Shiuan Cheng / Daily Nexus

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) awarded its highest honor, the Maltin Modern Master Award, to actor Robert Downey Jr. at Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara on Friday, Feb. 9. 

Before the event began, a crowd formed around the red carpet, hoping to catch the attention of the A-listers as they proceeded into the venue. In a whirlwind of applause, cheers and pandemonium, the crowd erupted as Downey Jr., along with friends and co-stars Rob Lowe and Cillian Murphy stepped out onto the SBIFF red carpet.

The stars took their time and posed for photos and embraced the flashing cameras. Joining them was Leonard Maltin, a revered film critic and historian, after whom the award is named. Afterward the stars retreated inside and the deluge of fans and reporters soon followed, getting to their seats before the event properly began.

Downey Jr. was joined on the carpet by Leonard Maltin (left) and Roger Durling (behind). (Shiuan Cheng / Daily Nexus)

Kicking off the night, Roger Durling, the Executive Director of SBIFF spoke. “There was one person I always wanted to honor and it was Robert Downey Jr. So it is a dream come true tonight,” said the director. The packed Arlington theater shared Durling’s enthusiasm as thunderous applause filled the house. 

“Rising from those mistakes to soar once again is what Robert Downey Jr. exemplifies … I think he’s just amazing,” Durling continued before introducing the moderator of the night, American film critic Leonard Maltin, who the award is named after.

Maltin, clad in a dark purple suit, walked onto the stage to even more applause. The moderator continued to express pure admiration for Downey Jr. before introducing a montage that highlighted his extensive career from his start in “Pound” (1970), “Chaplin” (1992) and, of course,  “Iron Man” (2008) and “Oppenheimer” (2023).

Entering the stage, the Academy Awards nominee and Golden Globe winner radiated charisma despite the challenging and dark topics of his life that were touched upon in the opening introductions, and the audience reciprocated this energy by booming cheers for the celebrity.

“Let’s get moving, this is not the only award I’m accepting tonight,” the star joked as he sat down across from Maltin. Beginning a long night of praise for others, Downey Jr. expressed his gratitude for the editor of the “bananas” montage and thanked the crowd for their energy. “No matter how well things go for you … you always wonder are you gonna show up … and be advised [the audience] is a little bit light out there.” 

Before discussing his work, the renowned actor praised SBIFF and the importance of the event. The star did everything to keep the spotlight on others, even in his moment of well-earned recognition. 

On the topic of fate, Maltin asked, “Was it destiny that put you here?” 

“One million percent,” replied Downey Jr.  “I planned every step of the way … I am just a really weird planner.” This segued into a conversation about his origins in acting which, of course, included discussion of filmmaker Robert Downey Sr, the actor’s father and the subject of a 2022 documentary, “Sr.”

“[Sr. was] one of the most important projects,” said Downey Jr. 

The star was quick to tell stories and insights that, while not having anything to do with Maltin’s questions, kept the night lively and entertaining. 

“What was I talking about?” joked Downey Jr, after going off-topic once again.

Shiuan Cheng / Daily Nexus

Friend and former classmate Lowe and co-star Murphy gave speeches and introduced film clips, but not before Downey could express his most profound admiration for them, calling Lowe a “role model” conducting oneself in Hollywood and saying that Murphy “functions at a higher level.” 

On “Oppenheimer”, Downey “was born to play a supporting role in favor of someone else.”

When discussing his vast filmography, Maltin asked, “Are you a workaholic?” to which Downey Jr. replied, “I’m a something-aholic.” This then flowed into his work on “Chaplin,” for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1993. 

“[Chaplin] just seemed like this make or break opportunity.”

“You just want to feel like you’re making them happy,” Downey Jr. said of working with directors. “I want to commune with that director to the point that [they] and I become the third thing, which is the character I’m playing.” 

Speaking on his resurgence, “Zodiac” (2007) was mentioned, which was described as an inflection point in the star’s career as well as a reflection point. Speaking about his role as a reporter who turned to drugs and alcohol in the movie, he said, “better to play it than to be it.” The film was instrumental in reviving Downey Jr.’s credibility, as Hollywood saw the talented actor become reliable once again. 

“Talk about turnaround,” Maltin said of the actor’s resurgence back into mainstream culture and cinema.

After the release of “Iron Man” (2008), “Tropic Thunder” (2008) and “Sherlock Holmes” (2009), Downey’s ego was inflated, but he gave the credit to the others working on the projects for their success. Downey’s wife and children also keep him grounded. “They really have only a passing interest in my majesty.”

On working with Christopher Nolan on “Oppenheimer,”  Downey Jr. expressed pure gratitude for the faith the director placed in him. “If I’m not prepared within an inch of my life, I will probably evaporate,” was the actor’s mentality while on the set of the 2023 summer blockbuster. “It was just very exacting and very rewarding, and I think it was probably the best movie I have ever been a part of.” 

“Hopefully, we are communicating something that transcends,” said Downey Jr.

Lowe and Murphy then reappeared on stage to present the Maltin Modern Master Award to Downey Jr. The trio hugged as the pair handed the honoree the golden trophy. 

Shiuan Cheng / Daily Nexus

Keeping to the night’s theme, Downey Jr. thanked the audience once again for their overwhelming energy, thanked Leonard Maltin and spoke to his significance within the film industry. He honored Lowe for showing his generation how to act in Hollywood and Murphy for finally getting the praise he should receive, describing Murphy as “a force of nature.”

Before concluding, Downey thanked his wife, held the award high for the whole theater to see and walked off stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

“Never say never,” Downey quipped at one point in the evening, summing up the actor’s rollercoaster from ’80s ratpack, addict and now a key figure in Hollywood culture. 

Downey is currently the front-runner for Best Supporting Actor at the 2024 Academy Awards for his portrayal of the antagonist bureaucrat Lewis Strauss in Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” 

This appeared in the Feb. 15th Daily Nexus printed edition.