Pitt honored the 'Maestro' director, star and co-writer as he accepted the performer of the year award at the festival on Thursday
On Thursday, Pitt, 60, paid tribute to Cooper, 49, as he presented the Maestro star with one of the Santa Barbara Film Festival's top honors, outstanding performer of the year, for his work starring as Leonard Bernstein in the biopic he also directed and co-wrote.
As Pitt appeared at Santa Barbara's Arlington Theatre to present the Oscar nominee with the prize, he joked that the duo have a "couple of things in common," including "being a movie superstar and also a name."
He went on to note that he knew there was something special about Cooper after watching his work in The Hangover.
"You'll see the more irreverent that Alan [Zach Galifianakis] gets, the more that Phil [Cooper] is enjoying that irreverence. It's subtle. It's often to the side of the frame, but it's there and it's interesting, and I know this sounds strange, but I was watching that and I know no one else would have brought that to the to the table. And it was something fresh. I knew this guy was going to be around," said Pitt.
Pitt then spoke about Cooper's 2018 directorial debut, A Star Is Born, which the actor also starred in and wrote the screenplay for.
"[It's] a film that's been made a few times, it's been made really well, so the bar is so high, and yet he's able to bring in his performance where he's able to play drunk when he breaks down and still keep an eye on the crew to see the time when to know that he's got the tape and you can move on."
"To do that really, really well is nothing short of perfect," added Pitt.
Commenting on Cooper's most recent work, Pitt called Maestro "a masterwork" and described one scene in particular between Cooper and his costar Carey Mulligan, who plays the late composer-conductor's wife Felicia Montealegre, as "alive, kinetic and so natural."
"This is really really, really difficult to achieve," said Pitt. "And yes, it takes great actors but it also takes great construction."
"Now I'm not gonna say I know for certain what's at the heart of Bradley's brilliance, but I am going to take a stab at it," continued Pitt. "What I think it is is his voracious love for this little thing we call the human experience and all its struggles and joys and messiness. My man's in it, he doesn't run from any evidence and I think it's that that he infused into each frame that he puts up on the screen."
Pitt rounded out his speech by sharing his hopes for Cooper's success at the upcoming Oscars, where Maestro is up for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Mulligan for Best Actress, and Cooper for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay (shared with co-writer Josh Singer).
"He's been nominated 12 times and I really, really hope that this is his year, because he's willing, but if it's not, it's okay, everyone knows it's just a matter of time," said Pitt, calling Cooper "the one and only Bradley," before going on to joke, "And truly Brad is okay, he's fine. He's used to it. He's a Philadelphia Eagles fan."
"I didn't like what you said there," joked Cooper as he accepted the award from Pitt.
Going on to share how movies have "changed his life" and "kept me alive," Cooper said of his career, "It's just such a privilege. I can't believe I get to do it and and I'm so privileged and I've been so blessed."
"Living is hard and it feels like it gets harder. And I need people who love me and that I can love and without that I would just be walking on a wasteland," he continued. "And sometimes it's hard to keep going and you know when you feel love and authenticity, it gives us strength and it's just community man. It's all about community. And I know that without community I would never attempt to achieve the things that I've attempted without people that have believed in me in ways that I never believed in myself."
Cooper added that it was "absolutely incredible" to look back at himself as a "terrified" fifth grader who was "so nervous" during a "presentation with a board that he was shaking."
"It's only the result of me being so blessed to meet people, and I can list 50 of them right now, who believed in me and gave me a chance," he concluded.
In a statement shared with PEOPLE, Santa Barbara Film Festival executive director Roger Durling said, "Cooper has proven to be an actor of incredible range and versatility. What has impressed me the most is that he has grown to be one of the most indelible directing voices. He’s a renaissance man — an outstanding performer indeed!”
Pitt presenting Cooper with his honor comes four years after Cooper presented Pitt with the award for best supporting actor for Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood at the National Board of Review Annual Awards Gala in January 2020.
During his acceptance speech, Pitt credited Cooper with his sobriety and said, "He’s a sweetheart. I got sober because of this guy and every day has been happier ever since.”
Last year's recipient of the top Santa Barbara Film Festival prize was Cate Blanchett, recognized for her work in Tár. Past honorees also include Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie, James Franco, Viola Davis, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
The 39th edition of the festival runs from Feb. 7 to 17. Cooper’s honor marks the first of many ceremonies during the festival, following Barbie star Gosling’s special Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film acceptance on Jan. 13.
Oppenheimer Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr. will be honored with the Maltin Modern Master Award on Feb. 9, followed by the Virtuosos Award ceremony Feb. 10, which jointly celebrates Danielle Brooks for The Color Purple, Colman Domingo for Rustin and The Color Purple, America Ferrera for Barbie, Lily Gladstone for Killers of the Flower Moon, Greta Lee for Past Lives, Charles Melton for May December, Da’Vine Joy Randolph for The Holdovers and Andrew Scott for All of Us Strangers.
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Maestro is in theaters and streaming on Netflix now.
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