This was supposed to be the year when the Oscars were just a little bit unpredictable.
Yet there were few surprises Sunday night as the 86th edition of the Academy Awards broke down mostly along the lines that many had said they would. The plantation saga 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, Texan Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto took the Best Actor and Supporting Actor honors for the true-life AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club, and Cate Blanchett was named Best Actress for Woody Allen’s portrait of a woman on the edge of a breakdown, Blue Jasmine.
But it was Gravity that was the big winner of the night, taking seven statues. It got the nod for directing (Alfonso Cuarón) and dominated in all the technical categories, scoring wins for film editing, sound editing, sound mixing, visual effects, cinematography and original score. No big surprise, as even the film’s detractors conceded it was a marvel of execution.
Yet while the academy wanted to celebrate the eye-popping dazzle of Gravity, it decided to recognize the thematic importance of 12 Years a Slave by giving it the top spot. The film won three statues total, including supporting actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and adapted screenplay (John Ridley). It is the first film by an African-American director to win Best Picture. Dallas Buyers Club also won three.
Funnily, the two films about American corruption that sparked a social-media war — with fans of The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle squaring off against each other on Facebook and Twitter — went home empty-handed. This must have been especially galling to the Hustle-heads, as some observers had given American Hustle a good chance to win Best Picture.
The supporting-actress race had come down to a face-off between newcomer Nyong’o and Hollywood favorite Jennifer Lawrence ( American Hustle). Nyong’o took the Oscar and gave a galvanizing speech.
“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 [the slave] Patsey for her guidance,” she said, while also saluting the film’s 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.”
Underdog Spike Jonze, writer/director of the sci-fi romance Her, won for original screenplay, surprisingly beating out Woody Allen ( Blue Jasmine) and Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell ( American Hustle).
Host Ellen DeGeneres certainly fared better than last year’s stunt-host Seth MacFarlane. She took an all-star selfie, doled out pizza and got off a few good one-liners. Mulling over the Best Picture category early in the evening, she quipped, “Possibility No. 1: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility No. 2: You’re all racists.”
Addressing Lawrence, who stumbled on her way to collect her Oscar last year and tripped again this year on the red carpet before the ceremony, DeGeneres said, “If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar.”
But her good cheer still couldn’t keep the show from feeling interminable. (A tweet making the rounds was of Amy Adams in the audience appearing to nod off.)
For those who were awake, one of the night’s highlights was Darlene Love, who was featured in 20 Feet From Stardom, the film about background singers that won the documentary feature statue. She set off a few vocal fireworks in the acceptance speech that showed why she has been such an in-demand singer.
But that meant the academy chose to avoid the global politics of such other documentary nominees as the disturbing The Act of Killing (about Indonesia’s death squads), The Square (about the Egyptian uprising) and Dirty Wars (about American foreign policy).
Yet realpolitik did get a nod Sunday night, in the form of Leto’s acceptance speech after winning the supporting-actor nod for Dallas Buyers Club. He acknowledged the struggles 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,” he said.
Russian state-owned broadcaster Channel One Russia said it would not broadcast the Oscars live because of the necessity for news coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. It will instead transmit the Oscars early Tuesday morning, local time.
In Venezuela, which has been rocked by anti-government demonstrations, protesters used social media to encourage Oscar winners to bring attention to their cause.
Still, DeGeneres made fun of Hollywood self-absorption, referring to the sometimes overzealous news bulletins about recent storms in Southern California.
“It has been raining,” said DeGeneres. “We’re fine. Thank you for your prayers.”