisons are very direct:
“This is our new Cary Grant.”
“Not since Cary Grant.” Do you like that comparison?
Look, Cary Grant’s one of my all-time favorite
actors. I would argue that Cary Grant would, first of
all, roll over in his grave, because if you watch
Bringing Up Baby or Philadelphia Story or
any of those films, truly there was nobody that could
do what he did well. And I would also say that Cary
wasn’t interested in directing or writing.
Although I do hear he took a little LSD at one point.

[Laughs] You’ve never done that, probably.
No! No! No! But the comparison is strange in a
way. I think the reason is because I feel like an
adult. I’m 44, and I feel like I’m 50
[laughs]. So that may be the reason why. And listen,
as long as they’re not saying
“schmuck,” which some of them
are—believe me, it’s a lot nicer than
being compared to Roy Cohn.

It’s been a couple years since we named you one of
The Advocate’s coolest straight
people of the year. Did you get any interesting
romantic offers out of that?
[Laughs] I didn’t. And you know, I was a
little disturbed. I felt a little hurt in many ways
about that—in a great many ways. It was fun,
though, because not long after that [in 2004], my dad was
running for Congress. And all of a sudden—it
still strikes me as an amazingly brilliant
move—on the ballot there were all these things about
gay marriage. You just sat there going, You’re
really gonna use this as an effort to get people away
from voting? [Democrat Nick Clooney lost the race for
Kentucky’s fourth district House seat by a 10-point
margin to Geoff Davis.]

Isn’t that great?
And it actually worked. And I sat there
thinking, What year is this? Where are we now? What
world are we sitting in? Who gives a shit? I love when
they’re talking about the sanctity of marriage when
they’re giving away marriage on Fox [which once
aired Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?].

It’s pretty awful.
Honest to God, it’s one of the most amazing times
in our history. It’s not as bad as McCarthy,
you know. We don’t have Congress pulling people
in. Now we just have a bunch of nasty pundits doing a lot of
shitty things and trying to force-feed a religious doctrine
down us, but we’ll fix that. We’re gonna
get better at that; it’s cyclical.

I really want you to be hopeful, so I’m glad you are.
[Laughs] Well, you should be hopeful too,
because the one thing that is a constant is that we
are cyclical, and that every time we go one way, we go
to the other extreme. I mean, we always have. As strangely
rotten as right now seems, it must have seemed a lot tougher
in 1953, when people were whispering and turning on
one another and afraid a bomb was gonna go off. And it
must have been awfully bad right after the bombing of
Pearl Harbor, so I am hopeful about it all.