By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood March 3, 2014 at 3:13PM
"Possibility number one, '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility number two, you're all racists," said Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres, returning after seven years, as she ended her opening monologue. Well, the Academy's 6000 voters went with possibility number one.
It was no coincidence that Academy Awards producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan booked a record ten black presenters, from Tyler Perry and Sidney Poitier to Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington, a welcome change that one day will hopefully not be worthy of note. Will Smith presented Best Picture, while fragile Poitier leaned on Best Director co-presenter Angelina Jolie.
“12 Years a Slave” producer Brad Pitt thanked director Steve McQueen, the first black producer to win the Best Picture award, for bringing the movie together. "Without Brad Pitt this movie would not have been made," McQueen responded. It did take a village to make this film, which was not supported by a studio, but by a hodgepodge of backers: New Regency, Bill Pohlad, Plan B, and Film Four, before it was picked up by distributor Fox Searchlight, who fought a long and hard awards campaign, stressing the message, "it's time." McQueen added, "I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer it today."
"I think it's important, the film deals with our history," said Pitt backstage, "so that we can understand who we were so we can better understand who we are now, why we're having the problems we're having and who we're going to be. At the end of the day I hope this film remains a gentle reminder that we're all equal, we want the same dignity and opportunity for ourselves and our family. Another's freedom is every bit as important as our own. That's everything."
"It's a mark of development," said McQueen, "how we see that particular time in history, the background characters are in the foreground, their lives are being recognized, more than they ever have been before. People are ready for this narrative. It was quite painful. They want to embrace their history."
"12 Years a Slave" took its first award in the most competitive race of the night outside of Best Picture, supporting actress. "12 Years a Slave" discovery Lupita Nyong'o, a Nigerian Yale Drama School grad, beat out "American Hustle" star Jennifer Lawrence. Nyong'o had celebrated her 31st birthday Saturday, the day she accepted her Indie Spirit award, and won over Academy voters' hearts not only by playing slave Patsey but by donning one stunning red carpet outfit after another. "It doesn't escape me that so much joy in my life came from so much pain in someone else's," she said accepting her award. "So this is for Patsey. This has been the joy of my life."
Backstage Nyong'o said, "I'm a little dazed, I can't believe this in my hands, this is real life, I'm really overwhelmed. I feel that Steve McQueen has really honored a people who really have been unsung for a long time through doing this film. I feel their spirits have been honored."
"What I have learned," she continued, "is that I don't have to be anyone else, that myself is good enough. When I am true to myself I can avail myself of extraordinary things like this that I didn't think was necessarily possible, but I didn't cancel it out. You have to allow the impossible to be possible... I am so happy to be holding this golden man."
John Ridley, the second black screenwriter to win the adapted screenplay Oscar ("Precious" writer Geoffrey Fletcher was the first), accepted the second Oscar of the night for "12 Years a Slave," saying, "all the praise goes to Solomon Northup. They were his words." Solomon Northup's public domain memoir is now on the bestseller list and the film and the book are being widely added to school curricula around the country. Ridley hoped that the film's message was not buried in the past.
Best Original Screenplay went to Spike Jonze for "Her," one of two films financed and produced by Megan Ellison. The second film, "American Hustle," with ten nominations, went home empty-handed. Backstage, Jonze said he was "inspired to write about relationships and the challenges of intimacy. I tried to write many things I was trying to understand and confused about. I couldn't put it into a message... It took me a long time to understand how to write and I learned a lot from Charlie Kaufman and Dave Eggers and Maurice Sendak. Now I'm ready to write what's in my heart and what I have to say and that's what this chapter of my life is going to be."
As expected, Australian Cate Blanchett, wearing a sparkling gold Armani, accepted the Best Actress Oscar after sweeping the award season. She thanked Woody Allen and reproached the Hollywood suits who think that "female films are niche experiences, they're not. Audiences want to see them and they make money. The world is round, people!" Clearly, the Allen family fracas did not damage his lead actress with Academy voters. She's the first Australian actress to win two Oscars.
Also not a surprise was the win for Matthew McConaughey for his role as straight AIDs sufferer Ron Woodruff in “Dallas Buyers Club,” for which he lost 47 pounds. He thanked God, his family, and his late father, who died six days into his first film "Dazed and Confused." "You taught me what it means to be a man." He also thanked his mother who demanded that he and his brothers "respect ourselves." He also thanked the hero he keeps trying to be, saving for his conclusion what everyone wanted to hear: "All right all right all right!"
Five years ago, McConaughey started to push a script that had been turned down for 20 years across the finish line. It was part of his McConaissance, when he decided to shoot four movies a year and focus on the process, not the end result. That strategy worked for him. Along with his performance, his career shift narrative and the HBO series "True Detective" also helped to push him to the Oscar win.
