Steve McQueen’s slavery odyssey, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, has been hailed as a landmark corrective to the movie industry’s virtual blindness to slavery, instead creating whiter tales like 1940 best-picture winner Gone With the Wind. 12 Years a Slave is the first best-picture winner directed by a black filmmaker.
“Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live,” said McQueen, who dedicated the honour to those, past and present, who have endured slavery. “This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup.”
A year after celebrating Ben Affleck’s Argo over Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opted for stark realism over more the plainly entertaining candidates: The 3-D space marvel Gravity and the starry 1970s caper American Hustle.
Those two films came in as the leading nominee-getters. David O Russell’s American Hustle went home empty-handed, but Gravity triumphed as the night’s top award-winner. Cleaning up in technical categories like cinematography and visual effects, it earned seven Oscars including best director for Alfonso Cuarón. The Mexican filmmaker is the category’s first Latino winner.
“It was a transformative experience,” said Cuarón, who spent five years making the film and developing its visual effects. “For a lot of people, that transformation was wisdom. For me, it was the colour of my hair.”
To his star Sandra Bullock, the sole person on screen for much of the lost-in-space drama, he said: “Sandra, you are Gravity.”
But history belonged to 12 Years a Slave, a modestly budgeted drama produced by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, that has made $50m (€36m) worldwide — a far cry from the more than $700m Gravity has hauled in.
Ellen DeGeneres, in a nimble second stint as host, summarised the academy’s options in her opening monologue: “Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins best picture. Possibility number two: You’re all racists.”
DeGeneres presided over a smooth if safe ceremony, punctuated by politics, pizza, and photo-bombing. Freely circulating in the crowd, she had pizza delivered, appealing to Harvey Weinstein to pitch in, and gathered stars to snap a selfie she hoped would be a record-setter on Twitter. (It was: Long before midnight, the photo had been retweeted over 2m times and momentarily crashed Twitter.) !
But in celebrating a movie year roundly considered an exceptionally deep one, the Oscars fittingly spread the awards around. The starved stars of the Texas Aids drama Dallas Buyers Club were feted: Matthew McConaughey for best actor and Jared Leto for best supporting actor.
McConaughey’s award capped a startling career turnaround, a conscious redirection by the actor to tack away from the romantic comedies he regularly starred in, and move toward more challenging films. “It sort of feels like a culmination,” he said backstage.
Cate Blanchett took best actress for her fallen socialite in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, her second Oscar. Accepting the award, she challenged Hollywood not to think of films starring women as “niche experiences”.
“The world is round, people!” she declared to hearty applause.
Draped in Nairobi blue, Lupita Nyong’o — the Cinderella of the awards season — won best supporting actress for her indelible impression as the tortured slave Patsy. It’s the feature film debut for the 31-year-old.
“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s, and so I want to salute the spirit of Patsy for her guidance,” said Nyong’o. She also thanked director Steve McQueen: “I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and they are watching and they are grateful, and so am I.”
Though the ceremony lacked a big opening number, it had a steady musical beat to it. To a standing ovation, U2 played an acoustic version of ‘Ordinary Love’, from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Pharrell Williams had Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio dancing in the aisles with ‘Happy’ from Despicable Me 2. Disney’s global hit Frozen won best animated film, marking — somewhat remarkably — the studio’s first win in the 14 years of the best animated feature category. The film’s hit single, ‘Let It Go’, won best original song.
Though the Oscar ceremony is usually a glitzy bubble separate from real-world happenings, international events were immediately referenced. In his acceptance speech, Leto addressed people in Ukraine and Venezuela.
“We are here and as you struggle to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible, we’re thinking of you,” said Leto.
There was a sense of déjà vu for Jennifer Lawrence. As she hit the red carpet, the American Hustle star briefly collapsed in a heap of laughter, just as she tripped ascending the stairs last year to accept best actress for Silver Linings Playbook.
“If you win tonight,” said DeGeneres, “I think we should bring you the Oscar.”
No delivery was needed, as the night belonged to 12 Years a Slave.