Mastroianni, in his perfect ’60s suit, slicked-back hair, and thick black glasses. On the red carpet Saturday night he looked the opposite: relaxed in a charcoal grey suit and open shirt. His role as George Falconer, a gay British man teaching in 1962 Southern California and still grieving over the sudden death of his long-time partner, has earned him both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations (for the latter, his first). It marks not a capping of a career, but yet one more role in a period where Firth has been stretching his talents.
But it was this performance in the movie adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel that earned Mr. Firth this year’s Outstanding Performance Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Saturday night event.. His “A Single Man” co-star, Julianne Moore, also received an honor, the Montecito Award, on Thursday.
Mr. Firth’s star power brought a large crowd of fans outside the Arlington Theatre’s State Street entrance. They waited for a chance to see the star and grab autographs.
Also walking the red carpet was author Nick Hornby, who most recently adapted the memoir “An Education” into a film featuring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard, both of whom were honored this week. But Mr. Hornby has also written for Mr. Firth. His football fan novel, Fever Pitch, cast the actor as an Arsenal fan whose love for the game complicates his relationship with a teacher. It was a role that Mr. Firth used to shrug off his image as a costume drama character actor.
“It was an inspiring idea by David (Evans, the director) to cast Colin,” said Mr. Hornby, who later presented the award. “And we’ve been friends ever since.”
Beginning well past its scheduled 8 p.m. start time, the evening featured a career-spanning interview with Mr. Firth by SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling. Mr. Firth was modest throughout. Playing the silences between the words in the script was “part of the job description.”
Mr. Firth was born in Hampshire, England, and moved about a lot in his childhood. He spent his early years in Nigeria and received his higher education in London theater centers, and worked in theater and television until his two breakthrough roles, one in “Tumbledown” (1988) and the other in “Pride and Prejudice” (1995) as Mr. Darcy, a role that still got screams of recognition from the audience.
Both “A Single Man” and “An Education” (and, by extension, the suburbia of “A Serious Man”) marked the return of the 1960s as a subject in films last year, but transformed. Instead of pop culture signposts of cultural revolution and rock music, this was an earlier era on the cusp of turning. The films deal with characters stuck in societal roles and trying to work their way out.
“There is something very useful in the early ’60s,” Mr. Hornby said. “It’s a recognizably modern time they (the characters) feel like us. But there were a set of conventions that don’t exist now, and probably didn’t exist five years after that time.”
In “A Single Man” Mr. Firth’s George Falconer is shut out of his long-time partner’s funeral because he isn’t “family” in a scene screened just before Mr. Firth’s introduction.
Mr. Firth has explained that at the same time they were shooting the scene, voters in California approved Proposition 8, which felt to the actor like the return to old mores.
Could this be 1962 all over again? And will things change like they did in the mid-’60s?
“No. Probably not,” Mr. Firth said on the red carpet when asked. “Or it will and it will go back again and it will go round in circles forever and ever. And we’ll just have to hope that each time the circle comes full, that it’ll reset itself in a better place.”