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Much like the evening’s honoree, actor-writer-director-producer Bradley Cooper, the gala celebration for the 32nd American Cinematheque Award was multifaceted: the evening was filled with both rounds of warmly comedic takedowns and deeply felt emotional tributes that left many — including the Star Is Born filmmaker and his onscreen leading lady, Lady Gaga — misty eyed.
Gaga was just one of the many A-listers assembled in the Beverly Hilton hotel’s international ballroom to pay tribute to Cooper’s two-decade career, which has ranged from early TV supporting roles to headlining mega-hit comedies, from three consecutive Academy Award nominations as a dramatic actor to critically hailed stage work, and from voicing an spacefaring superheroic raccoon to his current status as an actor/auteur whose directorial debut is both a box office hit and a critically acclaimed awards contender.
On the red carpet, Cooper admitted to The Hollywood Reporter that it was his 2009 comedy hit that had the most unexpected ramifications on his career to follow, “We definitely never thought that The Hangover was going to be what it was,” he explained, recalling how he was working on a play at Massachusetts’ Williamstown Theater Festival and feeling grim about his acting future when the project first came his way. “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m just going to hang it up.’ And I got an email from Todd Phillips, who I had met six months earlier about that movie, and then he said in the email, ‘We’re going to do it.’ And then when we started filming it, and when we wrapped that movie, I have to say, I definitely thought that it was very special.”
“But I’ve been very lucky,” he said, pointing to a multitude of happy surprises throughout his career. “Alias felt special — I remember when J.J. [Abrams] finished the pilot. I couldn’t believe what he had done; Wedding Crashers felt special; Wet Hot American Summer felt special!”
Along the way, Cooper could’ve settled comfortably into any given niche or genre that was working for him at any time. But as his friends and colleagues attested onstage, over and over again, the actor was always pushing into new territories, both on and off the screen.
“It comes down to what one wants, right?” he explained of the drive that compelled him to seek out new challenges. “I want to grow as an artist, so it never felt like I was taking chances. It felt like, ‘These are the only things I want to do.’ This profession in and of itself, I think, demands that it’s all taking chances every time you perform anything. If you don’t feel that sense of jumping off a cliff, then you’re probably not doing it right.”
As for the cliffs he’ll leap off next, he’s not sure how often Bradley Cooper the actor will be working for filmmakers other than Bradley Cooper the director. “I love acting, but I think I would love to keep doing what I just did,” he said. “That would be great.”
From the start of their potent collaboration on A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga told THR she recognized she’d found a kindred spirit both artistically and personally.
“When I first met him, I got a phone call that he wanted to come to my house to meet me after he heard me sing ‘La Vie En Rose’ at an event to fight cancer, and I was so excited to meet him,” Gaga remembered. “And the truth is that I just instantly felt comfortable with him. He just is a kind person. He’s a loving soul, and that is a rarity in this industry. When I saw that combined with the genius, and then I heard the voice, and he talked about his vision for how he would shoot the film, it was just so interesting.
“It was so precise, and yet also filled with spontaneity,” she continued. “He’s not afraid to take chances, but he’s also not afraid to do exactly what he wants. Our friendship and our professional relationship, it’s all the same to me. We’ve been through this together, and I’m just really happy to be here to honor him tonight because he really deserves it. And I’ve never seen anyone work so, so hard as I’ve seen him work.”
Later onstage with her Star Is Born co-star Sam Elliott to pay tribute to Cooper’s work on the film, the pop superstar grew emotional as she detailed how grateful she was for the way Cooper’s direction enabled her to confront and embrace the woman she had been before transforming herself into a multimedia sensation.
“When we do these Q&As and things together, sometimes you call me ‘Gaga,’ but we both know that you call me Stefani,” she told Cooper, referring to her given name. “I ran from Stefani for a long time, and I put on a superhero cape and called myself Lady Gaga, and you challenged me to deep dive into the place where I had to see her again, where I had to be Stefani again. … They say that you never forget your first time. I sing in this movie, ‘I’ll never love again,’ and I will never love again a director the way that I love you, Bradley Cooper. Truly, a director star was born.”
The evening — which also saw the Cinematheque’s 4th annual Sid Grauman Award bestowed upon Dolby Laboratories, accepted by its senior vp cinema Doug Darrow — would continue with near roast-worthy needling from Cooper’s friends and colleagues including Vince Vaughn (who recalled Cooper’s unusually neon-colored choice of athletic wear off set on “Wedding Crashers”); Jennifer Garner (who recalled how his low-on-the-call-sheet status left him plenty of time “haunting, torturing” the Alias production team with his burgeoning auteur perspectives: “In hindsight, they should’ve listened”); and Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis (“When we were filming Hangover 3, all Bradley wanted to talk about was which mobile plan was best to phone in his performance,” the latter offered).
The laughter would shift to glowing, sometimes lump-in-the-throat testimonials from his frequent director David O. Russell; Taya Kyle and Jacob Schick, the wife and best friend of Chris Kyle, whom Cooper portrayed in American Sniper; and actor-screenwriter-director Brian Klugman (The Words), Cooper’s closest friend since they met at age 10, who both poked fun at his longtime buddy (“He’s been nominated for Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Tonys — a lot of nominations, pal. I’m glad you’re actually getting this one”) and revealed a compassionate side evident since they were sixth graders and the handsome-even-then star-to-be was at a sixth grade dance after being named, essentially, the “best person” in his class.
“There was a girl that most of us sixth graders, in our insecurity that brings about that childish viciousness, would continually make fun of,” said Klugman, and in front of all of us who were so desperately trying to fit in, Bradley walked across the gym floor and he asked her to dance. And he showed every single one of us what character was all about …That’s who Bradley Cooper is: fearless, bold, full of love and heart.” The memory left Cooper wiping away tears at his table.
Patricia Clarkson, who called her stint as Cooper’s co-star in his acclaimed stage revival of The Elephant Man, “the honor of my life,” told THR the actor is both a chameleon and a populist.
“People want to see him as this classic leading man, but Bradley is truly a shapeshifter — I think he truly is capable of playing anything and being anything,” she explained. “He’s a visionary. I think he sees something larger when he sees a project, but he also likes people loving the project he’s doing, which is important. He’s not trying to be above people in any way. He’s soulful and down-to-Earth, and that’s reflected in his work, which is why I think it’s so good, because it’s him.”
Sean Penn cheekily played a clip from a 1999 episode of James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio in which eager, floppy-haired audience member Cooper threw a question at him before presenting his now-friend with his formal award.
Accepting the honor, Cooper recalled his very first visit to the Hilton’s ballroom, when Garner won her Golden Globe award for Alias. “The room felt like I was in Yankee Stadium. And tonight, all of a sudden I felt like I was in a small, very comfortable living room,” he said from the stage. “There’s no reason that I would be here and be able to be in this business for 20 years, with a group of people that I admire, if it wasn’t for the love that has been shown to me over the years. … Tonight, you have given me so much more inspiration to keep going and telling stories. But more important than that, it reminds me to do anything I can to help a young dreamer fulfill that dream and be a part of this kind of community.”
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