SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Following two widely acclaimed films in 2020, actor Sacha Baron Cohen was recognized as the Santa Barbara International Film Festival's 'Outstanding Performer of the Year' on Wednesday.
There was no red carpet or crowds outside Santa Barbara's Arlington Theatre this year due to the pandemic, but a conversation with Cohen was streamed live online.
SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling said he chose Cohen for the honor last September, before the English actor won a pair of Golden Globes and earned two Academy Award nominations for his work.
"I had my inkling that this was what was gonna happen," Durling said. "But we had to make the decision really early on. So I'm so glad he proved me right by being the performer of the year."
Cohen received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the historical drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 and another for Best Adapted Screenplay for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
In Chicago 7, Cohen plays confident and witty activist Abbie Hoffman, who was part of the 'Chicago Seven,' a group of protestors put on trial following demonstrations against the Vietnam War in 1968.
“This guy wasn’t just a clown, this guy wasn’t just a former prankster seeking attention,” Cohen said of his character during his virtual Q&A. “He was a deeply thoughtful and courageous protestor.”
The movie was also timely in 2020 given the country's divided nature and a summer full of reignited protests against social injustice.
“We were shooting [the movie] prior to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, I should say the mass Black Lives Matter protests, it suddenly felt like an important movie,” Cohen said.
In the sequel to Cohen's 2006 breakthrough film Borat, he again portrays and wrote the screenplay for the titular character, taking aim at American political culture in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election.
In both movies, he uses his comedic onscreen talents to critique American culture of the past and present.
“I greatly admire, I understand what he’s doing,” Durling said. “He’s very socially conscious and he is trying to cause change, but he does it in a humorous way. And he holds a mirror to us and once you’re aware of what he’s doing, I think the man is a genius.”
Virtual Film Festival events and free movie screenings at Santa Barbara City College's beachside drive-ins continue through this Saturday night.