I’d be breathing a sigh of relief if I were Leonardo DiCaprio.

The dreamboat accepted the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Platinum Award on Jan. 30 for his performances in such films as “Titanic,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and “Critters 3.” In his speech, however, DiCaprio seemed to miss the point of the award.

“From what I understand, it’s a lifetime achievement award, which is completely and utterly surreal, given I’m only 30 years old,” he said. “But what has it been? Almost 17 years now. I’ve done quite a few films.”

Whoops. Some intern had goofed and not explained to the former “Growing Pains” actor that the award celebrated his work to date — not his lifetime’s achievement. For a second there, I could have sworn that the apparently psychic festival directors had foreseen DiCaprio’s untimely demise happening in the not-too-distant future and doled out the Platinum Award before he gets carried off by a predatory bird or crushed underfoot by a mob of overzealous teenaged girls.

Unfortunately, the Associated Press news article about the award ceremony focused on the lifetime achievement remark. Though a clarification followed the next day, the widely syndicated article had already popped up in newspapers and in online celebrity troughs. Matt Drudge even posted the article on the Drudge Report. The site ignored similar news items regarding awards given to other celebs, so one could easily guess that the ridiculousness of honoring a 17-year acting career led to the often-snarky Drudge to post it.

Yes, Santa Barbara briefly looked like a bunch of mathematically challenged lunatics who gave a 30-year-old a lifetime achievement award. And while the Associated Press issued a clarification promptly, one might take this blunder as an opportunity to examine how the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s awards affect its prestige.

Now, I like the film festival. I attended and enjoyed and clapped this year like a lot of Santa Barbara residents. That’s actually one of the reasons I like the festival so much – it’s one of the few cultural events that draws a healthy cross section of people, from hipster film studies majors to well-to-do Montecito folk to celebrities who’d rather duck into the confines of their mansions. And although I enjoyed the films offered this year, I wonder if the celebrity-adoring awards might raise a few eyebrows.

In addition to the Platinum Award, the festival also honored Annette Bening with the Montecito Award, Kate Winslet with the Sapphire Inspired Award for Outstanding Performance of the Year and Kevin Bacon with the American Riviera Award. Last year, the festival only honored Charlize Theron and director Peter Jackson. And Jeff Bridges and Sean Penn received honors in 2003 and 2002, respectively.

I can’t help but consider the notion that festival directors created awards bearing the names of Santa Barbara locales as a means to amp up the event’s star wattage. It’s not as ridiculous as celebrating the lifetime achievement of a young man just beginning his acting career, but it could sully the prestige of a festival that has a reputation for delivering a diverse array of films every year.

Image is everything. If that’s not already a cardinal rule of life in Hollywood, I think it should be. And I think it applies even when your film festival happens in a sunny, postcard-perfect city just north of Hollywood. Those behind the event clearly pulled through in organizing a great line-up of movies that a lot of people enjoyed, but I hope they think twice about giving out the awards like they’re sticks of gum.

Promoting the film festival requires a few famous faces to pop out of limos, smile and wink. I understand this. But I’d be happy if I didn’t suspect that the motives for the festival were less pure than the beauty and art of cinema. If Dakota Fanning gets a lifetime achievement award next year, I’ll be pissed.

DiCaprio has a long, healthy life ahead of him. With a little restraint with the celebrity adulation, the prestige of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival does as well.

Daily Nexus training editor Drew Mackie never got over his junior high heartthrob dumping him for that DiCaprio fucker.