Pete Hammond

It was George Clooney 24/7 as the 38th Annual Telluride Film Festival kicked into high gear Friday. Clooney might as well have been running for mayor, if the reaction to his appearance at the Partrons Brunch in the morning was any indication. He was taking photos with anyone who asked and talking up a storm with any festival-goer who ventured near. I asked him about Deadline Film Editor Mike Fleming’s exclusive report that he was dropping out of the planned Warner Bros film Man From U.N.C.L.E., directed by his former partner Steven Soderbergh. Clooney indicated he would love to do it “but I realize I’m 50 now and am going for neck and shoulder surgery soon and just can’t do it physically,” he told me with a sigh. He also said he is skeptical about Soderbergh’s retirement pronouncements and hopes Contagion (Sept. 9) is a big commercial hit for him.

There were also continuing rumors that Johnny Depp was in town. Which must mean that Sunday’s scheduled unannounced sneak would be his long-gestating The Rum Diary. I couldn’t find anyone willing to confirm it, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Always a guessing game to see what festival co-directors Tom Luddy, Gary Meyer and Julie Huntsinger have in store at Telluride each year.

The festival already announced a premiere of The Descendants as well as a tribute program to Clooney. There is also buzz that Clooney’s directorial effort The Ides of March, which was well-received in Venice, would be part of the Clooney love-in at Telluride. It won’t, even though he thought it was coming. According to Meyer, Sony never showed it to them so it wasn’t a possibility. Clooney told me he even chose the film’s climactic scene to be included in his tribute’s film reel, thinking Telluriders would have seen the movie already. So a spoiler alert will now be necessary for attendees at the tribute who don’t want to know how Ides ends. It’s probably all for the best because the addition of Ides would likely have turned this Telluride into the George Clooney Film Festival.

Patrons paying a hefty price for their passes along with sponsors and the few press members here Friday afternoon got a first look at Clooney’s new Hawaiian-set film The Descendants. I think it delivers on all fronts, promising a major awards season contender for Fox Searchlight. In fact, filmgoers and Academy members exiting the theater told me it was first-rate, with special mention of the film’s superbly chosen cast, including Clooney, Shailene Woodley as his older daughter and veteran Robert Forster. It also presents a side of the “everyday” Hawaii never seen in films. The film definitely puts Clooney in the forefront of Best Actor contenders, and had many audience members in tears — including The Artist co-star Penelope Ann Miller. Immediately after the first showing of Descendants, Miller told the crowd that director Alexander Payne was a genius and the film emotionally affected her like few others. Later, after introducing her own pic, The Artist, Miller told me it reminded her of Terms of Endearment, the 1983 Best Picture Oscar winner. Even though I had seen and written about The Artist when it was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival in May, I couldn’t resist another look at this silent film charmer. It clearly caught the Telluride audience’s fancy at its first showing at 5 PM Friday. Word on the gondola ride back into town from the Chuck Jones screening venue was thumbs-up all the way for The Artist and The Descendants, both November releases that will have to rely on critical acclaim and slow-building audience word-of-mouth to keep the buzz going throughout awards season.

At the post-screening Q&A for Descendants, Clooney explained that he first met Payne when he was being considered to star in the director’s Oscar-winning Sideways. Payne didn’t think he was right for it. Payne reinforced that opinion during the Q&A by saying he stood by his initial instincts, and Clooney actually agreed. In this case, however, Payne said Clooney was the only person he had in mind for Descendants. They met at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2009 and were shooting in Oahu the following March. Payne even edited the film at Clooney’s Lake Como Italian villa. “It was a great script and a great part and a chance to work with wonderful actors. Alexander is a director whom actors would killl to work with. I can’t tell you what an honor it was to be in it,” Clooney said.

Among other films getting their world premieres Friday were director Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, official Polish entry for the Academy Awards Foreign Language competition and Roadside Attractions’ Oscar hopeful Albert Nobbs. The latter stars Glenn Close in a much-lauded performance 10 years in the making. (See HAMMOND: Will Glenn Close Be Challenging Meryl Streep At Next Year’s Oscars?) Close told me at the brunch that she was just trying to put it all into perspective. She was thrilled an audience was finally going to get to see this passion project she played off-Broadway 30 years ago and now has finally brought to the screen with director Rodrigo Garcia, who’s also here in Telluride. Unlike Close, Holland is a Telluride vet and was anxious to see reaction to her Holocaust-themed 2 1/2-hour drama that Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker told me was her best film yet. (SPC is releasing it likely next year.) When I complimented Holland on the episode of AMC’s The Killing that she directed last season, she informed me she was set to direct the sure-to-be-controversial Season 2 premiere. Despite expectations that the show’s first murder would be solved at the end of Season 1, it was left up in the air, causing fan outrage and putting extra pressure on Holland’s new season opener to deliver on all fronts. She told me, “I am from Europe. I can handle the pressure.”

With Telluride’s film program off and running, so were the parties. United Talent Agency held an intimate and nice gathering at Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy’s huge ranch up a perilous one-way road outside of town. The producing pair had just arrived. Kennedy was nursing a cold and leaving hosting chores to Marshall and the UTA contingent. Marshall said they have their other Mountain Village property up for sale, but not the awesome remote ranch. At the classy party, producer Michael De Luca told me he was excited to be bringing his new film, Butter, starring Jennifer Garner (also here in Telluride) for a previously unannounced sneak preview Saturday night. The Weinstein Company is producing, and De Luca, a first-timer in Telluride, told me he’s happy to be working with Harvey this time rather than against him. (De Luca was a producer of The Social Network, which famously lost the Best Picture Oscar to Weinstein’s The King’s Speech, which had its world premiere in Telluride a year ago today.) De Luca also said he has been in touch with Academy Awards producer Brett Ratner and offering suggestions that the show this year must be hosted by a comedian and that there shouldn’t be any superfluous musical numbers to “things like the art of film editing”. Coincidentally, last year’s Oscar show co-producer Bruce Cohen was also at the party, happy about his Emmy nomination for the show that many critics savaged. He said he wouldn’t have traded the experience for the world. In addition to handing out Oscar advice, De Luca was talking up his next film, Moneyball, which stars Brad Pitt and finally makes its debut next week at the Toronto Film Festival. (Sony opted to skip Telluride on that one.)

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.