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 accepting a few congratulatory remarks for her performance in “Blue Jasmine,” Blanchett modestly yielded the center of attention to Clooney, who effortlessly took command of the Columbia Pictures news conference to promote his fact-based World War II adventure.
“The Monuments Men” is 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 also co-produced and co-wrote the script with Grant Heslov (who also partnered with Clooney to produce “August: Osage County” on location in Oklahoma).
“Yes, we wanted to make an entertaining film,” Clooney said. “We were not all that familiar with the actual story (of ‘The Monuments Men'), which is rare for a World War II film. ... 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 about how Hitler's forces stole and hoarded 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, was 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 were hidden by the Nazis in deserted mines and other secret locations.
In the latter days of the war, as Hitler began to realize Germany would not triumph, 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. So the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) unit — the so-called Monuments Men — were faced with an unpredictable and fast-approaching deadline.