For 14 years, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has had as a pre-festival teaser and fundraiser (for its educational arm) the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film evening.
But what made Thursday’s gala event at the Bacara something special had to do with timing and legendary status. The recipient: Martin Scorsese, reasonably called “America’s greatest living director” and one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His film-of-the-moment: the soon-to-be-released and strong contender for Oscars and Top 10 lists The Irishman, a grand, visceral yet also elegiac epic, starring his frequent muse, “Bob” De Niro, Al Pacino (remarkably, in his first Scorsese project), and Joe Pesci.
As SBIFF head Roger Durling noted in his glowing introduction, “At age 76, he has taken on one of his most ambitious films to date. … You are cinema, Martin Scorsese. Long live you.”
In the house this night were Pacino and another Scorsese regular, Leonardo DiCaprio (Gangs of New York, Shutter Island, The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street). Although not in the new film (Scorsese hinted DiCaprio would be in his next project), the actor spoke glowingly of The Irishman, which he said “plays like an elegy. It’s a movie about looking upon what you’ve left behind and squaring off with all of it. For me, what’s more astounding about this film is that Marty transcends his own signature genre and creates a film that methodically transforms itself into an exploration of our very own, universally shared mortality.”
Working on The Irishman, Pacino said, “As an actor, he makes you feel safe. He sets the stage for you. You take chances, push things as far as you can go.” Speaking more broadly, Pacino commented that Scorsese “doesn’t care about success, or failure. He’s not gonna stand still or rest on his laurels. He’s gonna go on.”
In a video appearance, Kirk Douglas called Scorsese a great director but quipped “I forgive him for not using me in Raging Bull or Taxi Driver or Cape Fear. …When you do your next movie, I’m available.” Scorsese, a passionate cineaste and film historian who recently critiqued Hollywood’s reliance on the box-office bonanza of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a New York Times op-ed piece, ended his acceptance speech with a word of warning about the value system and artistic integrity in modern cinema. “Today,” he said, “it’s a new world, and we have to be extra-vigilant. Some actually believe that these qualities we’re talking about can be replaced by algorithms and formulas and business calculations. But please remember that’s all an illusion, because there’s no substitute for individual artistic expression, as Kirk Douglas knew and expressed through his long film career.”