Clooney nod comes with gibes

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"Thank you very much for this," said George Clooney, never one to take himself too seriously, after accepting his 2006 American Cinematheque Award from a blond and beaming Julia Roberts. "Thanks for beating the hell out of me."

Actually, of all those gathering to pay tribute to Clooney, Roberts was relatively kind when she said, "You are, before I met my husband, about the best man I have ever known. You're just one helluva guy. We're here to put our hands together and be honored that this world has this man in it."

Clooney had it right when he described his so-called tribute, which was held Friday night at the Beverly Hilton, as a roast. The dinner was taped for a one-hour special that will air on AMC on Dec. 13.

Clooney has gained some gravitas in recent years, winning an Oscar in March for his role as a CIA operative in "Syriana" plus two Oscar nominations for directing and co-writing "Good Night, and Good Luck." But as befits the current Vanity Fair cover subject's image as a debonair man of the world with a self-deprecating sense of fun, there was more talk of Clooney's embarrassing screen moments in such movies as "Batman & Robin," "Return of the Killer Tomatoes!" and "Return to Horror High" than his many genuine accomplishments. His role as one of the sexiest men alive and a fundraising political activist also earned frequent mentions.

Morgan Freeman did laud Clooney for his work on behalf of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and the Darfur genocide and his support for tsunami aid in South Asia and Live Aid. And Clooney's high liberal profile drew an impressive set of taped messages from all parts of the political spectrum, from Al Gore and President Clinton to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. John McCain and veteran newscaster Walter Cronkite, who said, "Good night, and good luck. October 13, 2006."

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared her "undying love" to the star. And in a tongue-in-cheek remark, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama suggested that though Clooney is "shy when it comes to the ladies," the best way for him to "come down to earth is to be married."

The producer of the hit "Ocean's Eleven" series, Jerry Weintraub, told Clooney, "You are not Cary Grant. I knew him very well. But if Cary Grant were with us today, you'd both be up for the same roles."

Clooney's former producing partner, director Steven Soderbergh, who was absent, did not supply clips for the upcoming films in which he has directed Clooney, "The Good German" or "Ocean's Thirteen." But a full complement of Clooney's co-stars in "Ocean's Thirteen" were present.

Clooney's actor friends lined up to remind him of how much they adore him -- despite his shortcomings. "No actor is more infantile, more juvenile than the man you honor tonight," Don Cheadle said. "That's why George has no children. Grow up, this boyish thing is getting tired."

Whip-thin in a black gown with deep decolletage, Ellen Barkin declared: "I am the only actress willing to stand here and say, 'I have fucked George Clooney.' Did I get you there, George? I'm very proud of it. Chemistry has to do with having a great pitcher and catcher. He has one great fastball. If you don't have chemistry with George Clooney, you need to check your pulse."

Carl Reiner praised Clooney's unique ability to do a spot-on impression of Liza Minnelli's ex-husband, David Gest, and promised that while " 'Ocean's Twelve' didn't work, 'Ocean's Thirteen' has the best script; it's the best movie yet."

Salma Hayek, Clooney's co-star in "From Dusk Till Dawn," praised the actor's shrimp quesadillas and said: "To all the girls in love with George, give it up. He's the best of friends, but he'd make a lousy boyfriend."

Playing the evening's host was actress Bonnie Hunt. She has known the actor since she was 24 and said, "He wanted to be taken seriously, but he was so good looking that it was impossible. We shared our hopes and dreams. Here's to dreams coming true."

Among those sending videotaped messages to Clooney were Renee Zellweger and Paul Newman, Catherine Zeta-Jones -- who did her impression of a water balloon by jumping fully clothed into a swimming pool -- John Cusack ("I consider him more of a brand, the George Clooney brand"), Drew Barrymore, David Letterman and Matt Damon, who was on location in Tangier and staged an elaborate stunt with local extras demanding their money back after a screening of "Batman & Robin." "What they really want back is their time," he said. "I got glassed in the neck. George, I need some karate classes. They're showing 'Peacemaker' in three months."

Clooney brought down the house, which was crammed with studio heads and CAA agents, by getting back at his pals by posting hideous photos of them including Hayek in full vampire mode, Damon in a dapper lizard suit and, for the biggest laugh of the night, a beefcake shot of a shirtless Cheadle in a cowboy hat. "You don't understand the joy I got when I found that," Clooney said. "I want that to stay up for a while."
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