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The Real Story Behind ‘The Tender Bar’

George Clooney’s latest movie depicts the true story of a boy finding a group of surrogate fathers at his uncle’s watering hole.
The Tender Bar Ben Affleck
Amazon Studios
By  · Published on November 2nd, 2021

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story of George Clooney’s The Tender Bar.

George Clooney‘s eighth feature as a director, The Tender Bar, is a coming-of-age drama based on J.R. Moehringer‘s memoir of the same name. Tye Sheridan, Ron Livingston, and Daniel Ranieri play the author at different times of his life in the story of how and why he became a writer.

The movie also tells the story of a bar owned by Moehringer’s uncle, Charlie, played by Ben Affleck. As reflected upon in the book, Charlie and his clientele played a major influence in shaping Moehringer’s life and career, and now the adaptation shows us how.

Here are the details of that true story that inspired The Tender Bar:

Growing Up Without a Father

J.R. Moehringer’s memoir begins when he was eight years old, in 1974. His father, a disc jockey named Johnny Michaels, left his mother when Moehringer was just seven months old.

According to NPR, young J.R. grew up in a world of “surrogate fathers.” Among them were his uncle and his uncle’s clientele. The bar “was the only place he felt safe,” and it was there that he found a community. More than just a place to go and get food and a drink, this was a place to meaningfully connect with others. Moehringer told NPR:

“We went there when we didn’t know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love or sex or trouble or for someone who had gone missing because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.”

A Bar Called Dickens

The bar’s name feels too cliché to be true: Dickens, which was located in Manhasset, New York, a small hamlet on Long Island. J.R. Moehringer grew up just 142 steps from the bar, with his mother and grandparents. When he turned 11, the saloon’s patrons began inviting him to tag along to the beach. Moehringer told C-SPAN:

“That’s where they spent their days, because of course they spent all night at the bar. And that was my indoctrination to the bar.”

At that young age, Moehringer would watch as the men gambled and used every curse word imaginable. He’d sit in the bar, sip on a soda, and take it all in. His mother didn’t know that Uncle Charlie, her younger brother, was bringing him so closely into this world. But she trusted him. And, Moehringer said:

“I guess, in a way, having any role models is better than having no role models, with notable exceptions. But still, these guys were better than nobody.”

Eventually, when he turned 16, he began to integrate more into the bar’s social scene. The men, he said, taught him about manhood:

“The good and the bad. … I learned what not to do as much as I learned what to do. But they taught me how to love. How to tell stories. And they were always a group of men that I could go to and have them congratulate me and be proud of me, and I think every young boy needs that.”

A Desire to Write

Eventually, as J.R. Moehringer’s aspirations as a writer grew, he began to write about the men at the bar. Some of his first attempts came during school, in the form of short stories in English class. The bar provided endless material. Moehringer told NPR:

“Sometimes I would take notes, but sometimes I wouldn’t need to because some of the things they said made searing impressions on me as a kid. Also many nights here I would write things down on a cocktail napkin. Many nights somebody would shove a cocktail napkin at me and say, `Write that down. That thing I just said? That’s pretty funny. Write that down.’ It was as if they wondered when someone was going to come along and start recording their wisdom and their witticisms.”

The men became some of Moehringer’s first champions, fostering his ambition to write. They were eager subjects, but also unafraid to critique. Moehringer himself admits that his early attempts to fictionalize the bar did not go well, and his subjects agreed:

“They would pass the pages up and down these stools. And there was pretty general agreement that it was all bad. I mean, they were flattered that I was trying to write about them, but we all recognized that I was not capturing them on the page.”

After the failed attempts, Moehringer decided to try the story as a piece of nonfiction. And the story finally began to come together. In 2005, the men Moehringer met at the bar were among his most vocal fans. He told C-SPAN:

“They’re proud of this book. And that’s a great relief for me, because they feel as if their stories have been presented truthfully and so it sort of validates their lives in a way.”

In the New York Times, Janet Maslin likened the “good-time fellowship” of the bar to the TV show Cheers. But while the men may take center stage in much of the work, Moehringer says his mother is the true hero of the memoir. According to NPR, it was his mother, Dorothy (played in the film by Lily Rabe) “who pushed him to become a writer.”

J.R. Moehringer’s Later Years

The Tender Bar follows the true story of J.R. Moehringer’s coming-of-age through his early 20s, including his time as an undergraduate at Yale. He eventually landed a job at the New York Times and began his career as a journalist. In 2000, he won the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for his work at the Los Angeles Times. 

Readers of The Tender Bar after its release in 2005 included Andre Agassi. In 2009, the tennis champion published an autobiography with Moehringer’s assistance entitled Open Court. In short, Moehringer had made it as a writer and then some.

And it was at the bar that Moehringer first learned to tell stories. In the interview with NPR, he likened Dickens to an amphitheater in Ancient Greece, noting the important role each placed in their respective societies:

“There needs to be a place where people come together, freed from their possessions and temporarily free of their houses and their identities to some extent and where they can be in semidarkness and tell the old stories. This is the very place where I decided that I wanted to find a way to tell stories for a living, and it’s also the place where I first saw a man give his memoir. It was at this bar where I didn’t know what it was at the time but I saw a guy tell his life story. And when he was done, he felt better about his life.”

After writing the book, Moehringer said, he started to feel better about his life, too.

The Tender Bar hits theaters on December 17, 2021, and will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video starting January 2, 2022.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.