Denzel Washington received the Modern Master award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival (SBIFF) last night, to honour his career, and of course, give a further awards push for Fences. By all accounts, he was very generous on the red carpet, and as affable as ever. A coworker who was on the press line called him “amazing,” and it’s easy to see why he’d be in good spirits… especially after his SAG Awards upset, where his peers deemed his performance stronger than Casey Affleck’s in Manchester by the Sea.

Since 2005, every SAG Award winner in the Best Actor race has also won the Oscar. So, everybody from Jamie Foxx to… Leo. Now, Denzel’s on that winners list and he was definitely carrying himself like a champion prior to picking up his latest honour in Santa Barbara.

Denzel came to play. In our etalk interview, he talked about being in his 60s and how Laurence Fishburne told him that being in your 60s means you’re a master in something. He looked great, talked about August Wilson’s legacy and how much Fences means to him having performed the role of Troy on Broadway and on-screen under his own direction, and spoke about juggling action with drama. That wasn’t the memorable part; his attitude, and his self-effacing sense of humour was.

Viola Davis was originally supposed to present Denzel with his newest statue, but had to back out at the last minute. His Fences co-stars Stephen McKinley Henderson and Saniyya Sidney did the honours instead. Saniyya plays Denzel’s daughter in Fences, and is very, very sweet. She’s in Hidden Figures too, and plays one of Taraji’s daughters in the movie. Anyway, when Denzel saw her on the carpet, he brought her in to our interview and hugged her. He talked about how incredible she was in the movie, and kept asking her where her jacket was.

But the real magic happened when we saw his reaction to when another member of the press showed him an old yearbook photo of himself. He made fun of his three-piece suit, and Saniyya couldn’t stop laughing at the dorky picture. He kept saying his look was his mother’s fault, and that he wore the suit to make her happy. It was a sweet moment, the kind that sets that red carpet apart from any other.


#denzelwashington #denzel @officialsbiff tonight's #tribute. Wonderful talk #saniyyasidney

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The Santa Barbara Film Festival is an essential awards pit-stop. Like Palm Springs, the awards contenders are feted and named ahead of time, so that they can shake hands and schmooze with voters and VIPs prior to the Oscars. While Palm Springs kicks off the new year on the campaign trail, Santa Barbara is timed so that it perfectly coincides with that sweet spot in the early part of Oscar voting. The choices don’t always match the Academy’s picks, of course, as Jennifer Aniston walked that carpet in early February two years ago, even though she did not earn an Oscar nom for Cake. Walking the red carpet in Santa Barbara is considered a campaign rite of passage, and it has been that way for years.

Still, the festival is just beginning. Tonight, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are receiving the Performers of the Year award, members of the casts of Moonlight, Lion, Fences, Florence Foster Jenkins and Nocturnal Animals are the guests of honour on Saturday, and on Sunday, it’s Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams’ turn.

Until last week, Casey was the presumed Oscar frontrunner. He was profiled by CBS Sunday Morning in November, and won countless critics’ prizes, as well as the Globe. Now, though, he has a warm, Denzel charm offensive to contend with. Casey’s best move to maintain his lead is to show up on Sunday and be similarly kind with the media, a hard ask for somebody who’s press shy. He may not be able to match Denzel’s charm — especially as he reflects on his age, and legacy — but he can bring his famous friends along (Manchester producer Matt Damon - his big brother Ben) to sing his praises, talk about the role, and, perhaps, those allegations. It’s time for Casey to play to his strengths, and to “show up” and lean into his Hollywood persona, and possibly, his demons, just like Denzel. And nobody can shake hands like Denzel… except for maybe Ben and Matt.