The Oscar race might be straining the Santa Barbara film festival past its breaking point. Wednesday night, the appearance of Oprah Winfrey nearly broke the festival and last night’s appearance of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Martin Scorsese caused such a frenzy you’d think it was 1964.
Strange things start to happen when big time celebrities mingle among us. One woman heckled Oprah that she’d stolen all of her “work.” And last night DiCaprio was mobbed by a passionate journalist who had to be peeled off him and thrown out. Cutting through all the commotion, DiCaprio and Scorsese calmly took their place on stage. They were just a few seats away from me, just as Jennifer Lawrence had been a few days ago, but I realized again what a enormous star DiCaprio really is — an international, giant supernova.with multi-generational appeal. He simply sat down. Photographers continually took pictures of the two of them sitting there. The whole experience began to mirror some of the ravenous undercurrents of Scorsese’s latest masterpiece, The Wolf of Wall Street, and perhaps a bit of another film DiCaprio starred in this year, The Great Gatsby.
You see, there has to be an us and them. There have to be people we need to soar higher than ourselves. The fundamental essence of a charmed life can come down to a lucky spin on the DNA wheel of fortune: Even features, pretty eyes and extraordinary good looks can bestow the kind of confidence and charisma so intense, some people show up on doppler rada as they approach. Very few are born that way; the rest of us aren’t. Many of those who are will gravitate towards the movies — the ones with the right mix of talent and ambition will make it, but most will not.
We’re engaged in an intimate relationship with the monumental faces we watch on screen. The best of them let us into their character’s personality, something a mere celebrity can’t do. It’s easy to confuse that intimacy with the reality of human relationships. So we gaze up at them as if they have the power to transform us. We stare at them because they are so utterly magnetic. If we could inch closer to them we might. The Wolf of Wall Street being a Leo/Jonah Hill joint, there were beautiful women appearing from out of nowhere. Each rare species of star brings along a different entourage. Sometimes it’s a mother, sometimes it’s a posse. Here, it seemed there were stunning, busty, leggy women hanging around. What for? To talk to Leo? Maybe.
The Arlington was packed with festival-goers waiting to see Leo. Each time he walked down an aisle or passed through a door the room would flutter like pigeons chasing flying breadcrumbs. Leo’s face was somber, seemingly indifferent to the goings-on around him — either because he’s so used to it by now that he knows any expression from him would rock the foundation of the building, or because he hopes by staying calm and respectful of the proceedings his fans would calm down. They finally did. Sort of.
A few years ago Scorsese was at the Santa Barbara Film Festival to promote Hugo. He sat down with Leonard Maltin and engaged in nearly two hours of film discussion nerdery. It was one of the best classes on film I’ve ever taken. Each time Scorsese does one of these long talks he educates you. He knows so much, cares so deeply, is curious enough that every story about his films or anyone else’s just pours out of him. “Marty is a talker,” is a phrase you hear often. If he is your favorite director, as he is mine, you don’t mind if he talks for eight hours straight just about movies.
Last night he was joined by his now frequent collaborator and muse. If De Niro was Scorsese’s Cary Grant, DiCaprio is certainly his Jimmy Stewart — an every man thrust into extraordinary circumstances, often representative of the average American. He is so utterly likable that even when he’s playing the despicable Jordan Belfort it’s hard not to want to be on his side, an element to the film that seemed to perplex critics. One of the Epic Fails of 2013 is how many of the critics so badly misinterpreted Scorsese’s intent with Wolf. Moreover, this year will be looked upon as a joke if it’s discovered ten, fifteen years from now that Wolf of Wall Street won no Oscars. Both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are important and worthy winners. I suspect one of them will last and the other won’t, but regardless, The Wolf of Wall Street stands heads and shoulders above the rest.
“Attack it, come on.” That’s how Scorsese describes his collaboration with Thelma Schoonmacher during the 10-month editing process on Wolf. “It doesn’t match,” she would say. “It doesn’t matter,” he would say. Beat up the scenes, come at them hard — that was the hard work executed by these two 70-somethings who have spent five decades working together. Yet another Epic Oscar Fail was the lack of an editing nomination for Schoonmacher. Wolf’s editing far surpasses any other film. I guess you can tell I liked the movie. Just a little. I’ve seen it eight times now and find new things to discover each time. For the crowd in Santa Barbara, the filmmakers chose to focus on the plane scene, the climatic fight with Naomi, and one of DiCaprio’s speeches. He said he’d been thinking about those speeches for around ten years.
