Though he's still revered as one of his generation's finest, it's been an awfully long time since Robert De Niro's name came up in any kind of awards conversation. Over 20 years have passed since the actor's last Oscar nomination -- his sixth -- for "Cape Fear," and give or take some Golden Globe comedy attention, awards voters have shared in the general consensus that the great man has gone off the boil in his later years.

That dry spell, of course, looks to end this year, with probable Best Picture contender "Silver Linings Playbook" a likely bet to land De Niro his seventh nod -- and his first in supporting since he entered the Oscar fray nearly forty years ago in "The Godfather Part II." With the Weinsteins set to campaign hard for the Toronto fest favorite, De Niro's campaign is already picking up steam: he's getting the Supporting Actor honor at the Hollywood Film Awards (for whatever that's worth, but it's still a publicity opp), and is now set to receive the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The Santa Barbara honor may be a reward for his career rather than one specific performance, but it's hardly coincidental: every award he accepts over the next few months will work towards drumming his supposed return to form into the minds of Academy members. (I say "supposed" only because I haven't seen the performance myself; Kris, for his part, doesn't see what's so special about it.) It remains to be seen whether the more discerning critics' awards will latch on to De Niro's work, or whether it'll be an easier play for SAG and Globe inclusion.

Following this fundraiser, the upcoming Santa Barbara fest is a prime site for individual tributes -- which are due to be announced any time now -- often en route to other awards attention. De Niro's award will be presented by the man for whom it is named, 95 year-old screen legend Kirk Douglas, at a black-tie fundraising dinner on December 8, over a month before the festival itself begins. A statement from Douglas himself reads: “I am a great fan, not only for what he does on screen, but also for establishing the Tribeca Film Festival…it brought joy back to lower Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11.”

De Niro is the seventh recipient of the award, which has previously been presented to Harrison Ford, Quentin Tarantino, Ed Harris, John Travolta, Douglas himself and (who'd have guessed it?) Michael Douglas. What is it about lifetime achievement awards and their curious resistance to women?  

Meanwhile, the Santa Barbara fest itself has been expanded, running for 11 days from January 24 to February 3, and set to include over 200 features. More to come.