In The Monuments Men, which is due in theaters in early spring, George Clooney plays the leader of a special platoon of museum directors, curators, and art historians who join forces to rescue the art that Adolf Hitler stole during World War II. Based on actual events, the movie is a men-on-a-mission thriller that asks a larger question: Do cultural artifacts define the spirit of a country? “Art takes different forms,” said Clooney, who coproduced, cowrote, and directed the movie. “But it represents something that is basic in all of us—our history.”
Clooney became interested in the story through his writing and producing partner, Grant Heslov, who had picked up Robert M. Edsel’s 2009 book The Monuments Men in an airport. “Grant and I had been talking about doing a movie that was a little less cynical than what we normally do,” he said, citing films such as Argo (for which Heslov, Clooney, and Ben Affleck won the Academy Award for Best Picture this past February) and Michael Clayton. “We tend to like cynical films because we find them more interesting. But we wanted to do a movie where the good guys win and you’re fighting the ultimate bad guy—Hitler. This was a story that nobody had heard about.”
What cultural icons have mattered most to you?
I grew up Catholic, and there were always religious icons that I’d see in church. The cross and the altar were big parts of my life. But when I was 10 years old, my father took me to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. I remember walking up those stairs and looking at this carved piece of marble that had nothing to do with a carved piece of marble. That statue said something to me about us as a society. In The Monuments Men, we question whether saving art is worth a life, and I would argue that the culture of a people represents life. When the Taliban destroy incredible pieces of architecture and art, or when American troops don’t protect museums in Iraq, you are seeing people losing their culture. And with the end of a country’s culture goes its identity. It’s a terrible loss, down to your bones.
Hitler was amassing an enormous art collection. Was he planning to open his own museum?
Yes—he wanted to build a Führer Museum. He had a model of it in the bunker with him! He wanted to steal all the great art in the world, and he was well on his way—during the war, he collected 5 million pieces. He also destroyed works he termed “degenerate art.” The Nazis took amazing Picassos and Klees and Mirós and burned them in the garden outside the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris. They wanted to prove that they were illegitimate and had to be destroyed. Hitler pulled off the greatest art heist in the history of the world—luckily, some of that art has been recovered.
Wasn’t Hitler a painter before he became a politician?
Yes, he was a failed artist in Vienna. In the film, we show a couple of his watercolors. If he had only been a little bit better at painting, history might be different.
Did Hitler have particular artists he favored?
He loved da Vinci! Starting in the late 1930s, he sent professors to the greatest museums in the world to have “meetings,” but they were secretly making lists of all the paintings and their locations for Hitler. When the Nazis conquered a country, he would take the art.
I’m guessing The Monuments Men has a happy ending. And Argo has a terrific finale. What are your favorite movie endings?
Watch the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, the Frank Capra film. You can’t end a movie that way anymore—today, Lionel Barrymore, the bad guy, would be hauled away in handcuffs. But Capra doesn’t do that. Barrymore just goes on home, and that’s it, the end. We forget about him and forgive him because Capra’s idea of a perfect ending was “living well is the best revenge.” I tend to like endings that would never happen in today’s movies. In 2013, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wouldn’t end the way it does. I’ve shown that movie to young kids who just love the film, and then you come to the last scene—a freeze-frame of Butch and Sundance getting shot—and their mouths drop: “No, no, no, no.” Films from the ’60s and ’70s end in shocking ways. And that’s why we love them—those movies broke all the rules.
Gravity, in which you costar with Sandra Bullock as astronauts stranded in space, is a surprising, nontraditional film. You are alone for the entire movie. Was it hard to act in that solitary environment?
I actually like working by myself. [Laughs.] Truthfully, I was constantly in motion. The trickiest part was learning to speak quickly and move 50 percent slower because you are in space. It was not fun in the machinery—I have a bad back and a bad neck, so that part was not fun. But you have to step back and look at my life. I’m lucky enough to get to work on these projects.
When you make a film like Gravity, you are a kind of muse for the director—in this case, Alfonso Cuarón. Similarly, in this project for W, you were a muse for five female artists. How did that feel?
[Laughs.] Yayoi Kusama depicted me covered in polka dots. She made me Snoopy! But I must say: I’m proud to be Snoopy! Ultimately, what I’m trying to do with a director—or, I guess, an artist—is to be of service to them and their story.
In her questionnaire, the artist Tracey Emin asks you about the love of your life. But who is your cinematic crush?
When I was a kid, I was in love with Audrey Hepburn. I watched Roman Holiday when I was 11, and I thought she was as elegant as anything I’d ever seen. And I fell madly in love with her. I also always loved Grace Kelly. I mean, when she comes out of the water in To Catch a Thief, I thought, That’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.