It’s been a star-filled weekend in Santa Barbara, with a dozen of A-listers — including numerous Oscar nominees — making their way to the American Riviera for events at the 39th Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
On Friday night, inside the 2,000-seat Arlington Theater, which was sold out, the fest celebrated Robert Downey Jr. with its Maltin Modern Master Award, which is named after the film critic/historian Leonard Maltin. Maltin moderated a brisk career retrospective conversation with the Oppenheimer best supporting actor Oscar nominee, who charmed the audience with his self-deprecating humor and imitations of everyone from Richard Attenborough to his late father Robert Downey Sr., prior to Downey’s costar Cillian Murphy presenting him with the award itself.
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During the interview, the honoree, 58, reflected on growing up as the son of an independent filmmaker who cast him in a movie, 1970’s Pound, when he was just five. “I think this is what I was supposed to do,” the younger Downey said of acting, deadpanning, “I didn’t really have the panache to be a waiter, I was told, so I had to resort to theater.”
Downey was a fast-rising star of ’80s and early ’90s American cinema. He discussed with Maltin 1985’s Weird Science, 1987’s Less Than Zero (“a ghost of Christmases Future”), 1989’s Chances Are and True Believer, and 1992’s Chaplin (for which he received his first Oscar nomination, noting that director Attenborough “changed my life”). The actor Rob Lowe, a high school classmate and fellow ’80s heartthrob who is still a friend, made a surprise mid-interview appearance to compliment his friend’s work from that era.
Infamously, Downey, in the mid-1990s, began a major battle with addiction. But he re-emerged in the mid-2000s, clean and as talented as ever, in films like 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (on which he met his future wife, Susan Downey), 2007’s Zodiac and 2008’s Tropic Thunder (for which he received his second Oscar nom), before exploding to superstardom as Marvel’s Iron Man, a character he played in numerous films released between 2008 through 2019.
Then, in 2022, Downey and his wife produced Sr., a documentary about his complicated relationship with his father, who died in 2021. He now reflects, “That was really the beginning of this new kind of phase that I’m in,” which is widely expected to culminate with his first Oscar win.
Murphy, who was introduced to a huge ovation, told the crowd: “I’ve never worked with or met anyone like Robert Downey Jr., truly. Aside from his staggering talent and his otherworldly range, he has managed to awe us with both his character and his leading man performances, his searing dramatic performances and his gut-busting comedic performances, he’s taken on and triumphed in every imaginable kind of role… It’s just mind-bending what this man his done. In my opinion, he is the most versatile actor of his generation, most likely of many generations… Robert works incredibly hard to make it look so easy, as all the great ones do. But he’s not just a great actor, he’s a kind of a unicorn, because he’s a great actor who has also risen to the level of superstardom that few of us can comprehend. I think that is because he is one of the kindest, funniest, most generous actors I have ever worked with, and all of that comes out on the screen. You see it in every single performance.”
On Saturday night, TCM host Dave Karger, for the 14th consecutive year, emceed the fest’s Virtuosos Award evening, a celebration of performers who achieved breakthroughs over the past year, which was another Arlington Theatre sell-out. Before Karger took the stage, though, Scott George and a host of fellow Osage singers and drummers performed a rousing rendition of “Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People),” George’s Oscar-nominated original song from Killers of the Flower Moon.
Then Karger introduced six of the eight pre-announced honorees for brief individual interviews: Barbie best supporting actress Oscar nominee America Ferrera, All of Us Strangers lead actor Andrew Scott, May December supporting actor Charles Melton, The Holdovers best supporting actress Oscar nominee Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Past Lives lead actress Greta Lee and Killers of the Flower Moon best actress Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone — Rustin best actor Oscar nominee Colman Domingo and The Color Purple best supporting actress Oscar nominee Danielle Brooks had to pull out of the event due to filming obligations — noting that, by happenstance, all were performers of color and/or members of the LGBTQ community. He cracked, “In other words, you are not going to see one straight white person on stage all night long.”
Ferrera spoke about the celebrated monologue that she was asked to deliver in Barbie (“I’m just so glad I didn’t eff it up”) and what her Academy recognition means to her (“an Oscar nomination has been on the list of dreams since I was like five — let’s not pretend that I haven’t practiced that speech a thousand times”).
Scott discussed how meaningful it was for him to show All of Us Strangers, which depicts a same-sex relationship, in his native Ireland, where it used to be illegal for men to hold hands. Melton responded to questions about his level of anxiety going into May December (“I was really nervous going in — I mean, it’s Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore“) and gaining 40 pounds to play his role (“It was fun for me, I got to eat whatever I wanted”).
Randolph said that she shot The Holdovers more than two years ago (it was held back after being bought by Focus Features following a private screening at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival). Lee, meanwhile, said she had spent 20 years playing supporting roles prior to Past Lives, which she described as “everything I had been searching for my whole life” and, in a reference to the film itself, “inyun.”
And Gladstone reflected on becoming the first Indigenous American best actress Oscar nominee, noting that she was personally gratified, but also frustrated that Indigenous Americans have gone so long without such recognition: “It’s long overdue — this is the 96th Academy Awards,” she said, adding, “The Super Bowl’s tomorrow. We haven’t come that far if you look at one of the teams that’s playing [the Chiefs].”
On Sunday, the fest squeezed in one final tribute ahead of the Super Bowl. At the Arlington, Jazz Tangcay moderated the Variety Artisans Award tribute to a host of Oscar nominees: Barbie songwriters Billie Eilish and Finneas (the siblings behind “What Was I Made For?” were certainly the main draw), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti, Oppenheimer composer Ludwig Göransson, Barbie production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer, Maestro hairstyling/makeup artist Kazu Hiro, Oppenheimer film editor Jennifer Lame, Killers of the Flower Moon cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse sound re-recording mixer Michael Semanick and Poor Things costume designer Holly Waddington.
Speaking of Poor Things, the film’s best supporting actor nominee Mark Ruffalo will be at the Arlington on Sunday night for a career-retrospective conversation ahead of the presentation to him of the fest’s American Riviera Award.
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