- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Academy Award for Best Picture went to “12 Years a Slave,” capping a Sunday night in which the brutal 19th-century-set slavery drama won only three awards and the bulk of the technical prizes and the best director award went to rival “Gravity.”

Producer Brad Pitt, who also has a small role in the “12 Years a Slave,” quickly gave over the microphone to the film’s British director, Steve McQueen, whom Mr. Pitt called the driving force behind telling the story of kidnapped Northerner Solomon Northup.

“Everyone deserves not just to survive but to live,” Mr. McQueen said, echoing a line from the film. “I dedicate this award to all the people who endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”

The four acting prizes all went to their expected thespians, based on such previous shows as the Golden Globes and Saturday’s Independent Spirit awards plus a bevy of critic-circle and guild awards.

Matthew McConaughey won the Best Actor award for his role in “Dallas Buyer’s Club” as a desperate AIDS patient who engages in smuggling and scams to get potentially life-saving drugs during the early days of the disease.

Mr. McConaughey thanked God “because that’s who I look up to,” his family, as the people “I look forward to” and himself 10 years from now as “someone to chase after.” Mr. McConaughey had been on a hot streak of critically acclaimed roles in the last few years, after having become a bit of a punchline for much of the previous decade.

In his Texas twang, he also imagined his father in heaven, dancing to the award, with lemon meringue pie and Miller Lite beer.

Cate Blanchett took Best Actress prize for “Blue Jasmine,” her second Academy Award after having won a supporting actress award for “The Aviator” almost a decade ago.

The Australian thespian broke custom by specifically paying tribute to the audiences and marketers who made “Blue Jasmine” a commercial success. She said “Blue Jasmine” also proves that films centered on women — she plays a Blanche Dubois style neurotic — are not a “niche” market.

“They are not, audiences want to see them and in fact they earn money,” she said.

She did not allude to controversy surrounding recently re-raised child-abuse accusations against writer-director Woody Allen by daughter Dylan Farrow. Miss Blanchett and other performers who had worked with Mr. Allen were specifically called out, by name, by Ms. Farrow. Miss Blanchett merely said “thank you so much, Woody, for casting me.”

In a sign of the increasing internationalization of the industry, the best director prize went to Mexico’s Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity,” a film that contains no Spanish and was considered British enough to be considered for home awards at the British Oscars in February.

Still, his speech had several Spanish phrases and included a walkback when he spat out a phrase technically accurate but a bit of a faux-pas in English. He thanked “the wise guys at Warners Brothers — the wise people at Warner Brothers” for backing “Gravity,” drawing some laughs from the audience.

With Mr. Cuaron’s win, “Gravity” clinched the unofficial honor of “most Oscars” at the 86th awards. The prize was the film’s seventh after dominating the technical prizes — winning best visual effects, cinematography, editing, sound mixing, dramatic score and sound effects.

In the supporting acting categories, the awards went to the favorites — Jared Leto for “Dallas Buyer’s Club” and Lupita Nyong’o for “12 Years a Slave.”

Mr. Leto took Best Supporting Actor for his performance as an HIV-positive transgender prostitute, while Miss Nyong’o won the Supporting Actress award for playing a slave both sexually desired and brutalized by a psychotic Southern master.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Leto thanked the single mother who raised him and paid tribute to “dreamers,” which he said included people in the world’s political hot spots. “To all the dreamers in places like Ukraine and Venezuela: We are here … we are thinking of you tonight,” he said.

He also said the award “is for the 36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS … [and] all those who have felt injustice for who you are or who you love.”

The Kenyan-raised Miss Nyong’o also praised dreamers, saying in her acceptance speech that she hoped that the statue would remind her that “no matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.”

In an accent unlike what she used in the film, Miss Nyong’o said “it doesn’t escape me that so much joy in my life is based on so much pain in someone else’s,” referring to the slave Patsy whom she played.

