It is that time of year again for the Santa Barbara International Film Fest, on the heels of the Palm Springs Fest, where many of the Oscar contenders were in attendance. Those selected to be part of this year’s fest here in lovely SB include Bruce Dern, Cate Blanchett, Leo and Marty, to name a few. The first tribute gala for the fest this year was David O. Russell, who was named by the festival Outstanding Director of the Year. The fest’s director, Roger Durling, calls Russell his favorite director going all the way back to Spanking the Monkey. Because Russell has been plugged into the Oscar game for three consecutive years now – winning Oscars for his actors along the way — one forgets his humble beginnings, his more rebellious younger self, and, frankly, how funny he is. I’ve only ever seen two people wrestle control from Durling during one of these events — Jennifer Lawrence and David O. Russell. It is no wonder she functions so beautifully as his muse. They are cut from the same cloth, speak the same shorthand, and seem to have much the same sense of humor.
Before Sliver Linings and Lawrence, though, there was The Fighter and Oscar wins for Melissa Leo and Christian Bale. Leo was on hand last night to present the award to Russell and the two made a pact to work together again very soon.
The festival itself has had some major upgrades from last year, including a new VIP room where guests of the festival can drink lots of alcohol, sponsored by a major label, and eat pretty/tiny hors d’oeuvres. This year, Robert Redford and Oprah Winfrey are two honorees who each missed out on Oscar nominations but decided to attend anyway. To me that says they agreed to do the fest and either they stand by their word or they feel that experience is worthwhile with or without AMPAS’ validation. Surely both are living legends who don’t need a golden statue to make them more worthy to humanity. The very notion is laughable. But this is a game and the game has rules and this time these two are breaking them, which I think is kind of boss.
Already I’ve had too much to drink the two nights I’ve been here. If this keeps up I will morph into Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and start referring to Jeff Wells as Swampy. That won’t be good. It will be Telluride part two. It wasn’t so long ago I was humiliating myself in front of Jason Reitman, after all. But when they’re passing the stuff out for free it’s hard to pass it up.
The tribute to Russell began around 8 and lasted two hours, with clips of Russell’s films in between their conversation about Russell’s life and career. At one point the director teared up recalling the late Sydney Pollack who was sort of a mentor to him. He spoke of being a bartender and having served Martin Scorsese twice, once during the era of Goodfellas. He joked about how he said to him, “I want to do what you do.” And Scorsese said back, “I’ll have a vodka…” Mike Nichols walked in. “I want to do what you,” Russell said. And Nichols said “Good luck.” You can imagine how many times both of these directors heard that, Scorsese made a movie about it, The King of Comedy. They could not have known who they were talking to. I am starting to see why it’s important for David O. Russell to win an Oscar. To me, Oscars mean most if they mean something bigger than the winner. Russell’s story is a good example of how they can underline your name and say to the world, Look what I just did.
The first thing Russell did with Durling was throw out the format. Durling would ask a question and Russell would volley with “I really like Santa Barbara. It’s one of those places you come back to and forget how great it is to be here. You think, Why don’t I come back here more often?” He saw the full house at the Arlington stretched out in front of him with a lot of faces staring back and concluded: Sure, they want me to talk about my life but really what they want is to be entertained. So entertain he did.
The one thing this interview did was make me wish he wrote more original stories and did fewer adaptations. The world of Russell, inside his head, his past experiences, his observations of life – those are the exceptional things about him. He allows actors the freedom to create dynamic extroverted characters but that’s only because, clearly, he’s seen all sorts of humanity throughout his life. He’s worked the shit jobs, he’s survived the crazy but lovable family, he’s struggled, he’s been shit on and he’s triumphed. Is he “difficult”? Probably. There were a few times when he seemed annoyed at the interruptions in the hall, like a baby crying or a woman coughing. “Is that a cat coughing up a fur ball?” He said. “Put that baby to bed.” As much as I had to use the bathroom I was literally afraid of getting up and leaving for fear he would say something.
It would be easy to interpret that as general dickishness but it was also just a perceptive person noting what everyone else was thinking. Russell wrote Flirting with Disaster, one of the best screenplays of the last thirty years but it was, in typical industry fashion, ignored. He would have to alter his style somewhat to get into the game. Now he makes movies from his heart but, to me, his films today don’t feature the same kind of wild diversity among the female characters as his earlier ones, especially Flirting with Disaster. What richly drawn female characters he wrote in that film. They weren’t what they are now — just dimensions of the men they love — back then, they had their own inner lives, their own trajectories, their own thoughts and ideas. Look at Lily Tomlin, Mary Tyler Moore, Tea Leoni, Patricia Arquette.
The only awards body that acknowledged Flirting with Disaster that year was the Spirit Awards. But now, he’s a Best Director nominee at the Oscars three years in a row. He has found his groove with his career and the actors he assembles. He’s well on his way to becoming a Best Director winner.
At the VIP party later, Russell was sitting in the roped-off area but anyone could approach him if they wanted to. I chatted with a SAG and Academy member who made the trip specifically because Russell was speaking. She said that he was the best director for actors she’d seen in a long time. I asked her what her favorite movies were this year. American Hustle she said. I loved American Hustle. Then I probed a little deeper. Did she like Gravity? She hadn’t yet gotten to it in her screener pile. Did she like 12 Years a Slave? Yes, she said. It was deeply moving. So I asked what her friends were saying, what film they most liked – American Hustle she said.
With leggy models perched atop spiked platform pumps bringing drinks, the VIP party for Russell wasn’t going to end any time soon. But this was just day one for me – ten more days to go. I said my goodbyes and headed out into the night. The problem with hotel rooms is that they make their beds so comfortable you never want to leave them. I sunk into mine and forgot everything, letting sleep take me to another place.