Robert De Niro Honored by Santa Barbara Film Fest, Kirk Douglas, 'Playbook' Collaborators

De Niro, a two-time Oscar winner, was presented with the festival's Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film by Douglas himself on the eve of his 96th birthday.
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David O. Russell, Robert De Niro, Kirk Douglas and Bradley Cooper at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival

The 28th Santa Barbara International Film Festival won't officially get underway for more than a month -- it will run from Jan. 24 through Feb. 3 -- but the fest, which takes place in an oceanside city that is a veritable hotbed of Academy members, and therefore regularly attracts Oscar hopefuls, drew its first big names on Saturday night. At a glitzy ceremony at the Bacara Resort & Spa, part-time Santa Barbara resident Kirk Douglas presented fellow screen legend Robert De Niro with the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film. Also on hand to offer tributes to De Niro were Bradley Cooper and David O. Russell, his writer-director and costar on the Weinstein Co. film Silver Linings Playbook, for which De Niro is currently receiving considerable best supporting actor Oscar buzz.

Festival director Roger Durling introduced Douglas by noting, among other things, that it was the eve of the actor's 96th birthday and prompting the entire crowd of several hundred festival sponsors and supporters to join him in singing "Happy Birthday" to him. Douglas then took the stage, joking that he had mistakenly thought that he was to be presented with an award, before paying tribute to De Niro. He noted that, after last year's Douglas Award presentation, which he made to his son Michael Douglas, he had said that he would no longer attend the annual event to make the presentations in person, but that he received a call to reconsider after the fest selected De Niro for the honor. He cracked that his response was, "You talkin' to me?!" (De Niro's famous quote from the 1976 film Taxi Driver), before ultimately acknowledging that it was an offer that he could not -- and did not want to -- refuse. And he asserted, "Robert De Niro never portrayed a character. He became a character."

De Niro, 69, was then called up to the stage -- greeted, not surprisingly, with a thunderous standing ovation from the crowd -- and accepted his award from Douglas, with whom he exchanged kisses on each cheek. De Niro then thanked the fest, saying, "I run a festival myself in New York [the Tribeca Film Festival], and I know how difficult it can be." He thanked Douglas, joking, "This is the way I like to celebrate other people's birthdays -- I get the present!" And then he revealed that he had brought along a present for Douglas: an original copy of the Raging Bull script, signed by De Niro, costar Joe Pesci, and Martin Scorsese, which prompted oohs and aahs from the audience. He said, "Kirk, I feel that I should be giving you this award. I have admired you for my entire career." He later added, "If there was a Robert De Niro Award, not just for Excellence in Film but also Excellence as a Human Being, the first recipient would be Kirk Douglas."

Previous recipients of the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film include Douglas himself, as well as Harrison Ford, Quentin Tarantino, John Travolta, Ed Harris, and, as mentioned, Douglas' son Michael.

Though De Niro has already won two acting Oscars and been nominated for four others, he has not even been nominated for one for 21 years. His funny and moving turn as the father of an emotionally-troubled man in Silver Linings Playbook is his most widely-acclaimed performance in that span, and could conceivably result in a third acting Oscar (no male has ever won more), which might explain his willingness to be as visible and accessible as he has been this awards season, despite his famous aversion to doing press.

Durling, meanwhile, has already announced that, when the festival itself commences just a few weeks from now, Ben Affleck (Argo) will receive its Modern Master Award and De Niro's costar Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook and The Hunger Games) will receive its Outstanding Performer of the Year Award. Additional announcements will be made shortly.