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Original caricature by Jeff York of George Clooney (copyright 2017)

Today, George Clooney was named the 46th recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. In naming him, the AFI noted his versatility and movie star prowess. He truly is one of the greatest stars in the history of Hollywood, in addition to being a major force behind the camera as well. Clooney has been nominated for an Oscar in six different categories – Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Producer, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Only Walt Disney matched such an accomplishment.

In the AFI’s public statement about their choice today, Board of Trustees Chair Howard Stringer had this to say, “George Clooney is America’s leading man. Director, producer, writer, actor – a modern-day screen icon who combines the glamour of a time gone by with a ferocious passion for ensuring art’s impact echoes beyond the screen. AFI is proud to present him with its 46th Life Achievement Award.”

Stringer is entirely correct. Since starring in the film FROM DUSK TILL DAWN in 1996, Clooney has had a run that is one of the most stellar in the history of the medium. He’s won oodles of awards, including a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for SYRIANA. He’s received three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor as well for his leading roles in Best Picture nominees MICHAEL CLAYTON, UP IN THE AIR, and THE DESCENDANTS. He should have been nominated for O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU too, but at least he won the Golden Globe for his stellar comedic performance in that Coen Brothers masterpiece.

Clooney has starred in other ginormous films as well, both critical successes and box office hits. He was the leading man in THREE KINGS, OUT OF SIGHT, GRAVITY, BURN AFTER READING, and HAIL, CAESAR! Clooney also played the roguish con man Danny Ocean in the hugely popular OCEAN’S ELEVEN trilogy. He’s the incredibly accomplished director of CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, and THE IDES OF MARCH too, not to mention a major producer. He won his second Academy Award as one of the producers of the Best Picture winner ARGO in 2012. In fact, Clooney is expected to figure strongly in this year’s awards consideration as well with the deafening buzz surrounding his dark comedy SUBURBICON. (It opens October 27.)

Yes indeed, Clooney is one of show business’s greatest. He’s a major force in front of the camera, behind the camera, and out in the private sector too. He has been an important political activist for over 20 years, striving to make a difference in international economics, human rights, global warming, and many other social issues at home and abroad. The United Nations named Clooney their ‘messenger of peace’ in 2008 on behalf of his work fighting to save Darfur. He’s an American institution really, and one that many want to run for POTUS.

With all that, can anyone argue with his selection for the AFI award? Still, he is a bit young for it, no? I ask because George Clooney is only 56. He’s a decade from the standard retirement age, let alone when actors start slowing down. And age is often just a number for such accomplished talents. Look at Christopher Plummer who is still starring in major motion pictures at 87. Clooney could easily have that long a run as a leading man. So, couldn’t the AFI have waited another decade?

Perhaps he was chosen now because it helps the AFI with their fundraising, as well as their publicity. Fair enough. And God knows everyone will turn up for the dinner to honor him and it will get strong ratings on television. All good. But that doesn’t erase the fact that 56 seems a bit early for a lifetime achievement award, especially since Clooney has only been making movies as a leading man since 1996.

Indeed, if you’ve followed my movie blog The Establishing Shot these past six years, you know that I am less than pleased when the AFI, of which I am a member, doles out its award to younger candidates while overlooking older ones. When the AFI chose Tom Hanks as their recipient in 2002, he was only 46. They were lambasted left and right for that premature choice. I was so taken aback by their decision then, I called the president of the AFI to discuss the matter. Make no mistake, Hanks was and is incredible, but he was too young for such an award then. Some suggested the AFI choose him to create controversy and get oodles of press for it. They did indeed get a lot of ink, but they lost a lot of credibility too. It’s had a lasting effect, and the damage still plagues them some 15 years later.

Some of the more senior candidates who were not the AFI recipients in the years since that notorious choice include Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Blake Edwards, Peter O’Toole, Mickey Rooney, Jerry Goldsmith, Ernest Lehman, and Sidney Lumet. Sadly, Lehman, Goldsmith, O’Toole, Rooney, Lumet, and Edwards have all died since 2002 so their AFI career capper is never to be.

Because of such oversights, I have continued to make it part of my mission as a critic to write letters, make phone calls, and write blog posts on behalf of these older candidates. In 2011, I pushed the AFI to choose from the likes of Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and John Williams, and in the past six years, they have all been honored. Whether or not I helped isn’t necessarily known, though I can tell you that in 2016, after years of advocating composer John Williams for the award, the AFI finally did choose him. And they wrote to me thanking me for my advocacy all those years. I was deeply touched by that. Some times the squeaky wheel does get some grease, right?

In the final analysis, I truly admire the AFI’s selection of George Clooney. Now, in the next few years, they need to refocus their gaze upon older candidates like Redford, Caine, Duvall, and Coppola. The likes of Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, and Julia Roberts should be honored for their spectacular lifetimes of achievement. Absolutely.

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