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‘The Artist’ Crew Hits Santa Barbara, Cinema Vanguard Awards, Fest Prize Winners

'The Artist' Crew Hits Santa Barbara, Cinema Vanguard Awards, Fest Prize Winners

With seemingly unstoppable awards momentum behind Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist,” Oscar nominees Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo accepted the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s annual Cinema Vanguard Award Saturday, thrilling a near-capacity house at the elegant Arlington Theatre.

SBIFF executive director Roger Durling anticipated the film’s appeal back in December when “The Artist”’s Dujardin and Bejo were announced for the award, which recognizes actors who have forged individual paths, “taking artistic risks and making a significant and unique contribution to film.” Ten Oscar nominations, several guild prizes and numerous critic’s awards later, “The Artist” is proving the unlikely front runner for this year’s Academy Awards on February 26.

Durling welcomed Dujardin and Bejo onstage with a brief intro in French, which he restated in English, praising them for “conveying a sense of passion” in their performances: “It’s their heart that imbues the film with so much joy.”

Dressed in an elegant white pantsuit with an unfastened black ribbon tie around her collar, Bejo told Durling: “We feel very awkward and shy,” about the award, “we really appreciate all this.” Bejo, who was born in Argentina and grew up in France, said that “I always wanted to be an actress ever since I was five or six. I have so much emotion when I’m in the audience I want to share that.” After several years in French TV, Bejo got her break in movies and in 2006 starred opposite Dujardin in Hazanavicius’ spy spoof “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.”

Dujardin also came up through the TV ranks, trading his small-screen acting career for movies with a series of French comedies before starring for Hazanavicius in the original “OSS 117,” as well as the sequel “OSS 117: Lost in Rio.” Speaking with the occasional assistance of an interpreter, Dujardin said, “I think it’s all I know how to do,” as he reflected on his acting experience. “Michel changed my life and I hope I changed his life” he said of his collaboration with the director on “The Artist,” their third film together.

Generous clips from “The Artist” and the actors’ previous films played during the hour-long discussion, often punctuated with Dujardin’s contagious humor. Explaining the film’s overwhelming popularity, Bejo noted that “because Michel isn’t from Hollywood, it’s received as a love letter. It’s very genuine, that’s why audiences love it.” Both performers demurred on the subject of working in Hollywood themselves, although Bejo indicated that she’s newly repped by CAA and Dujardin confirmed that “this movie has opened a lot of doors and I’m not going to close them.”

“Did you feel hesitant about this pretty risky role?” Durling asked Dujardin about accepting the part of silent film start George Valentin. “Yes — I said, ‘Michel are you crazy?’” the actor replied, noting that securing financing for the movie was difficult. “I said no, then one week later I said yes,” Dujardin recalled. “I wanted to make this movie and I wanted to be a silent movie star in 1922.”

Bejo, who’s now married to Hazanavicius, observed that “Jean and Michel have a very special relationship. To be an actor between these two guys you really have to find your own space.” She also hesitated to take her role of rising Hollywood starlet Peppy Miller, Bejo said, concerned she’d be considered simply the director’s wife, rather than a legitimate actress. But she explained that her concerns were allayed because “I learned with those two guys how to just love my work. Since ‘OSS 117,’ I learned to love acting.”

At the conclusion of the evening, Durling asked Hazanavicius onstage to present the Cinema Vanguard awards to his wife and his leading man. The director praised their performances, saying “I met two actors with so much talent and charm, both of them changed my life.”

Earlier in the weekend, Durling regrettably confirmed the untimely death of fest programmer Mike DeGruy, who curated the “Reel Nature” festival sidebar. A filmmaker and underwater photographer, DeGruy was killed in a helicopter crash off the coast of Australia while scouting locations for an upcoming project. “He loved his work, he was full of life,” said Durling. “He traveled the world and his passionate affection for all things outdoors was infectious and only eclipsed by his love and dedication to his wife, Mimi, and his children.”

On Sunday, the fest announced the winners of the jury and audience awards. The top prize Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema was given to Zam Salim’s indie feature “Up There,” about a deceased greeter welcoming new souls into the afterlife. “Pretty Old,” directed by Walter Matteson, took the Best Documentary Film Award for its profile of competitors in the Ms. Senior Sweetheart Beauty Pageant.

SBIFF attendees voted Ken Scott’s feature “Starbuck” – the offbeat tale of a former sperm donor who discovers he’s the father of 533 children — for the Audience Choice Award. Ismael Ferroukhi’s “Free Men” won the jury’s Best International Film Award for its depiction of a Muslim immigrant who joins the French Resistance to save Algerian Jews in World War II.

The Cinema Nouveau Award for best French-language film went to “Heat Wave,” directed by Jean-Jacques Jauffret. Julia Murat’s “Found Memories,” about a young photographer who finds a forgotten ghost town where only a handful of people live, received the Nueva Vision Award for the best Spanish/Latin American film.

The jury awarded a special prize to Erik Canuel’s “Barrymore,” starring Christopher Plummer, and bestowed the Santa Barbara Social Justice Award on eco-doc “Dirty Energy,” directed by Bryan Hopkins.

The 2012 SBIFF jury included actor Dave Koechner, actor-director Brad Hall; actor-writer W. Earl Brown, actor Anthony Zerbe and his wife Arnette Zerbe, SBIFF originator Phyllis de Picciotto, director Glenn Jordan, actor Tim Matheson, online awards columnist Kris Tapley and writer-director Perry Lang.

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