Scorsese once again brought up Steven Spielberg visiting the set. DiCaprio said he made all of the other actors nervous because it’s one thing to have Martin Scorsese watching you on the monitor but to have Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg? Forget about it. Spielberg was enthralled with the scene and wouldn’t leave. Couldn’t.
This audience in attendance last night seemed to love Wolf above the rest, perhaps because it is such a fine return to form for Scorsese, a brave filmmaker who is not afraid to continually try new things. But the cage his fans prefer him in is when he’s in attack mode. The films he’s made with DiCaprio are all masterpieces in their own ways — their imperfections so much a part of what makes them great, especially upon reflection. Scorsese is one of the few filmmakers around who values expression and experimentation and instinct above all else, above box office, above audience coddling, and above the softball down the middle. Scorsese always goes for the home run.
Jonah Hill came out to present Scorsese and DiCaprio with their honors from the festival. He talked about how Goodfellas was his favorite film of all time. He said that he was enthralled by the “What the fuck is so funny about me” scene with Joe Pesci. DiCaprio had said earlier that what fascinated him most about Scorsese was how he was able to pull you in with unsympathetic characters that you eventually felt sorry for — he pointed out the scene where Travis Bickle takes Betsy to the porn flick.
It’s traditional now at the Santa Barbara festival to have a VIP party afterwards. This year they’re trying something new by having the party next door in a room sponsored by Hennessey’s. That meant that each time a party is held the expensive brandy will be brought out and poured for a toast. This is something you really only need to see once. I now know more about that brandy than I do my own child.
Usually this reception room is adequate for the needs of the VIP people to mingle with the star briefly before the star is ushered out. David O. Russell mostly sat behind the velvet ropes, no one really bothered him. Cate Blanchett mingled among them for a bit before being whisked away. Oprah commanded the room, shaking hands, managing things — Oprah is such a force to be reckoned with no one would dare violate her space.
But Leo and Marty aren’t like that. They seem to be more vulnerable, timid almost. Leo planted himself graciously in the corner, smiling and chatting with journalists like Kris Tapley who knew the right publicist to get in that close. Todd McCarthy was cockblocking everyone — jeez, man, the Q&A wasn’t enough? Steve Pond and I watched from the sidelines, briefly lamenting the somber reality that there may be no way in hell 12 Years a Slave is going to win Best Picture, not with Alfonso Cuaron winning the DGA. The DGA calls Best Picture. In a split year, the popular movie wins Best Picture, not the “respected” “important” one. Pond has officially changed his prediction to Gravity, as has Pete Hammond. Sooner or later all of the pundits will follow suit, remembering that the Oscars aren’t won by people who feel like doing something right, or making a point. They are won by passion. Passion, as we know, is a fickle beast. It barely lasts the months leading up to summer. But that’s how the race is, was, and will always be.
There was no way I could get close to Scorsese. I did want to shake his hand. I’d been championing his work since I started my blog in 1999, first with Gangs of New York, onward through The Aviator, and my best Oscar year remains when The Departed finally won. I was there with Shutter Island, the only one of them that didn’t make the Best Picture cut, and now with Wolf of Wall Street. I love the man. But clearly, I’m not the only one. Scorsese and DiCaprio were pinned to the back of the room. The VIP guests were crowding to get close enough to bask in DiCaprio’s halo effect. There aren’t many people like him I would say “poor guy” about but I was thinking, “poor guy.” I hope he knows what great work he’s done throughout his career and that he really is more than those sparkling blue eyes and that giant gorgeous head.
I couldn’t get up close but I did lift my camera briefly to capture the scene for you fine people. That was when I got yelled at by handlers and staff. They discarded me like I was the leg-humping journalist who attacked DiCaprio and suddenly I was brought spinning back to earth. You can never make the mistake of believing that you belong in this world if you do what I do.
Stepping back from the scene while DiCaprio, Scorsese and Hill were quickly whisked out of the room in under 30 seconds, I’d never seen so many body guards covering anyone at the Santa Barbara fest before. But nonetheless, it was a pretty cool thing for DiCaprio to do, just sit and have a long conversation about his long and fruitful career with Scorsese.
I was never so glad to walk the chilly, wet streets of Santa Barbara that just hours earlier were being trampled under a stampede of human feet. Mothers had brought their babies to see Leo. Girls put on heels and lipstick. Cell phones jammed the wi-fi for several hours afterwards as the residents of this town stilled their beating hearts, pounding in unison, as if one of the emerging stars in the clearing night sky had dropped down to earth and fallen at their feet. DiCaprio was gone. And with him the chaos of adoration. The streets were mine. And I had them all to myself.