Matthew McConaughey and Cate Blanchett with their Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars at the 86th Academy Awards in Hollywood. (AFP)
Los Angeles, March 3: In a triumph long deferred, 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar at the 86th Academy Awards last 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 who grasped a prize that has eluded African-American directors and their movies since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave its first Oscars in 1929.
“Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live,” said McQueen, who 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 Cuaron 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.
In the end, 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 publicly wrote that its director Woody Allen and his films should be shunned because he had, by her account, sexually molested her as a child. Allen, her adoptive father, has strongly challenged the charge.
“Thank you so much, Woody, for casting me,” said Blanchett, who never mentioned the blow-up, but 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. John Ridley, who won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, invoked the suffering individual at the heart of his story. “All the praise goes to Solomon Northup,” said Ridley. “These are his words, this is his life.”
Spike Jonze won the original script Oscar for Her, a Warner Bros 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, which was slammed hard by the voters.
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, with about $146 million in ticket sales.
No one could accuse this show of taking itself too seriously. At DeGeneres’s behest, a stack of pizzas arrived with a red-hatted delivery guy at the two-hour mark, and both Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts were among those who dug in.
At the halfway mark, Degeneres, now in a white suit, prowled the audience like a cat, handing out lottery tickets to runners-up, and trying to break a record for retweets with a “selfie” that found her stacked with movie stars, including Lawrence, Streep and Kevin Spacey.
Twitter’s website went down soon afterwards, with early reports indicating that it failed to handle the pop of traffic. Later reports said DeGeneres’s “selfie” was retweeted more than 1 million times, breaking the site’s previous record, which was set by President Barack Obama after his re-election.
“We have made history tonight,” said DeGeneres.
Lupita Nyong’, 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’ replied to a question about who deserved credit for the “golden man” in her arms.
In sharp contrast to last year, winners weren’t somewhat rudely piped off when they went long.
And one or two were even entertaining in their gratitude. “Happy Oscars to you, let’s do Frozen 2 ,” sang Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, as they picked up an award for their song from the movie Frozen.
Less happily, Leonardo DiCaprio got nothing for his work, both on the screen as an actor and off-screen and as a producer, on The Wolf of Wall Street. But The Great Gatsby, in which he had starred back in the early part of the year, won awards for production and costume design.
Captain Phillips also came up empty-handed, a disappointment for both Sony Pictures, which distributed the film, and Tom Hanks, who had once seemed a likely best actor candidate for his performance as a real-life captain hijacked by pirates.
Hanks, in the end, hadn’t even been nominated, and the film slipped into the peculiar twilight reserved for movies, like True Grit, that shine brightly, then mysteriously fade on Oscar night.