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“It’s an overwhelming night,” Hugh Jackman said Monday evening as he collected the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s 13th annual Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film — named after the 101-year-old legend of Golden Age Hollywood who has a home in town, and with whom Jackman and his wife had tea earlier in the day — inside a packed Ritz-Carlton Bacara ballroom.
Indeed, for the twice Oscar-nominated Australian movie star, it must have felt akin to watching his life flash before his eyes: There were well-produced montages and extended clips of his varied film work, including X-Men, Swordfish, The Fountain, The Prestige, Australia, Les Miserables, Prisoners, Logan and The Greatest Showman; onstage toasts from colleagues who joined him in making the drive up the coast, including Jason Reitman and J.K. Simmons, the co-writer/director and fellow actor, respectively, with whom Jackman collaborated on the film for which he is currently generating awards heat, The Front Runner, plus fellow Aussie Ben Mendelsohn; and even one of his childhood crushes, Bo Derek, a Santa Barbara local who, to Jackman’s surprise and delight, was seated with Jackman, Reitman, Simmons and Mendelsohn at the head table.
The audience burst out in laughter, and Jackman blushed, when the fest ran a scene from the 2015 comedic film Eddie the Eagle in which Jackman’s ski instructor character likens ski-jumping to having sex with Derek, and simulates that act. An amused Derek then turned to Jackman and mouthed, “I had no idea,” apparently regarding the fact that she was referenced in the film. “Bo Derek, you’re in the room,” SBIFF chief Roger Durling said from the podium at one point. “How would you rate Hugh Jackman? A 5? A 7?” On cue, the 10 star shouted back, “A perfect 10!”
Recipients of the Kirk Douglas Award are almost always men or women currently in contention for an Oscar. (Collecting it in years past were Douglas himself, John Travolta, Ed Harris, Quentin Tarantino, Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Forest Whitaker, Jessica Lange, Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty and, last year, Judi Dench.) And why not? Santa Barbara, on top of being a gorgeous spot only two hours north of Los Angeles (traffic permitting), is also a hotbed of Academy members, a number of whom — such as actor Christopher Lloyd and former MGM chief Jeff Barbakow — are regulars at Durling’s late January/early February event, its year-round screening-and-Q&A series and the Douglas event, a black-tie gala dinner that raises funds for the fest’s free year-round educational programs. So what better an audience to be praised in front of this time of year?
“There is certainly no man that has ever had the length and type of career that Hugh Jackman has had,” Mendelsohn said of his longtime friend. “In 25 years, I have never, ever heard someone say a bad word about him.” On a more personal note, the actor, who struggled to break through for many years, added of his countryman, “That man was fighting in my corner well, well before it was fashionable to do so.”
Simmons, who had never met Jackman before The Front Runner, says he was immediately struck by the actor’s humility and work ethic. “He behaves like he’s the third guy from the left in the chorus of a high school,” the Whiplash Oscar winner observed, emphasizing, “I’ve never worked with a movie star who is harder working.” By way of example, Simmons noted that there is a scene in The Front Runner in which Jackman needs to throw an ax and hit a bullseye — and did so on the first take, evoking a genuine reaction of amazement from his co-stars. “There’s evidence of that kind of preparation in virtually every film Hugh Jackman’s done,” he said. “Because he’s so good, people tend to take it for granted.”
Reitman, for his part, marveled at the number of things at which Jackman is exemplary. Among those he referenced: acting, singing (live, in the case of Les Mis), dancing and being kind to others — fellow actors (Jackman stays to act in takes when the camera is on others), crew (every Friday during the making of a movie, Jackman buys scratch-off lottery tickets and gives one to each crewmember along with a word of thanks for their efforts) and his family. “I never want to feel like I could have done more,” Reitman said Jackman told him.
When Reitman called Jackman up to the stage to accept the award, the audience gave the actor a standing ovation. Jackman began by acknowledging Douglas, who will turn 102 on Dec. 9 (he could not be in attendance at the dinner, but taped a message, which appears at the bottom of this post). Jackman noted that they first met several years ago after Douglas attended a performance of a Broadway show in which Jackman was starring, and then asked Jackman’s agent if his client would join the Douglases for dinner. Jackman’s agent, familiar with Jackman’s policy of never going out after a show with anyone, politely declined on his behalf — but when Jackman learned about this, he scrambled and located Douglas, because if anyone merited an exception to his rule, it was the man who was Spartacus onscreen and broke the blacklist in real life, and whose memoir Jackman recalled listening to on audio cassette, deriving much inspiration from, as a young man commuting to acting school.
Jackman also thanked Durling; Derek (“There’s some fantasy in there I’m checking off the list”); Mendelsohn and Simmons, “two of the greatest actors alive”; Reitman (“You have taught me so much on so many levels … you saw a performance in me and believed in me in a way even I was not sure of”) and Reitman’s producer Helen Estabrook; and the table full of his longtime representatives, including his lawyer, his West Coast publicist Alan Nierob and his agent Patrick Whitesell (even drawing tears from the WME co-CEO by recounting the story, which he said he had never shared before, of the classy way in which Whitesell, when they first started working together, handled a scheduling dilemma that arose after Jackman had committed to play a supporting part in a tiny movie made by the man who had given him his first screen role — and then landed the part of Wolverine in the first X-Men film).
Jackman saved Deborra-lee Furness, his wife of 22 years, for last. Paraphrasing a 2001 commencement speech given by the late Fred Rogers that is featured in Morgan Neville‘s blockbuster Oscar-contending documentary feature Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — “I wept like a baby watching that documentary,” he noted — the actor thanked her for “smiling me into smiling, talking me into talking, singing me into singing and loving me into loving,” adding, “Like everything I do in my life, I share this with you.”
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