Perched on a directors chair in an off-the-shoulder pink Prada gown, as a man brushed her dark, flowing hair into a state of perfection, and a woman touched up her lipstick, Amal Clooney held up her phone to check her image in one hand, and clutched the notecards for an uncharacteristically personal speech in another. Amal, a woman accustomed to prosecuting war criminals at the Hague and speaking up for victims of ISIS at the United Nations, was about to talk to a ballroom full of celebrities about her husband, George Clooney. “Im just going to remind you, because youre tall, that you dont have to lean into the microphone,” a stage manager told Amal, who nodded knowingly.
Amals composure stood in contrast to the anxiety of the professional entertainers who came to fête George at the June 6 A.F.I. Life Achievement Award gala, which TNT will air on Thursday at 10 P.M., E.S.T, and TCM will rebroadcast in September during a night of programming dedicated to Georges work.
Vanity Fair was allowed to linger in the wings of Hollywoods Dolby Theatre during the show, a perfect perch for watching stars like Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Bill Murray, Diane Keaton, Miley Cyrus, Shirley MacLaine, Julianna Margulies, Jimmy Kimmel, Laura Dern, Anna Kendrick, and Richard Kind pay tribute to and occasionally roast their friend.
As they projected poise onstage, behind the scenes the stars grappled with stage fright, speech planning, and microphone management. Kendrick, Georges Up in the Air co-star, fidgeted with her rings and described herself to a stage manager as “very nervous but alright” before taking the stage. Exiting and clearly relieved after finishing her remarks, Kendrick bumped into Georges The Monuments Men and The Good German co-star Cate Blanchett, who looked up from a printout of her speech notes and declared, “Im so bad at this.” (For what its worth, no, shes not, but isnt it sort of comforting to know that even the seemingly dauntless Blanchett feels anxious before giving a speech?)
“Why do we do this? We could just say no,” Kendrick said.
“I was just crying in the bathroom,” Blanchett replied.
“Im gonna go have a whiskey, then Im gonna go laugh so hard and be like, This fucking bitch. Shes great,” Kendrick said as a way to assure Blanchett she would have a cheerleader in the crowd during her speech. “Nice to meet you, by the way.”
Some presenters opted to switch up the stage crews well laid plans. “The ladies are swapping! The ladies are swapping!” a stage manager said into his headset, as Aniston and Cox decided to enter from the opposite sides of the stage to which they had been assigned (Aniston preferred to enter from stage left). A photographer asked Aniston if it was O.K. to snap a photo. “Do it without me knowing,” Aniston said.
“You look gorgeous!” Aniston said to Dern, as Dern exited the stage, after delivering a monologue in which she shouted out an early film credit she and George share, the never released Grizzly II: The Predator. “So funny, too,” Aniston said. “I didnt know any of that.”
In stage right, Murray, whom George directed in The Monuments Men, slipped on his reading glasses, pulled some notecards out of his suit pocket, and began studying them while rocking back and forth on his heels. Around him, a bluegrass band dressed in overalls and porkpie hats for a performance of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, began to gather. Murray looked up from his notecards and said, “I hope you guys get to keep your wardrobe.” “Whats up, Murray?!” Cyrus, on hand to perform, greeted the comic, as a stage manager began to give the singer some advice about her microphone. “You can go for it,” the stage manager told Cyrus. “Oh, Ill go for it,” Cyrus answered. “I just dont want it to pop.”
At age 57, George seemed to many to be too young to be collecting a life-achievement award. “I know all of you thought the same thing that I thought,” Murray told the crowd. “George is dying.” Instead, George seemed to be living his best life. At the end of the evening, after an emotional speech in which he praised the “one great love” in his life, the actor came backstage and thanked the catering crew. “Has that ever happened before?” one waiter asked another, who shook his head, wide-eyed.
As well-wishers departed for an after-party, George huddled with Amal and his parents backstage, all of them beaming. “Oh my golly!” said Georges father, Nick. “You did a wonderful job,” his mother, Nina, said to Amal.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Rebecca KeeganRebecca Keegan is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.