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Ocean’s two

George Clooney and Brad Pitt walk among mortals at TIFF

Brad Pitt speaks at the TIFF press conference for his film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. (Malcolm Taylor/Getty Images) Brad Pitt speaks at the TIFF press conference for his film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. (Malcolm Taylor/Getty Images)

For me, the double whammy of successive George Clooney/Brad Pitt press conferences – here in Toronto promoting their respective films Michael Clayton and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – brings to mind a small town in Namibia called Swakopmund.

Rising like a peyote-induced mirage along Namibia’s Atlantic coastline, the town is a cross between Munich, Miami Beach and a gingerbread village. By far the strangest relic of Germany’s colonial rule over this southern African nation, Swakopmund is a hodge-podge of brightly coloured Bavarian-style buildings, restaurants offering menu items like Springbok Bratwurst and wealthy German tourists smeared with sunscreen. On the face of it, Swakopmund is just another bizarre colonial hangover on a continent littered with bizarre colonial hangovers. So how is it that this town, or rather the small faux-Tuscan village of Langstrand a few kilometres south, came to be such hallowed ground?

For a few shining moments in mid-2006, the entire world’s attention was focused right there. Press and paparazzi booked up the hotels, the Namibian army helped barricade the beaches, and the hopes and prayers of millions of well-wishers floated across the world to settle on these sandy streets. It was there that royalty decided to have their offspring; Swakopmund was the place where, on May 27, a date the Namibian authorities are threatening to make a national holiday, baby Shiloh Jolie-Pitt was born.

The packed Tudor (in name only) conference room of Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel is testament to the fact that the two men on hand are, barring perhaps Tom Cruise, the mightiest of Hollywood’s male stars. So are the thousands of regular folk that have camped outside the hotel. And so is Swakopmund. The globe is their personal stomping ground – there is no corner of it where they are unknown – and for a few shining moments, they are here in Toronto illuminating us all with their mega-wattage. I’m not sure why, but today this phenomenon feels deeply creepy. 

Perhaps it’s because Andre Dominik’s Assassination of Jesse James – a slowly paced western – at times comes off like a sly comment on the perils of celebrity culture and on how high a price both the celebrity and his/her audience must eventually pay for their complicity. During the press conference, Pitt, wearing a jaunty newsboy hat, is pragmatic. “I know the deal, and I know the trade-offs. And we manage it.”

“[The celebrity aspect] is not completely what attracted me [to the project] – but getting into the story, I was amazed to see that the tabloid media existed at that time. It seems to me that not much has changed, except quantity.” That, and the fact that the press doesn’t fawn over real gunslingers any longer – just the men who play them.

George Clooney speaks at the TIFF press conference for his film Michael Clayton. (Malcolm Taylor/Getty Images)
George Clooney speaks at the TIFF press conference for his film Michael Clayton. (Malcolm Taylor/Getty Images)

George Clooney, who in person possesses more affable A-type self-assurance than anyone else on earth, helps put the celebrity thing in perspective in terms of what it meant in getting his own, equally difficult film made. (Michael Clayton is about a lawyer, working for evil corporate clients, who finds his soul.) “It helps,” he says of his celebrity. His director, Tony Gilroy, is more effusive: “He’s George Clooney! Quite honestly, who’s gonna mess with him? He was the security blanket for this film all the way through. He was the insurance policy.” 

“That’s me,” says Clooney, “an insurance policy.”

Pitt is asked whether he feels things have gone a little too far, after a female fan hurled herself past security to throw her arms around him as he walked the red carpet of the Venice Film Festival (as if the Swakopmund obsession wasn’t far enough). “It’s been a long time since I was jumped like that,” he says. “Hey – there are a few people out there who aren’t playing with a full deck.”

With regard to a question about his latest fling, Clooney snaps at a reporter, “Good for you – have a nice day. You guys! When have I ever answered a personal question?” We’ve been told. 

Both Clooney and Pitt are in complete control of their careers, and have turned to activism as side business. Clooney has put his weight behind the conflict in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region and he is asked whether Canada’s role there has met with his expectations. He turns to serious mode. “Yes, it does. Listen, whether or not you think all [the players] are savoury or not – and I don’t – at least they are talking.” And part of this must be attributed to the weight of his celebrity.

And then there are the film projects, and the fact that they get to choose whom they wish to work with. It wasn’t always thus. “Brad Pitt’s here next, and you’ve worked with him a lot. What is one of his best roles, would you say?” asks a reporter. 

“Hmm. Johnny Suede,” deadpans Clooney. 

Later, Pitt urges us to watch Clooney’s Red Surf. “It’s great – go see it.” 

And thus, the vicissitudes of celebrity life have been explicated for us by two of the most recognizable faces on the planet. But leaving the Four Seasons to head back to my office, through the throngs of celebrity watchers, I was reminded of another Namibia landmark –the Etosha Pan national park – where some of the best game viewing in the world is to be had. “It’s Terence Howard,” whispers someone in the crowd, as the actor steps into the SUV. Just like spotting big game in Africa. Like I said, there is something about it this whole celebrity thing that’s deeply creepy.

Richard Poplak is a Toronto-based writer. He’s covering TIFF press conferences for CBCNews.ca Arts.

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