In a triumph long deferred, 12 Years a Slave won the best picture Oscar at the 86th Academy Awards on Sunday night, the first time Hollywood conferred its top honour to the work of a black director.
“I’d like to thank this amazing story,” said Steve McQueen, the British-born filmmaker. “Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live.” McQueen dedicated the film to those who had endured slavery, both in the past and in the present.
Only minutes before, McQueen had been overlooked for the directing award, which went to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, a 3-D blockbuster whose story of survival in space had been locked with McQueen’s film and David O Russell’s American Hustle in a ferocious contest for the best picture statuette.
Fox Searchlight, which distributed 12 Years a Slave, about a 19th-century man, Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped into slavery, carried the day with the help of an advertising slogan that reminded Oscar voters of their chance to make history. “It’s time,” said the ads.
12 Years a Slave won only three awards, including best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay, while Gravity won seven, the most of any film.
Diversity was a leading motif for ceremony that was hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, a happy-go-lucky lesbian who spent most of the evening in a tuxedo, and which also honoured Jared Leto as best supporting actor for his role as a transgender AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club.
The best actress award went to Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, despite a late-season challenge by Dylan Farrow, who said that its director Woody Allen and his films should be shunned because he had, by her account, sexually molested her as a child. “Thank you so much, Woody, for casting me,” said Blanchett, who made a point of thanking Allen for using Blue Jasmine to tell a woman’s story.
Jennifer Lawrence followed minutes later to present the best actor award to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club. “Why are you laughing?” Lawrence challenged the audience, which has come to expect a trip, fall or charming faux pas every time she takes the stage. But she pulled it off without a hitch, and McConaughey thanked God and everyone else with a toothy movie star smile.
Spike Jonze won the original script Oscar for Her, a film that had a powerful following, particularly among young viewers, who responded to its quirky story of one man’s love affair with his digital operating system. It was the only win for Her, but that was enough to lift it above American Hustle.
Widely seen as one of three films in contention for the top honours, it left empty-handed, a humiliation for a film with 10 nominations and one of the better box office totals.
Nyong’o, who had been charming Oscar voters with her fresh face and mostly modest demeanour for months, cut loose just a little bit backstage. “I think it belongs to me!” Nyong’o replied to a question about who deserved credit for the “golden man” in her arms.
Less happily, Leonardo DiCaprio got nothing for his work, both as actor and as a produce, on The Wolf of Wall Street. But The Great Gatsby, in which he had starred in the early part of 2013, won awards for production and costume design. Captain Phillips also came up empty-handed.
The annual memorial sequence scrolled through a list of film figures who died since the last show. Harold Ramis, Karen Black, Hal Needham, Saul Zaentz, Elmore Leonard, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Shirley Temple Black were just a few of those remembered.
Oscar lore has it that the Academy has a soft spot for Holocaust stories, like Schindler’s List, the best picture winner in 1994. This year, it bestowed a documentary short Oscar on The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, about Alice Herz Sommer, a 110-year-old Holocaust survivor who died just days before the ceremony.
There was no surprise when Italy picked up another best foreign film Oscar, its 11th, for The Great Beauty, about the life-reckoning of a literary Roman.
By the end of the night, with most of Hollywood eager to move past the pageantry, the rainstorms that pounded Los Angeles on Friday and Saturday even seemed appropriate: Enough with this Oscar business.