As usual, the first award on Oscar night was for best supporting actor, which went to Jared Leto for his role as emaciated transgender Rayon, dying of AIDs in "Dallas Buyers Club." DeGeneres wasn't wrong when she called Leto, resplendent in a white tuxedo jacket and red bow tie, the prettiest actor in the room. The actor who returned to acting after a six-year break thanked his single mom for encouraging her children to dream. He kept the thanks somewhat shorter than the litany he read out at the Indie Spirit awards on Saturday. But not much.
It was the first of three wins for the film, which also took home best hair and makeup--the budget for hair was $75 and makeup was $250. "They were stealing charcoal," said McConaughey. That's an extraordinary accomplishment for an independent movie that nearly didn't get made--and cost only $4 million.
Leto rocked the backstage interview room, offering to let reporters fondle his Oscar and pose for a selfie--"no pictures allowed!" cried the press attaches. "This is like bingo," Leto said as reporters waved numbered cards. "Let the media do what they do!" The room roared their approval. Leto promised to party all night long, and said he mentioned the Ukraine because he'll be performing there with his band in a few weeks.
"Gravity" took the first of seven wins when the visual effects team won that category, followed by sound mixing and sound editing, cinematography (Mexican Emanuel "Chivo" Lubezki), editing, musical score and director for Alfonso Cuaron. Utimately the film did not take home the Best Picture prize because it is a sci-fi blockbuster. "Avatar" also did not win (Cuaron joins James Cameron as a dual director/editing winner).
Cuaron said the long process of making the film changed the color of his hair and went through two Warner Bros. administrations. He thanked his co-writer, his son Jonas, and his stars. Backstage, he added that everything they were doing was "honoring Sandra Bullock's performance. It doesn't make any sense without her." And he praised the reverse engineering of a process that usually doesn't involve production, cinematography, editing and effects working so closely together "three years before we started shooting, in order to integrate all the elements."
"Frozen" took home the Oscar for animated feature, as Jennifer Lee became the second woman director to win in that category--she co-directed with Chris Buck. Last year "Brave" won, directed by Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews. Chapman followed up working on Oscar-nominated "Wreck-It-Ralph" with "Frozen." As expected "Let it Go" took home best song, and its husband-and-wife songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have scored the EGOT, winning the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.
Animated short went to French steam punk film "Mr. Hublot." Live action short went to Denmark's "Helium," about an attendant who helps a dying kid. And documentary short went as expected to Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed's “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” whose inspirational subject, a holocaust survivor who loves playing the piano, died the Sunday morning before the Oscars at age 110, "peacefully," says Clarke onstage. Clarke refused to meet Alice Herz-Sommer for three years because he had already made a holocaust film, "Prisoner of Paradise," which was nominated. He finally went and spent 45 minutes with her at age 107. Clarke decided to make the film fast and do it for free because there was no time to raise the money. "When she died we genuinely believed she would go on forever," he said. "This is for her."
Costume design went to Catherine Martin for "The Great Gatsby," one of several categories that "American Hustle" did not win.
Best documentary feature went to crowdpleaser "20 Feet from Stardom," whose comeback queen Darlene Love sang her thanks to God and the Academy. Now that the entire Academy votes for the documentary category, more mainstream movies like "Searching for Sugarman" are likely to take home the Oscar. But this one also won at the Indie Spirits Saturday. Neville had not shown "Stardom" to any of the women backup singers in the film and invited them to Utah for its Sundance debut. "It's been the most incredible ride. It's more than about pop music, we're all backup singers. People see themselves in this experience." Few distributors have spent as much money on promoting a documentary as Weinstein Co.'s RADiUS did.
That did not happen with the Best foreign language film, however. For the first time screeners were sent to the entire Academy, who were honor-bound to vote only if they saw all five. The Oscar went to Paolo Sorrentino's gorgeous "The Great Beauty," which was the most recent film to open, as well as the highest-grosser.
Musical performances were top-notch as Pharrell Williams, Edge and Bono and Idina Menzel (whose name was butchedered by John Travolta as Adele Dazeem) nailed their nominated songs and Pink did Judy Garland proud with a soaring rendition of "Over the Rainbow." All nabbed standing ovations. Bette Midler was saddled with a hero-themed song that seemed irrelevant and didn't connect with the In Memoriam segment as well as last year's Barbra Streisand rendition of Marvin Hamlisch's "The Way We Were."
DeGeneres fared best when she worked the crowd: her selfie with multiple stars crashed Twitter and broke the record, announcing mid-show, "It's back up again." DeGeneres marked a welcome return to a poised and funny Hollywood insider comfortable with her industry colleagues. It worked.
See our red carpet videos.
COMPLETE WINNERS ARE BELOW: