SANTA BARBARA – Saturday night the Santa Barbara International Film Festival shook things up a bit with the annual Modern Master Award tribute, this year dedicated to “Birdman” star Michael Keaton. Colleagues and co-stars sent pre-recorded messages to honor the actor, emotions ran high at the end of the evening and the fest had a special surprise in store for moderator Leonard Maltin as well.
First, the retrospective. It was a typical deep dive into a career, the highlights of which you can read in our recent series of interviews with the actor. Keaton was clearly overwhelmed by seeing things in this context as his “Multiplicity” co-star Andie MacDowell was on hand to present an introductory clip package of career highlights. “I feel like I'm gonna pass out,” he said as he took the stage to begin the evening.
Maltin noted Keaton's first scene from “Night Shift,” as we hear the boisterous Blaze Blazejowski grunting The Rolling Stones' “Jumpin' Jack Flash” before we see his shadow through a frosted window pane and suddenly watch him burst through the door with a casual “what's up” head bob. “Here was the debut of a new screen personality,” Maltin said. Interestingly enough, and due respect to the Stones, Keaton found the comedic, boppy rhythm of the character by listening to Bruce Springsteen's “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”
Keaton talked about needing a way into the character of Batman so as not to feel silly that the Caped Crusader's secret identity wouldn't be patently obvious. So he focused on a growl for the voice. But the incredible discomfort of the heavy Bat suit (which constricted his breathing), allowed the claustrophobic actor to go deeper and darker inside an alienated soul and it ended up working for the character, he said.
He praised the work of John Schlesinger (“Pacific Heights”) and the fortunate opportunity of being able to collaborate with him. He recalled laughing all day long on the sets of “Multiplicity” and “The Other Guys” (the latter his first real foray into comedy in some time). And he explained the blessing of needing to change his name from Michael John Douglas to Michael Keaton in order to satisfy SAG rules. “It meant 'this is my work, and this is my life,'” he said, as he does not use the Keaton surname in any other element of his life. That's notable for an individual who so fiercely maintains an out-of-the-fray lifestyle.
Throughout the evening, Keaton was surprised by little video messages from friends and colleagues. His Montana neighbor Jeff Bridges sent one in via iPhone, twirling around and shouting, “I think you're gonna win this thing, maaaannn! Wooooo!” Winona Ryder, in introducing a “Beetlejuice” clip, offered touching thoughts from snowy Sundance. “The Paper” and “A Shot at Glory” co-star Robert Duvall praised sharing a set with him and “listening and talking,” as the 84-year-old actor likes to boil acting down to. Alejandro González Iñárritu offered a thoughtful ode to his new friend and cohort. And maybe the biggest surprise for Keaton came when his “Johnny Dangerously” and “Batman Returns” co-star Danny DeVito took the stage to present the actual award itself.
But before that moment, SBIFF Executive Director had a surprise for Maltin as well. Maltin has always moderated this particular evening, the Modern Master tribute. It's the highest honor the fest bestows, and from now on, Durling said, it will be known as the Maltin Modern Master Award, Keaton receiving the first annual. It was a touching aside, but it came after a hugely emotional moment for Durling on a personal note.
The film enthusiast, who has turned this event into something truly special over the last many years, used to own a coffee shop in Summerland a few stops down the 101. And Keaton would often come in for a cup of joe and to talk about movies with him. It always meant a lot to Durling, that this star would take that time to build that relationship – this was long before Durling's affiliation with the festival – and it was enough for Durling, holding back tears, to say that he felt all of this, growing the festival, establishing a series of tributes during the annual awards season, was so that one day he would be able to honor his friend.
He had the opportunity to finally do that Saturday, just as the Academy, of course, has the opportunity to finally do that on Feb. 22. And it was a heartwarming moment for an event that seems to top itself in that regard each and every year.