Robert De Niro turns the spotlight back on Kirk Douglas at Santa Barbara salute

SANTA BARBARA – The Santa Barbara International Film Festival presented the 7th Annual Kirk Douglas Award for Film Excellence Saturday night to Robert De Niro.  Douglas, who turned a spry 96-years-old on Sunday, was on hand as were De Niro’s “Silver Lining Playbook” cohorts Bradley Cooper and director David O. Russell.  Previous honorees include Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Quentin Tarantino, Ed Harris, John Travolta and Kirk Douglas himself.

De Niro, who is expected to receive SAG and Golden Globe nominations this week for his supporting role in “Playbook,” received warm introductions from Cooper, Russell and Douglas.  As he noted on stage, Douglas had actually planed to “retire” from presenting the award in his honor this year until he heard De Niro was the recipient and he just had to return one more time.

Following a montage of great De Niro moments in films such as “Bang The Drum Slowly,” “Mean Streets,” “The Godfather: Part II,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “New York, New York,” “The King of Comedy,” “The Untouchables,” “Goodfellas,” “Heat” “Casino,” “Cape Fear,” “Awakenings,” “The Good Shepard” (which he also directed), “This Boy’s Life,” “Heat,” “Stardust,” “Meet the Parents” and even “Analyze This” (odd omissions included “Wag the Dog,” “Cop Land” and “Midnight Run”), each presenter praised the 69-year-old legend.  

Cooper spent most of his brief speech reflecting on how often De Niro was referenced in his own family as a great actor.  When Cooper first met him, he says he couldn’t believe how friendly he was, how much he loves to take pictures and that he’s the only person he knows in real life who says “cheese” when a photo is being taken.

Russell had the most poignant recollection of his “Playbook” star.  The duo had first met over a decade ago at a coffee shop in New York on another project.  De Niro was researching his CIA-centric “Shepard” at the time and was completely disguised as a Hasidic Rabbi and no one recognized him.  Russell recalled the joy he saw in De Niro’s face over how he was able to become invisible in the middle of a Manhattan Starbucks. The second time he met De Niro was backstage at a tribute for Dustin Hoffman and they reflected on the finding schools for their young kids in New York.  The third time they met was all business in De Niro’s home.  A script for “Playbook” lay on De Niro’s lap and he listened studiously to Russell ‘s pitch of why this film was so important to him and why the actor should star in it.  Russell’s own son – now 15 – has been diagnosed bi-polar like Bradley Cooper’s character in the novel and screenplay.  At 10, his son said he couldn’t live with his condition and Russell wanted to make “Playbook” to show him that the had a long life ahead of him.  Russell recalls that De Niro already had tears in his eyes and he hadn’t even gotten to discussing the movie itself

Still hard to understand at times because of a stroke he experienced a decade ago, Douglas still charmed the crowd during his presentation to De Niro.  He got his biggest laugh when when he referenced one of the honorees’ famous lines, “I’m looking at you!” complete with two fingers pointed at De Niro.  

De Niro took the stage giving Douglas a kiss on the cheek and his self-deprecating persona was immediately evident in his acceptance speech.

“A lot of awards [I’ve gotten] are from other countries. Countries where English isn’t spoken,” De Niro says.  ” I think this is an indication that my acting is best appreciated while reading subtitles. And sometimes it works out. In ‘Godfather: Part II’ my dialogue was subtitled and I got an award for that.  But anyway thank you to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival for this honor. Thank you very much and I run a festival myself in New York and I know how difficult it can be.”

De Niro continues, “Thank you Kirk and happy birthday. This is the way I like to celebrate other people’s birthdays, I get the present. (Laughs.) Actually though, I do have something for you. I asked your son Michael who I am working with now what you would ilke and he said he didn’t really know you well enough to say. (Laughs.) No, I’m just kidding. He said you might like an original screenplay of ‘Raging Bull.’ So, Marty Scorsese had one. He was trying to sell it on Ebay, but he gave it to me to give it to you for $200 bucks (Laughs.) So he and Joe Pesci signed it and I had the girl in my office sign my name. From all of us, happy birthday Kirk. And it’s an honor to receive this gift with your name.”*

*Further background for those unaware, Douglas played a character similar to De Niro’s Jake La Motta from “Raging Bull” in 1949’s classic boxing drama “The Champion.” Douglas received one of his three best actor nominations for his performance.

After the applause dies down, De Niro waxes, “Watching all those clips I was thinking, ‘OK, I wasn’t bad in that. And then enough already I’m getting physically ill.’ (Laughs.) ‘Couldn’t we see more clips of Kirk Douglas like that scene with him in ‘The Champion’ or something from ‘Spartacus’ or really anything where he’s wearing shorts or a skirt?’ (Laughs.) Kirk I think I should be giving you this award. I’ve admired you my entire career and not just for your extraordinary gifts as an actor and your extraordinary gifts as a producer, but the life you’ve led. All those great roles, but also on the international stage as a philanthropist, as goodwill ambassador, as bestselling author and as a moral man of the world. You’re 96 and still so busy. I know over the years we’ve been trying to get together but kept missing each other. But really Kirk, you didn’t have to go this far. (Laughs.) I’m glad you did though. I’m very proud to be here with you and to receive the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film. Y’know there isn’t a Robert De Niro award.  A couple of years ago, my publicist Stan Rosenfield thought we might get the Boy Scouts to have a merit badge for scouts interested in acting. The Boy Scouts of America thought that would send the wrong message. (Laughs.) That’s O.K. If there is a Robert De Niro Award I’d want it not just to be in excellence in film, but also as excellence as a human being. And the first recipient would be Kirk Douglas.”

And cue the well deserved applause.

The event featured many industry notables from the Santa Barbara area including Carol Burnett and Roger Corman.  A brief rendition of “Happy Birthday” for Douglas was one of the more touching moments of the night.

De Niro is expected to sit down for a lengthy Q&A focused on his distinguished career during the 28th Santa Barbara International Film Festival which runs from Jan 24-Feb 3, 2013.