Bradley Cooper stepped up to the microphone and cleared his throat.
“It’s been a very long night, but thank you for staying,” he said at the end of Thursday’s American Cinematheque Awards. As this year’s recipient of the film organization’s career-spanning honor, the director, co-writer and actor of “A Star Is Born” — alongside a few hundred Hollywood folks at the Beverly Hilton ballroom — had just sat silently through two hours of lighthearted jabs and loving tributes from a handful of his closest collaborators.
First, Jennifer Garner, who worked with Cooper on “Alias” when it debuted in 2001, joked aplenty about his early years on the small screen.
“Unfortunately for Mr. Cooper, he let ABC talk him into tipping his hair blond — a look that proved to be repellent to American women,” she said. “It wasn’t until I heard him speaking French to a background artist on set one day that I was like, ‘Wait a minute, is Bradley handsome?!’
“Bradley, what’s happening to you now is a pure joy to those who know you, especially to those who have known you from the start,” Garner added.
Vince Vaughn, who acted alongside Cooper in “Wedding Crashers,” recalled the impossibly bright exercise clothes the honoree wore while shooting the 2005 comedy. “It was like a child who was dressed by his parents not to get hit by a car at night,” he said.
Yet Vaughn noted that those outfits were emblematic of the inherently bold Cooper: “You’re proof that, despite all the odds, dreams are possible if you have the right approach to them.”
The affectionate roast continued with “Hangover” trilogy costars Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms, as the latter teased Cooper about his unrecognizable speaking voice in “A Star Is Born,” as well as the confusing chorus of its main song. “Which is it: are you in the shallows, or far from the shallows? Because you can’t be both!”
After a slew of jokes from the two, Galifianakis ended the section with a heartfelt remark about why the two bonded on set.
“Bradley Cooper always talked about his parents, and you don’t hear that often in this business,” he said. The mention of his parents nearly brought Cooper to tears.
Throughout the evening, Cooper also heard the heartfelt words of his three-time director David O. Russell (“He has a gift for capturing what’s human”), his longtime friend Brian Klugman (in school, “he wasn’t just the most handsome kid in the class, he was dangerously talented”), his “Elephant Man” costar Patricia Clarkson (“How refreshing to work with a man in Hollywood who thinks of the word ‘peer’ as a noun, not a verb”) and Taya Kyle, the widow of Chris Kyle, the U.S. Navy SEAL Cooper portrayed in “American Sniper.”
He was visibly moved by Jacob Schick, a veteran-turned-actor who suffered body-altering injuries while in combat. However, “from Day One that Bradley Cooper met me, he treated me as a whole man.”
Many of the speakers mentioned Cooper’s affinity for immersive character research, lingering in the editing room and learning as much about filmmaking as he could.
That came to a head when directing the “Star Is Born,” said actors Sam Elliott and Lady Gaga, who sung his praises at the tribute. The singer deviated from her speech on the teleprompter to discuss how meaningful it was that he addressed her on set by her real name, Stefani Germanotta.
“I ran from Stefani for a long time, and I put on a superhero cape and called myself Lady Gaga,” she said, tearing up. “You challenged me to deep-dive into a place where I had to see her again, where I had to be Stefani again.”
So after hearing this parade of endearments — and watching clips of nearly all of his jobs, from his onscreen debut on a memorable “Sex and the City” episode to his directorial debut in “A Star Is Born” — Cooper said a few words of his own.
He first accepted the award from fellow actor-turned-director Sean Penn, who reenacted their “Inside the Actors’ Studio” encounter and praised the honoree for the reminder that “human stories of scale can still be told.”
Cooper stood onstage, glass trophy in hand, staring at a crowd in the same venue that intimidated him when he saw Garner win a Golden Globe in 2002.
“The room felt like I was in Yankee Stadium, and this room tonight, all of a sudden, I felt like I was in a very small, comfortable living room,” he said.
Cooper’s voice broke when speaking about his family (“I am very lucky because I had a lot of love from my parents”), but he made everyone laugh when he revealed that a rejection letter from director Michael Mann fueled him for the three years that followed. Though it was a small gesture, it had a lasting impact.
“Tonight, you have given me so much more inspiration to keep telling stories,” Cooper said. “And more important than that, it reminds me to do anything I can to help a young dreamer fulfill that dream and be a part of this community.”