She thanked Solomon Northup, the real-life slave who wrote the memoir on which the film and its characters were based, and repeated that “this has been the joy of my life,” before pausing to tear up.

Unlike the stormy hosting of Seth MacFarlane last year, this Oscar show with host Ellen DeGeneres put forth a deliberately safe vibe.

She presided over cheery song-and-dance numbers and mixed in with audience members in segments where she ordered pizza and got some of the world’s biggest stars to cram themselves into a bid to generate the world’s most-tweeted photo.

In her opening monolog, Miss DeGeneres put Jennifer Lawrence through a lengthy but gentle harassment for having stumbled when climbing up the stage to win the Best Actress award last year, and repeatedly assuring that she wouldn’t mention it. Nor would she show a clip of the moment. Nor would she mention that Miss Lawrence had stumbled exiting the limousine upon arrival at the red-carpet ceremony.

“If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar,” the comedienne “assured” Miss Lawrence, who was nominated, but did not win, for Best Supporting Actress for “American Hustle” this year. Indeed, while “American Hustle” tied for the most nominations with 10, it was completely shut out Sunday night.

Bill Murray provided an unscripted highlight when he improvised while presenting the cinematography award to pay tribute to the recently deceased director of several of his most important films.

The longtime comedy star, after announcing the nominees, said he and Amy Adams had “forgot one” — “Harold Ramis, for ‘Caddyshack,’ ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Groundhog Day,’” winning a round of applause.

The screenplay prizes were divided between “12 Years a Slave,” which won for best adaptation, and “Her,” which won for best original script for writer-director Spike Jonze.

“All the praise goes to Solomon Northup because this was his story, his words,” “12 Years A Slave” writer John Ridley said. Of the 85 previous winners of the Best Film award, only eight had won fewer than three overall prizes, all of them decades ago, though last year’s “Argo” also won just three awards.

Mr. Jonze won his Oscar on his fourth nomination, unusually in four different categories. His previous nominations were for best film (producer credit) and director for 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” and as co-lyricist this year for “The Moon Song” from “Her.”

Disney’s fairytale musical “Frozen” won the Oscar for best animated feature, representing a first victory in the category for the legendary studio’s non-Pixar work. The film’s popular theme “Let It Go” also took best original song, prompting writers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to sing “Happy Oscars to you, let’s do ‘Frozen 2’” during their acceptance speech.

However Disney failed to sweep the animated-film awards, as had been expected, when the French “Mr. Hublot” took the short film award over the favored Disney film “Get a Horse!”

“Dallas Buyers Club,” set in a world including transgender people and emaciated AIDS patients, won the best makeup prize. And the lavish setting of the Roaring 20s rich helped “The Great Gatsby” take home the prizes for best costume design and best production design / set direction.

In the documentary categories, “20 Feet from Stardom,” which puts the spotlight on backup singers, won the best feature prize while the best short went to “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” a short about pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest-known Holocaust survivor at 109 during the filming.

The former film, directed by Emmy-award winner Morgan Neville, takes a look at the singers who come of age amid the careers of luminaries like Ray Charles, Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder. Backup singer Darlene Love broke into song before the Dolby Theatre crowd, singing “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free.”

Italy nabbed the best foreign-film award for the 11th time, with Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” a portrait of decadent modern Rome.

Miss DeGeneres also joked about the political reception that might some of the top contenders might get if they win.

“Possibility #1: ‘12 Years a Slave’ wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: You’re all racists,” Miss DeGeneres told the audience, before segueing into introducing “our first white presenter, Anne Hathaway” for the supporting actor category.

ABC, which televised the ceremony, hopes the drama of the best-picture race will be enough to entice viewers. The show last year drew an audience of 40.3 million, up from 39.3 million the year before when the French silent-film ode “The Artist” won best picture.

• This article was based in part on wire-service reports.

• Victor Morton can be reached at vmorton@washingtontimes.com.

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