REVISED 31-Jan-13 at 11:50am.
On an evening of fresh faces and first timers, the sixth night of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival saw the bestowment of the Virtuosos Award. Unlike other awards of the festival recognizing actors’ life long careers or culminating contribution to culture through groundbreaking style or craft, the Virtuosos’ focus is humbler; to celebrate the breakthrough of several actors’ careers by way of outstanding performances achieved within the past year.As such, the Virtuosos are often known for celebrating young actors with newly budding careers. However, this night highlighted that greatness knows neither age nor homeland.
The tone was set by the evening’s moderator and host of Fandango, Dave Karger, who opened the ceremony by noting that “a breakthrough [in one’s acting career] can happen at anytime. ”This truth was incarnated on stage by recipients Ann Dowd, Elle Fanning, Ezra Miller, Eddie Redmayne, Omar Sy, and Quvenzhane Wallis, whose age ranged from 9 to 56. The variety of actors delighted and stimulated the crowd as each honoree, through unique age, gender, orientation, and nationality, revealed their personal relationship to the timeless art of film.
With an impressive introduction (“she has been toiling with stage, film and television for three decades”), Ann Dowd was the first recipient to own the stage. With a humorous and light-hearted tone, she quickly owned the audience as well. “You must have expected me to come out with a cane after that introduction… ‘Toiling for three decades!’” she laughed, poking fun at the moderator. Her teasing hardly let up the rest of the night, which served as a pleasing relief in juxtaposition to the discussion of the disturbing film Compliance, for which Dowd’s dramatic work was recognized. The actress spoke very highly of all those involved in the filming of Compliance, noting her particularly intimate bond with younger lead actress Dreama Walker, for whom she expressed maternal instincts. Dowd also discussed, on the red carpet as well as on stage, how her role in the film has made her more aware of the vast importance of self-esteem; a valuable lesson to learn at any stage in life.
Elle Fanning was recognized next for her portrayal of Ginger in Ginger & Rosa. Floating out on stage, she looked angelic in a white dress and matching heeled boots with her pale complexion and silver blonde hair flowing down her back. The actress divulged her ambition and spunk as she auditioned for the role of a sixteen year-old when she was only twelve. She reminisced fondly about her experience working on a film set in 1960’s London, noting the time-period clothing she got to adorn (which perhaps provided inspiration for her groovy choice of tonight’s footwear) and the draw toward social activism that she found through her role in the film, which addresses the Cuban Missile Crisis. Her bubbly demeanor, pairing perfectly with her bright eyes and shining smile, oozed the authenticity of a go-getter girl, eagerly pursuing her career without riding on anyone’s coat tails, including that of her older sister, acclaimed actress Dakota Fanning. With a powerful clip from Ginger & Rosa demonstrating Fanning’s talent in bringing strong emotion to the screen, it was clear to all that her future is looking very bright indeed.
The tone of the theatre then changed from “cute and innocent” to “hello handsome!” as nineteen year-old Ezra Miller appeared to cries of cheer. Miller was honored for his performance as Patrick in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a motion picture based on the same titled book that Miller claimed to have read and enjoyed four years prior to production of the film. Miller leaned back in his chair, legs draped over the side, as he discussed his appreciation for the book that was given to him when he was fourteen, at a time when he was “very confused and needed it.” He was grateful to have been given the book as a source of guidance and was even more grateful that several years later he found himself strong enough to become the one giving guidance to others through his performance in film.“ It’s exciting to portray a strong, brave, compassionate gay character,” he exclaimed, adding that he hoped there would be more roles like it in the future. If Karger’s remark that Perks is going to be the definitive film of this generation is true, then we can expect that more roles like this one will certainly appear.
“Hello handsome” continued as Le Miserables’ Eddie Redmayne emerged in a typically English straight-legged suit and checkered shirt, which he joked, made him feel as though he were “dressed like a picnic.” The actor jumped right into an absorbing discussion of Le Miserables, describing the auditioning process as, “an X Factor-American Idol nightmare! I was singing the songs I grew up loving to the people who wrote them.” Once his part was secured, Redmayne mastered his role and his singing by “pulling the songs in and making them intimate.” He worked hard to avoid the unnatural, instantaneous transition from dialogue to song (often found in musicals) by beginning several songs without instrumental accompaniment to make them appear more spontaneous. Redmayne also sited such influences as Robert DeNiro for exposing him to useful production techniques like going straight from one take into the next, with cameras still rolling, to preserve the energy of a scene. The actor’s sincere love for the story is likely to have helped him in perfecting his role. “I really cared about Le Mis. I saw it as a kid. I was practically a groupie! Now people reacting emotionally to [the film] is the greatest gift of all.” Cheers to Redmayne for helping transform the enduring play into a work of art on the silver screen.
Native French-tongued Omar Sy was proud to receive a Virtuoso Award for his role is The Intouchables after receiving a Cesar Award for Best Actor in 2012 for the same role. The always-smiling Sy claimed that he’s “not really an actor” and he never went to drama school, “only life school.” For not being a “real actor” he certainly gave an outstanding performance, so mesmerizing in fact that he beat out co-star Francois Cluzet (the French Dustin Hoffman) of The Intouchables and Jean Dujardin of The Artist for that Cesar Award. Perhaps life school is all one needs to earn prestigious cinematic awards? To the rest of us, we can feel better knowing that even French Virtuoso honorees need help from time to time in recalling such eloquent American terms as ”practice” and “sweat pants.”
Quvenzhane Wallis was celebrated as the youngest female ever nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. In a purple-pink dress with a stuffed animal purse tucked under her arm, Wallis was adorable in every sense. She was extremely quick and confident for a nine year-old, making jokes and not wasting a second on feeling inhibited in front of a packed theatre. More impressive than her behavior at age nine is the fact that she was merely six during the filming of Beasts of the Southern Wild, for which she is Oscar nominated and Virtuoso awarded. While auditioning for the role she withheld her true age because the minimum cut off was six and at the time she was only five. Director Benh Zeitlin, however, has stated that he knew instantly that she was what he was looking for and he even made alterations to his script to fit her strong presence. During her interview, Wallis credited Zeitlin for helping her acting by telling her fairytales and other stories to help her better understand scenes and give her ideas. The young actress answered all questions of the night in a bold, often animated, voice and lively spirit. When asked about her future career, Wallis claimed that she would like to work in animation and would enjoy playing the character of an animal. She then lifted her head in a quick and sharp dolphin impersonation. The audience roared with laughter that kept rolling out as Wallis became so comfortable and comedic, we were beginning to wonder who was interviewing who.
Director Benh Zeitlin (who himself is a two time Academy Award nominee this year) handed out the hardware as each Virtuosos honoree graciously accepted. As they all stood together on stage in a final round of applause, teenager next to seasoned actor next to young child; French, English and Americans co-mingled, the true meaning of the Virtuosos Award rang clear. When it comes to creating a powerful performance, age and experience may be of no consequence. Sometimes it is not the classes taken, the number of films released, nor the previous awards under one’s belt that makes an actor great. It is simply the ability to draw from what life school one has had in order to transform oneself into a powerful character. This transformation will undeniably leave a mark. And that, in and of itself, is timeless.