George Clooney in a scene from the "Ides of March." (Columbia Pictures )
Politics may make strange bedfellows, but in these hyper-partisan days, just how many motion picture academy members and other award voters are raring to snuggle up to a politically themed film, particularly one focused almost entirely on Democrats, such as "The Ides of March"? And, really, how truly liberal is Hollywood — and, in turn, the academy — at this point?
When it comes to "Ides," these questions may be compounded by the fact that the profitable, well-reviewed film (85% "fresh" on the Rotten Tomatoes meter) was directed, cowritten by and costars one of Hollywood's most notable and, to some, notorious liberals, George Clooney. The actor is no stranger to major award attention, and few would argue the fact that American politics has become even more severely divided in the nearly six years — and one pivotal presidential election — since Clooney was honored by the academy for two left-of-center pictures: "Syriana" (he won the supporting actor Oscar) and "Good Night, and Good Luck" (nominations for directing and cowriting).
With "The Ides of March," however, there's a distinction that could work in its favor. Though the film revolves around a Democratic presidential candidate — a stirring, seemingly populist Pennsylvania governor named Mike Morris (played by Clooney) — the story is hardly some liberal screed. Instead, the screenplay, adapted by Beau Willimon from his play "Farragut North" and reworked by Clooney and longtime collaborator Grant Heslov (all three share scriptwriting credit), proves a harshly cynical look at a win-at-all-costs political process propelled by the increasingly corrupt Morris.
Thus, the film serves up its share of red meat for every political stripe: Liberals can rally around Morris' pro-choice, pro-environment speechifying, while conservatives can relish seeing Democrats portrayed as "dirty tricksters." For independent voters, it's all fair game.
Still, the men behind "Ides" won't deign to predict if the movie's politics will boost or blemish its award prospects. "You can't make a film based on what you perceive its Oscar chances to be," said Clooney in an email late last month. "We didn't want to make a civics lesson; we wanted to make a realistic picture about a Democratic candidate."
Heslov concurred: "When George and I are sitting in a room and writing, we're not thinking, 'How can we make this work for Democrats?' We're really just trying to figure out how to tell the best version of this story."
Willimon, reached in the writers room of "House of Cards," a new TV drama he developed with David Fincher, said he doesn't claim to know Hollywood's true political bent beyond "the usual stereotypes." No matter, the former Democratic campaign aide hopes that "whatever [award voters'] political aims might be, they look at the movie for what it is: a universal story about someone at a moral crossroads who has to make some tough decisions and does so at the cost of his own soul."
That was apparently true for Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. members who, last week, bestowed Golden Globe nominations on "Ides" for best film drama, lead dramatic actor (Ryan Gosling), director and screenplay. And perhaps it will also be the case with Oscar voters, if the reported reaction to an academy unspooling of "Ides" earlier this fall is any indication. "It was definitely one of the top three or four screenings so far this year in terms of turnout and reaction," recalled one academy member who requested anonymity.
Still, if the "stereotypes" Willimon mentioned are true and the academy and other industry voting blocs remain largely liberal bastions, one wonders just how many of those who abhor seeing Democrats depicted as "bad guys" might ultimately hesitate to reward "Ides." Willimon doesn't seem too worried.
"Personally, I think it's interesting to have a seemingly liberal, left-leaning candidate who we come to learn is up to these nefarious acts and that the people working for him fall in various places on the moral spectrum," Willimon said. "In truth, this sort of behavior is very bipartisan. 'Ides' could have just as easily been a film about a Republican candidate and his staff."
Referring to more conservative viewers, Heslov noted, "There are people who don't like George Clooney's politics, so it won't matter what [kind of movies] he makes. It won't matter how good this film is or how good he is in 'The Descendants,' they just don't like him. My hope is that ["Ides"] isn't as polarizing as some people might want to make it."
According to Clooney, though, to properly weigh in on this topic, it may be worth defining — or redefining — the word "liberal."
"By today's standards, the left has all but disappeared," Clooney said. "The center is now the 'left,' the right is now the 'center' and the extreme, insane right is the 'right.' Is there a liberal media? Is Hollywood liberal? Is the academy liberal? Only if you change the standard of what is considered liberal."
That said, the famously forthright actor-filmmaker knows common ground when he sees it. "I think the secret to the film has been the fact that Republican and Democrats who work within the political system who have seen the film have all felt that it's really a discussion about how we elect our officials, not who we elect. I think that's why it's had the success it's had."