BY GENE TRIPLETT
LOS ANGELES – The 86th annual Academy Awards nominees had just been announced that morning and Best Actress contender Cate Blanchett caused a bit of a stir when she entered the Four Seasons Hotel ballroom with her impressive array of all-male co-stars from “The Monuments Men.”
“All the mikes just go to Cate,” George Clooney joked as reporters placed their recorders in front of the panel of actors at the head table. “So, tell us about the Oscars,” he urged her kiddingly.
But after a few congratulatory remarks to Blanchett for her performance in “Blue Jasmine,” she modestly yielded the center of attention to Clooney, who effortlessly took command of the news conference Columbia Pictures was hosting to promote his fact-based World War II adventure about a group of aging, combat-green artists, historians and museum officials who were tasked with saving and retrieving the great masterworks of Europe that had been stolen by the Nazis.
Clooney stars as unit leader Lt. Frank Stokes, and he also co-produced and co-wrote the script with partner Grant Heslov, and directed a cast that includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Blanchett, all of whom were seated with him this morning at the press conference table.
“Yes, we wanted to make an entertaining film,” Clooney said, when a reporter suggested the movie deals with heavy subject matter in a sometimes “light, fun, whimsical way” to reach a broader audience.
“We liked the story,” said Clooney, who also partnered with Heslov to produce “August: Osage County” on location in Oklahoma, a film starring another Best-Actress nominee, Meryl Streep.
“We were not all that familiar with the actual story (of ‘The Monuments Men’), which is rare for a World War II film,” Clooney said. “Usually you think you know all the stories, and we wanted it to be accessible. And I like all those John Sturges films (‘The Great Escape,’ ‘Never So Few’). We thought it was sort of a mix between ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ and ‘The Train.’ And we wanted to talk about a very serious subject which is ongoing still, and we wanted to make it entertaining. That was the goal. We’ll find out.”
The screenplay is based on a painstakingly researched 2009 book by Robert M. Edsel that tells the little-known story of how Hitler’s forces were stealing and hoarding the finest art treasures of the Western world as they goose-stepped their way across Europe – and how a group of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians and experts, all well-past draft age and with no combat training, were sanctioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and supported by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, to don fatigues, take up weapons and advance to the front lines to save these endangered works of art, massive amounts of which had been hidden by the Nazis in deserted mines and other secret locations.
And in the latter days of the war, as Hitler began to realize Germany was going to lose the war, he ordered that all these captured paintings, sculptures and great works of architecture be destroyed in the event of defeat or his death, so that the victors would lose pieces of their culture that were priceless and irreplaceable. Whatever he couldn’t win, he would burn or destroy. So the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) unit – the so-called “Monuments Men” – were faced with an unpredictable and fast-approaching deadline.
“It’s based on a true story and obviously we made some things up along the way,” said Clooney, looking sharp this morning in black t-shirt and leather jacket at the center of the panel. The actors that flanked him played characters based on real people – or composites of people – which artistic license allows, he said.
“We had to change the names of the characters because we wanted to give some of them some flaws, for entertainment purposes quite honestly, for storytelling purposes,” Clooney said. “You don’t want to take somebody who’s real and heroic and give them a drinking problem. It’s not really fair to do. So we changed the names because we wanted to be able to play with the story some. But these are based on real men … and of course our lovely Rose Valland.”
He was referring to Blanchett’s character – in the movie named Claire Simone – a member of the French Resistance who worked in the Jeu de Paume museum during the Nazi occupation of Paris, spying on the Germans, and was instrumental in the recovery of looted works of art from France.
“I think what I found really inspiring about her, and I think all the characters, is they were such unlikely heroes,” Blanchett said. “And Rose Valland was utterly alone, and would write all this down on cigartette papers and put them into this book, which could any day have had her killed.”
Clooney’s own Stokes character is based on George Stout, a leading figure in art conservation at Harvard’s Fogg Museum who was one of the first to push the museum community and the army toward forming an art conservation corps.
“We made some things up along the way but most of it’s true, and in fact they were a part of a group that went into that mine,” Clooney said, referring to the salt mine in the Merkers area of Germany where stolen works of art and a fortune in Nazi gold were discovered by the U.S. Army in the spring of 1945.
“They found all of the German gold, basically all of it, effectively ending (Germany’s) ability to purchase oil and prosecute the war,” Clooney said.
In short, the “Monuments Men,” in their search for stolen art, helped uncover Nazi Germany’s version of Fort Knox, but it was the discovery of the gold – not the warehoused stolen art – that received most of the publicity at the time.
Clooney noted that the hunt goes on today for lost masterpieces, and that the U.S. State Department is involved in negotiations with private individuals, governments and museums in other countries who are still in wrongful possession of invaluable artistic gems.
“And if enough people see the movie, we might still (recover these lost masterpieces),” he said. “Please, tell everybody you know. There’s a lot to that, a lot of questions. First and foremost there are so many elements of it that are tricky. There is a lot of this art that has been found and is in other people’s homes — or museums, quite honestly. And some of it is repatriated and it’s a long process, and it’s not particularly easy.
“There are places, of course, in Russia,” Clooney said. “There is a generation of people who believe they lost 25 million people, and to the victor goes the spoils, and they’re keeping it. Generationally, it seems to be getting more towards returning it to the rightful owners. Sometimes it’s tricky because it’s very hard to raise sympathy for someone named Rothschild, who had the largest private collection. Because people think, well, they’re pretty wealthy and that’s not such a big deal. Although of course you wanted it to be returned. It is a long process, it is a continuing process and quite honestly it’s also about looking at the loss of artifiacts and art that’s going on in Syria right now.
“It’s understanding how important the culture is in each of these countries, and trying to find a way to get them back …
“So it looks like that art is going to get repatriated as time goes on and that’s a good ting,” Clooney said. “So if it opens up a discussion that’s really helpful, I think it’s something worth learning more about …”
It’s most important to realize what the art itself represents, Clooney said.
“…Where it wasn’t enough that you killed (a people), you killed their children, they had to destroy the things that they created from generations before. You had to destroy what made that village theirs. And that was as important as the raping and the murdering of these families. And you started to understand it. And we started to understand how when we didn’t protect the art during the war in Iraq, at the beginning of the war in Iraq, we didn’t protect the museums and the artifacts, and a lot of those things are lost forever, how that can actually affect the community in a very deep way.
“And I think we learned that lesson again,” Clooney said. “Learning how important those things are. What are you fighting for if it’s not your culture, and your life? And so the hard thing, we were doing a movie, as you guys can imagine, we’re gonna write a script about saving art, that doesn’t really sound that fun. So you have to remind people is that what we’re talking about isn’t just these paintings on a wall that some people can look at and get, and some can’t.
“But it’s also about culture. It is about these monuments and it is about these sculptures, but it’s also about the fabric of our culture, and our history. I mean it is mankind’s way of recording history. So that’s important and I think that’s why the State Department are working very hard on this.”
Travel and accommodations provided by Columbia Pictures