The 86th Academy Awards proceeded mostly according to expectation, but that expectation was such a pipe dream it seemed impossible that all of it could happen. “12 Years a Slave” won Best Picture, while “Gravity” won Best Director, a split many were predicting, but just as many thought could never actually happen. Distinguished alumnus Matthew McConaughey won the award for Best Actor, completing his McConaissance and erasing his rom-com laden past forever. John Ridley became the second black screenwriter to ever win an Oscar. It was a big night.
Host Ellen DeGeneres started things out with a bang. She was funny and down-to-earth but borrowed the snark of many of her Oscar-hosting predecessors to varying degrees of success. DeGeneres is known as one of the few truly nice comedians, but, last night, she was surprisingly cynical, comparing Liza Minnelli to a drag impersonator and mocking nominee June Squibb’s age. Mean doesn’t really work on Ellen, but she realized that quickly and turned it around, ordering pizza for audience members and taking the most popular selfie of all time. She knew when to be visible and when to let the show go. Even though the ceremony went well over its allotted time, it never felt like it dragged, and a big part of that is due to DeGeneres’s spot-on mix of energy and detachment.
“Gravity” was the big winner of the night, taking home seven of its 10 nominations, including Director, Cinematography, Score and most of the other technical categories. The biggest loser? “American Hustle,” which was nominated for 10 Oscars (as many as “Gravity”) and won zero. “Gravity”’s dominance cost many other films their chance at awards too, including “Captain Phillips” and “Nebraska,” both of which also went home empty-handed. “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron has long been an industry favorite with his unique visual style and created an entirely new way of filmmaking, making his expected victory a deserved one. He is also the first Latin filmmaker to win the Oscar for Directing.
The live performances, always a welcome diversion at the Academy Awards, were hit and miss. Pharrell performed a lively rendition of the admittedly repetitive “Happy” and even got some audience participation from nominated actresses Lupita Nyong’o, Amy Adams and Meryl Streep. U2 did a flawless acoustic rendition of their nominated song “Ordinary Love,” and Karen O and Ezra Koenig staged a charming version of “The Moon Song” from “Her.” But possibly the biggest surprise of the night was Idina Menzel’s disappointing performance of “Let it Go.” Easily the most anticipated of all the performers, Menzel fell flat, seeming terrified and unconfident. It actually made the song’s subsequent Oscar win seem awkward.
All the acting categories shook out exactly as they were predicted. Frontrunners Cate Blanchett and Jared Leto took home Best Actress for “Blue Jasmine” and Best Supporting Actor for “Dallas Buyers Club,” respectively. Slightly less assured pick Lupita Nyong’o won Supporting Actress for her work in “12 Years a Slave,” and McConaughey won Best Actor, also for “Dallas Buyers Club.” While all these actors were largely expected to win, it’s hard to argue with any of the choices. All delivered career best — or career launching — performances and charmed the pants off the awards circuit.
The biggest moment of the night was the final one, when Will Smith presented “12 Years a Slave” with the award for Best Picture. Steve McQueen was the first African-American to win an Oscar for producing and literally jumped for joy. “12 Year a Slave” only won three awards in total, but the fact that a grueling but stunning film about slavery won Best Picture, an award normally reserved for the most palatable, middle-of-the-road fare, made the supposedly most important awards in film seem relevant for the first time in quite a while.