Director David O. Russell receives SBIFF’s first award

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Director David O. Russell returned to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Friday night after a year’s absence to accept the Outstanding Directing Award.

Last year he arrived first as a panelist, one of six directors talking about their work, his being “Silver Linings Playbook.” Then he was an award giver, descending into the maelstrom of Jennifer Lawrence fandom to present her with an award for her young but stunning career.

This year it’s Mr. Russell’s turn to be in the spotlight and sit down for a career overview. His latest, “American Hustle,” is a clever romp with a cast of hilarious characters in New Jersey with the backdrop of the very real ABSCAM sting operation of the ’70s.

Mr. Russell shares a laugh with actress Melissa Leo on the red carpet.
Mr. Russell shares a laugh with actress Melissa Leo on the red carpet.

It’s up for 10 Oscars this year: Best Picture, nominations for all four of its main actors (Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence), Best Editing, Costume Design, Production Design, and for Mr. Russell himself, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (with his writing partner Eric Warren Singer).

So, yes, the movie is getting its due.

Mr. Russell’s first feature was 1994’s “Spanking the Monkey,” an incest comedy of all things, which announced his style and his daring.

Two years later, “Flirting with Disaster” was an ensemble comedy, a travelog and a family film. The stars were bigger (Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette) and Mr. Russell’s obsessions with dysfunction were really being formed.

David O. Russell, winner of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival's Outstanding Director Award, is interviewed on the red carpet Friday night outside the Arlington Theatre.
David O. Russell, winner of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Outstanding Director Award, is interviewed on the red carpet Friday night outside the Arlington Theatre.

“Three Kings” was another “family” ensemble, but among soldiers in Iraq and another travelogue of sorts. “I Heart Huckabees” is his most disjointed and odd film, dividing critics and becoming a cult film to some. That was 2004.

And then Mr. Russell took “an eight-year vacation,” he said on the red carpet.

“People stumble in life but (the break) allowed me to then understand characters better,” he said. “And it made me a better filmmaker.

“I had to take some years off to help my son land on his feet with his bipolar issues and find the right school for him — the Glenholme School in Connecticut,” Mr. Russell said. “I got very involved in that school; and I got very involved with the first public high school for cinema in the Bronx, which is a nice thing for kids in New York City. And I got divorced and I had to deal with my own life. And I lost my way as a storyteller.”

When he returned it was with the drama “The Fighter,” and his actors were the beginnings of his acting family: Ms. Adams, Mr. Bale and Melissa Leo. Mr. Bale and Ms. Leo won Oscars. Ms. Adams got a Golden Globe.

Ms. Leo was on hand Friday night to present the award to Mr. Russell.

Mr. Russell speaks with Roger Durling during Friday's program.
Mr. Russell speaks with Roger Durling during Friday’s program.

“You bring all your creativity to a David O. Russell film and he uses every ounce of it,” she said. “So, for example, he knows Amy Adams well, he knows her aptitude to access all parts of herself, and he builds this character for Amy to play … what a tour de force of acting.”

After “The Fighter” came “Silver Linings Playbook” and another chance to work with his expanding family — Mr. Cooper, Ms. Lawrence and Robert DeNiro.

“When I came back (after those eight years) I was very clear about the cinema of life and people,” Mr. Russell said on the red carpet. “There’s many great kinds of cinema but this is cinema about living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens and diners.

“I love the passion, the life, the music, and the struggle and the magic of what these people live for. That’s just what enchants me. And it’s my privilege to make propulsive living cinema out of it.”

The Film Festival continues today with panels and films. Cate Blanchett will receive the Outstanding Performer of the Year award Saturday evening at the Arlington.

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