Franken goes to Hollywood

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2012 - 1:59 PM

Senator will hand an Oscar to documentary filmmaker who profiled him in 2006.

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Sen. Al Franken, in a Nov. 6 photo, is making a rare trip to Hollywood to present an Oscar Saturday to documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, whose credits include “Al Franken: God Spoke.”

Photo: Genevieve Ross, Special to the Star Tribune

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WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a former comedian who has worked diligently to put Hollywood behind him, will present an Oscar statuette Saturday night at the Motion Picture Academy's 4th annual Governors Awards.

The Minnesota Democrat will be in the Ray Dolby Ballroom at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Southern California over the weekend to present an honorary award to documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, a filmmaker whose body of work includes the 2006 Franken documentary, "Al Franken: God Spoke."

Franken's star turn at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences represents a rare break from his carefully cultivated image as a studious first-term senator from Minnesota, where he won a narrow recount victory in 2009.

In past years, the Governors Awards were formally presented during the main Academy Award ceremonies. They now take place at a separate gala dinner, although Academy publicist Teni Melidonian said the taped presentation is expected to be part of the Academy Awards telecast.

For Franken, the event represents a chance to highlight the work of Pennebaker and his wife, Chris Hegedus, personal friends who built up a catalog of widely acclaimed nonfiction films such as "The War Room," an inside look at Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. That film was nominated for an Oscar at the 1994 Academy Awards.

"Now he's getting an Oscar," Franken said Thursday. Franken will be making the presentation with filmmaker Michael Moore.

Pennebaker spent two years chronicling Franken's emergence as a political satirist who railed against prominent conservatives such as Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly and President George W. Bush. The film, "God Spoke," was released in 2006, helping lay the groundwork for Franken's 2008 run for the Senate.

But for Franken, who faces re-election in 2014, the nod to his freewheeling days in political satire and show business could also carry some risks.

"I thought about that for a second," Franken said. "But I just said 'no.' I'm doing it because they're friends and their work is very serious work and very influential." Franken spent years as a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live" and appeared in numerous comedy films.

"God Spoke" recalls Franken's role as a relentless partisan critic on the now-defunct liberal radio network Air America, where he hosted a talk show for three years, along with his days writing provocative political broadsides like "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them."

That was a far different persona than the one Franken has developed in the Senate, where he rarely grants interviews to journalists outside Minnesota, and where even his mildest public jokes make it into national news columns.

His efforts to cultivate a workhorse image have largely taken root in Washington, D.C., resulting in the playful epithet "Serious Al." At the same time, his celebrity background has made him a popular draw at Democratic fundraisers.

Over the years, Franken has remained close to Pennebaker, introducing "God Spoke" for a 2011 screening at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, in suburban Maryland.

The Motion Picture Academy's Honorary Award, which comes with an Oscar statuette, is given to an individual for "extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy."

Pennebaker is considered a pioneer of cinéma vérité documentary storytelling, having directed more than 20 feature-length films, including "Monterey Pop," "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" and "Don't Look Back," his 1967 documentary about Minnesota native Bob Dylan.

The style is probably best known in popular culture through the hit television series "The Office," which uses many of the same techniques.

"Documentaries are about shining a light on a world," Franken said, "and some of the worlds they've shone lights on are the world of politics. ...They've done it on very substantive subjects."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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