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Oscar Watch: Actor contenders stump at Santa Barbara Film Fest

Oscar Watch, charting the ups and downs of the awards season, comes to you every Monday from now through the end of February. With lead actor contenders Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne making a pit stop at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival over the weekend, let's take another look at one of the year's most competitive contests.

Lead actor race

This year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival sports more than 200 films, including 24 world premieres and 55 U.S. premieres, with just about every one of them featuring Q&As with the filmmakers and actors following the movie. It’s a deep festival when David Oyelowo is on hand to talk about his movie -- and it’s not “Selma,” but “Nightingale,” a dark drama due out later this year. (Oyelowo did stump for “Selma” at a later festival event.)

The festival’s gala tributes -- lengthy career retrospectives held at the Mission Revival-style Arlington Theatre on State Street -- have become its most public signature, a chance for Oscar nominees to wax nostalgic and, if they're so inclined, to subtly tout their credentials to the media and any voters in attendance. (Some 100 academy members live in Santa Barbara, with many others owning secondary residences in the tony community.)

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Redmayne and Keaton, two of this year’s lead actor contenders, made their way to Santa Barbara over the weekend. This is the one acting category where the winner's name has not already been engraved onto the Oscar and, if anything, the Arlington events only made things a bit more interesting.

After taking the Screen Actors Guild honor last week, Eddie Redmayne once again became the category’s favorite. The last 10 SAG winners have gone on to take the Oscar and Redmayne's turn as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” contains many elements -- biopic, a man dealing with a disability, period setting, English accent -- that Oscar voters find irresisitible.

But here's the thing: Relatively speaking, at 33, Redmayne's a kid. And when Michael Keaton turned up Saturday night to chat about his career and accept the festival's Modern Master Award, his long-standing industry connections were front and center. Andie MacDowell introduced him. Danny DeVito presented him with the award. And in between, there were taped messages from the likes of Winona Ryder, acting god Robert Duvall and Jeff Bridges, who ended his dispatch by proclaiming with gusto: “I think you're gonna win this thing, maaaannn!”

And who am I to argue with The Dude? This is one reason the lead actor Oscar usually goes to veterans. In a close race, friendships matter. You can make subjective arguments about which nominated performance is better, but all five are usually pretty great in one way or another. So who do academy members end up voting for? The guy they know and like.

That said, Keaton, 63, talking with film critic Leonard Maltin, also touched on another aspect of having a long-standing Hollywood career. “I have to understand certain things, even if it is a 90-second conversation,” Keaton said, talking about his process of working. “I can't go on until I understand.”

A handful of Oscar voters have privately mentioned the thornier aspects of Keaton's working methods and how he has rubbed a few people the wrong way over the years. He's an artist. And not everybody appreciates his exacting process.

When Bridges was up for an Oscar five years ago for “Crazy Heart,” seldom was heard a discouraging word, making his award-season narrative (let's honor him for the performance and the career) a slam-dunk. That's not the case with Keaton, though it's obvious he has strong support from many industry people.

Redmayne had his own Santa Barbara tribute with “Theory” co-star Felicity Jones earlier. And while the Brit displayed the self-effacing charm we've come to expect from seeing him at dozens of other events the last few months, there was little about the evening that would give him any kind of bounce heading into the final phase of Oscar voting.

Bradley Cooper, meanwhile, won't be in Santa Barbara as he's continuing his acclaimed Broadway run starring in “The Elephant Man.” The “American Sniper” star is also finding the time to speak on behalf of vets, joining Michelle Obama on Friday at a veterans-focused event in Washington. While pundits fixate on Keaton and Redmayne, academy members keep telling me that a Cooper upset remains a very real possibility.

“People love this movie and they love him,” one voter says. “And they want to reward it with more than an Oscar for sound.”

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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