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Clooney vs. the
Far Right

Clooney vs. the
Far Right


What's gay about George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck? In a gay-press exclusive, the superstar director fills us in--and tells us why he's hopeful for America's future on gay rights and civil liberties

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 Jacket). 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.

Everything 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 man.

Murrow's 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 quip.

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!"

Right. 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 thinking?--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 recognize.

Yes. 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 Jose] 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 time.

Absolutely. 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 laughs] That's why I said we want to take out a "For Your Consideration" ad for him [seeking acting award nominations] in the trade papers.

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 Wind. 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 mind-blowing.

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 [Clooney].

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 now."

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.

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Anne Stockwell