George Clooney poised to break an Oscar record with ‘Argo’

On a slow news day for awards pundits, my mind got to wandering — as is the rather tragic wont of awards pundits’ minds — to matters of trivia and statistics. When a colleague asked me to provide him with a list of the 2012 Oscar nominees that can, even at this early stage, be set in stone, one of the few titles I could comfortably jot down for inclusion, of course, was “Argo.” Its current, widely perceived status as the Best Picture frontrunner isn’t unassailable, but there are no grounds on which one can doubt its nomination: critically and commercially proven, popular in the industry, with no weaknesses in sight, it’s officially in the black, as it were.

That means Ben Affleck can add at least one nomination — well, with Best Director, almost certainly two — to an Oscar record sheet that has remained unmarked since his joint screenplay win for “Good Will Hunting” 15 years ago. Win or lose, it’s a happy turn of events for a career many thought was headed for punchline status a decade ago. But he’s not the only major Hollywood star for whom an “Argo” nod would represent a milestone: some guy called George Clooney stands to make history with the film.  

Until I saw the film’s closing credits roll, it had somehow escaped my attention that Clooney was a producer on “Argo” — together with his regular producing partner, Grant Heslov, and Affleck. As his name flashed by, however, it made perfect sense that he was involved: the actor may not appear on screen, but the film’s hearty political engagement, slick patter and throwback craftsmanship make it very much of a piece with Clooney’s more prominently branded work; I’d wager it’s a better film than any he’s directed, but it’s not hard to imagine him having done the honors.

So it seems fitting rather than arbitrary that — bar some kind of finicky producers’ ruling on the Academy’s part — “Argo” is poised to land Clooney his first Best Picture nomination. (You’d be forgiven for thinking he nabbed one with “Good Night, and Good Luck.” in 2005, but Heslov was actually the sole producer on that one.) Moreover, that nomination will bring Clooney to a significant Oscar record: the first individual to score Academy Award nominations in six separate categories.

Last year saw Clooney bring the tally to five, adding a first Best Adapted Screenplay bid (for “The Ides of March”) to an Oscar résumé that already included mentions for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (“Good Night, and Good Luck.”), Best Actor (“Michael Clayton,” 2007; “Up in the Air,” 2009; “The Descendants,” 2011) and Best Supporting Actor (2005’s “Syriana,” his lone win). Coincidentally, the last Oscar race also saw British star Kenneth Branagh match the five-category record, adding a Best Supporting Actor nod for “My Week With Marilyn” to previous citations for Best Director and Best Actor (“Henry V,” 1989), Best Live-Action Short (“Swan Song,” 1992) and Best Adapted Screenplay (“Hamlet,” 1996).  

In doing so, Clooney and Branagh jointly joined a pedestal occupied by none other than Warren Beatty and John Huston. Beatty had checked off Best Picture (“Bonnie and Clyde,” 1967; “Heaven Can Wait,” 1978; “Reds,” 1981; “Bugsy,” 1991), Best Director (“Heaven Can Wait”; “Reds,” his lone win), Best Actor (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “Reds,” “Bugsy”), Best Original Screenplay (“Shampoo,” 1975; “Bulworth,” 1998) and Best Adapted Screenplay (“Heaven Can Wait,” “Reds”).

Huston, meanwhile, had reached the record first, scoring for Best Picture (“Moulin Rouge,” 1952), Best Director (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” 1948; “The Asphalt Jungle,” 1950; “The African Queen,” 1951; “Moulin Rouge”; “Prizzi’s Honor,” 1985); assorted renamed writing categories amounting the original and adapted, and even Best Supporting Actor (“The Cardinal,” 1963).

John Huston, Warren Beatty, George Clooney and Kenneth Branagh makes for a rather stylish quartet of joint record-holders — though spare a thought for Branagh, the only one of the four never to have won in any category. In any event, it looks to be a short-lived club, with “Argo” helping Clooney plant a new flag in a sixth category. It’ll mark his eighth nomination overall, a number all the more impressive for having been reached in only eight years. Should “Argo” win the top prize, meanwhile, he’ll become only the second person to take Oscars for both producing and acting — the first being Michael Douglas, for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Wall Street,” respectively.

This may be little more than trivia, though it does underline how Clooney — routinely compared to Warren Beatty in the media, conveniently enough — has cultivated a reach and range of influence far beyond most of his peers in the industry. (Next stop: costume design.) “Argo” may be overwhelmingly Ben Affleck’s cause, but it does offer voters the chance to polish the crowns of two Hollywood princes.