The Santa Barbara International Film Festival Remains a Key Stop on the Oscar Circuit

Liem Soeng

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival Remains a Key Stop on the Oscar Circuit

It’s not news that the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is a key stop on the awards trail. Every year, Executive Director Roger Durling pulls a starry lineup and Oscar wranglers make sure their clients make the most of the 2,000-seat Arlington Theatre red carpet tributes and panels.

The new trend? Multiple presenters, and thus even bigger star power. Bradley Cooper had both costar Carey Mulligan and friend Brad Pitt pay him tribute last Thursday, while on Friday Robert Downey Jr. drew both his old school chum Rob Lowe and “Oppenheimer” costar Cillian Murphy.

Saturday brought the producer and International panels along with the annual Virtuosos show hosted by TCM’s Dave Karger, who hawked his glossy new Oscar book published by TCM, “50 Oscar Nights: Iconic Stars & Filmmakers on Their Career-Defining Wins,” including Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Hudson, Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep, and more. And Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“The Holdovers”) flirted charmingly with both Karger, her favorite TCM host, who she said she watches every night in bed.

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Karger always brings out each Virtuoso for a short interview, then brings the group together for fun cross-talk. (“Rustin” Best Actor nominee Colman Domingo sent a video from Atlanta where he is shooting, while “The Color Purple” nominee Danielle Brooks sent hers from New Zealand.) “Barbie” nominee America Ferrara admitted that she had the jitters about not messing up her already-famous monologue, and couldn’t watch it without criticizing herself, but finally accepted that she had delivered the goods. Andrew Scott reported that people see themselves in “All of Us Strangers,” in multiple ways. “I’ve never been in a film before with such a broad spectrum of reaction,” he said.

SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 10: (L-R) Lily Gladstone, America Ferrera, Greta Lee, Charles Melton, Da'Vine Joy and Andrew Scott receive the Virtuosos Award at the Virtuosos Award ceremony during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival at The Arlington Theatre on February 10, 2024 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF)
Lily Gladstone, America Ferrera, Greta Lee, Charles Melton, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Andrew Scott receive the Virtuosos Award at the Virtuosos Award ceremony during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival at The Arlington Theatre on February 10, 2024 in Santa Barbara, CaliforniaGetty Images for SBIFF

“Every day was a surprise,” said Charles Melton, who gained 40 pounds for “May December.” “Just focus on the work,” he told himself before shooting with Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman. “You know you want them to like you, but this is a job.”

Greta Lee from “Past Lives” had been working steadily for 20 years in supporting roles. “It was so immediately clear that this script was so striking for so many reasons,” said Lee. “It felt both small and urgent and necessary and everything I had been searching for my whole life without knowing that this could be.”

SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 10: (L-R) Lily Gladstone, Greta Lee, Charles Melton, Da'Vine Joy and Andrew Scott speak onstage at the Virtuosos Award ceremony during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival at The Arlington Theatre on February 10, 2024 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF)
Lily Gladstone, Greta Lee, Charles Melton, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Andrew Scott speak onstage at the Virtuosos Award ceremony during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival at The Arlington Theatre on February 10, 2024 in Santa Barbara, CaliforniaGetty Images for SBIFF

Lily Gladstone (“Killers of the Flower Moon”) had to fight off her native indigenous-designer dress during her interview, as a feathered wing threatened to cover her face. “I just flew in this morning,” she quipped. Gladstone braved icy roads in order to be on Osage land in Oklahoma on Oscar nominations morning. “It’s overdue,” she said of her being the first Native American Best Actress nominee. “It’s very shared. It’s touching to see that the impact of a win for one of us touches all of us.”

When the group reconvened together onstage, some had started drinking backstage and the jokes were flying, especially among Lee, Randolph, and Scott.

SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 11: Mark Ruffalo and Anne Thompson attend the American Riviera Award ceremony during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 11, 2024 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF)
Mark Ruffalo and Anne Thompson attend the American Riviera Award ceremony during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 11, 2024 in Santa Barbara, CaliforniaGetty Images for SBIFF

At the Sunday night tribute, I grilled Mark Ruffalo about not only his Oscar-nominated role as a bumbling Lothario in “Poor Things” but his entire career, running through his breakout “You Can Count on Me,” his pivot to Marvel’s The Hulk, which he has played 10 times over 12 years, and his outstanding work in independent films, from the Oscar-winning “Spotlight” to Todd Haynes’ true DuPont courtroom drama “Dark Waters,” which Ruffalo produced.

Ruffalo was often hilarious and also poignant about the ways he started scrappy and angry and mellowed over the years: not unlike Bruce Banner/Hulk, a character he has long sought to turn into an integrated man.

His “Poor Things” costar Emma Stone did the presentation honors of the Riviera Award with a terrific speech about the pleasure of working with Ruffalo the actor but also getting to know Ruffalo the man.

Tuesday night, February 13 brings the SBIFF Writers Panel, always one of the highlights of my year.

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