Celebrity, power and the breaking points between success and failure were themes Hickenlooper returned to in his character development. "I think for Midwesterners, the drama of success and failure is more acute than it is for writers on either coast, who tend to come from families that have landed," notes Feeney. "The Midwest has this tradition of pushing west. I think that sense of having to make your own way, and playing for very high stakes, is part of a strong American tradition, and oftentimes it's not present in Hollywood films. I feel that what George was bringing that was different very directly grows out of his roots in the Midwest."

Friends say Hickenlooper never lost sight of his single-minded pursuit of an Oscar. (Age 30 had been his goal.) Now Casino Jack, deemed "a gem hidden in plain sight" by the Los Angeles Times, is looking like a contender. "George really saw Casino Jack as a bellwether in his filmmaking, because for the first time he had made a film that I think really stands a chance to break out of the pack," says Zuckerman, his producing partner.

Kevin Spacey, who portrays Abramoff in the film and attended one of five jailhouse interviews the protagonist granted Hickenlooper, said in a statement to Deadline Hollywood: "All of us who knew him — who had the chance to collaborate with him — who saw the child in him that he never lost — always looking at life with wonder and curiosity — will miss him with enormous admiration and affection."

Hickenlooper working on Casino Jack.
Hickenlooper working on Casino Jack.
Scene from Casino Jack, with Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper.
Scene from Casino Jack, with Kevin Spacey and Barry Pepper.

Details

Casino Jack ticket holders will have access to the 6:30 p.m. tribute preceding the movie's 8 p.m. screening on Thursday, November 11, at the Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Boulevard, University City. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 17.

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The movie made its world premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Hickenlooper had the lens turned on him for an AMC/Morgan Spurlock documentary about filmmakers hoping for their big break. In one clip the camera follows Hickenlooper before the screening to a hair salon, where he delights in a scalp massage and a decadent-looking slice of tiramisu, saying, "As an independent filmmaker we rarely get pampered like this."

"I'm 46 years old — I don't know where the time went," he adds as the stylist combs his receding hair. "Well, just enjoy it, you know," she replies.

Hickenlooper issues a quick nod. "I like — I think — I worry that death will be very boring," he says, then proceeds to polish off his cake.

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