12 Years a Slave, the tough, true tale of a free black man abducted and sold into slavery in the 1840s South and a film that fearlessly explores the horrors of what has been termed America's Holocaust, won three Oscars, including the ultimate prize, best picture, at the 86th Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night.
But it was Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, the five-years-in-the-making 3D space saga starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts helplessly ricocheting around in Earth's orbit, that landed the most Oscars of the night - seven - sweeping the technical awards and claiming the director, cinematography, editing and original score prizes, too.
Cuarón won his first Oscar in the editing department (with co-editor Mark Sanger), but a speech-ending orchestra cue thwarted his plans to offer a thank you. Didn't matter: he came back to accept the directing Oscar - winning out over 12 Years a Slave's Steve McQueen - and thanking the "wise guys" at Warner Bros.
Cate Blanchett, nominated for her role as a freefalling socialite dependent on drug and drink in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, accepted the best actress Oscar with characteristic charm, offering shout-outs to her fellow nominees and citing Blue Jasmine's success as proof positive that audiences will come out for female- centric stories. This is the six-time-nominated Blanchett's first Oscar for a lead performance, and will keep company with the statuette she nabbed in 2004 for her supporting turn as Katharine Hepburn in the Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.
Matthew McConaughey capped his awards-season winning streak (the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, the Indie Spirit Awards), accepting the actor Oscar for his biographical portrait, in Dallas Buyers Club, of Ron Woodroof, the homophobic rodeo habitué who contracted HIV in 1985, was told he had 30 days to live, and went on to become an improbable crusader for alternative AIDS treatments for years to come.
McConaughey's career transformation - from rom-com hunkthrob to risk-taking indie star - isn't quite as dramatic as the one Woodroof makes in the film, but the actor's daring and dedication clearly won over his peers. McConaughey lost almost 40 pounds to play the dauntless but increasingly frail Woodroof; this was his first Oscar nomination.
The first award of the night, for actor in a supporting role, went to McConaughey's co-star, Jared Leto, for his high-heeled, high-strung, highly moving turn as Rayon, an HIV-positive transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club. Leto, bearded and long-haired in a white tux, dedicated his Academy Award to "the 36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS."
Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, whose quietly intense performance as Patsey, a field slave cruelly exploited by a mad plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave, took the supporting actress Oscar. Nyong'o, born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, and trained at the Yale School of Drama, brightened the ceremonies with an acceptance speech that mixed grace with graciousness, tears with elation.
"It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance," Nyong'o, radiant in a sky blue Prada gown, said. She is only the sixth black woman to win the supporting actress Oscar. The first was Hattie McDaniel, in 1940, for Gone With the Wind.
American Hustle, up for 10 Oscars, came away with none. Not as bad as The Turning Point (1977) and The Color Purple (1985), with 11 each, only to be shut out.
In the animation categories, the all-powerful Disney, represented in the animated shorts race with the Mickey Mouse vehicle, "Get a Horse!," lost out to the charming French steampunk fantasy, "Mr. Hublot." But, as expected, Disney took the animated feature award for Frozen, the musical megahit ($1 billion in worldwide grosses and counting), the winning adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Snow Queen."
In an especially strong field, Italy's The Great Beauty, a virtuoso ramble through Rome from the perspective of a world-weary writer - and an inspired tribute to Fellini's 1961 Oscar winner, La dolce vita - won the foreign language Oscar.
20 Feet From Stardom, a behind-the-scenes look at the stresses and successes of backup singers - featuring Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, and appreciative commentary from superstars Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger - proved the crowdpleaser in the documentary field, winning out over the almost surreal The Act of Killing, about genocide in mid-1960s Indonesia; Cutie and the Boxer, about husband and wife artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, long a part of the downtown New York art scene; Dirty Wars, an investigation into the stealth missions of U.S. military and government forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere; and The Square, about the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
"The Lady in Number 6," about London concert pianist and Holocaust survivor Alice Herz Sommer, won the documentary short Oscar. Sommer died a week ago, at age 110, and director Malcolm Clarke gave a moving tribute to the subject of his film.
As television, the show was safe, staid and borderline soporific. Following last year's much-derided and debated Seth MacFarlane-hosted raunch fest, the show's producers were clearly going for something more grown-up, respectable. A genial, jolly, but stumbling Ellen DeGeneres tried her best - handing consolation lottery tickets to supporting actor Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, who lost out to Leto, and wielding her smart phone to snap selfies with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and a mass of A-listers, duly dispatching the pics to the Twittersphere. Social media savvy, DeGeneres showed less skill simply delivering her lines, mis-introducing presenter Christoph Waltz, and tripping over teleprompted sentences.
And Doylestown's own Pink doing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," in a Wizard of Oz-tribute segment, really?
Bette Midler followed a solemn "In memoriam" segment (that included the recently departed Shirley Temple Black, Harold Ramis and Philip Seymour Hoffman) with a rendition of "Wind Beneath My Wings," from Beaches.
"Let It Go," from Frozen, a stirring Broadwayesque ballad in the spirit of "Wind Beneath My Wings," won the best original song Oscar for its husband-and-wife writing duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.
12 Years a Slave Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen and Anthony Katagas, producers
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Frozen Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Peter Del Vecho
Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
20 Feet From Stardom Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen and Caitrin Rogers
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBjECT
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed
BEST FILM EDITING
Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger, Gravity
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Great Beauty, Italy
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews, Dallas Buyers Club
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
12 Years a Slave , screenplay by John Ridley
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Her, written by Spike Jonze
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Steven Price, Gravity
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
"Let It Go," Frozen, music and lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
The Great Gatsby Production design: Catherine Martin; set decoration: Beverley Dunn
BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM
Mr. Hublot, Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM
Helium, Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson
BEST SOUND EDITING
Glenn Freemantle, Gravity
For complete coverage of the Oscars, including fashions and the buzzworthy moments: www.inquirer.com/oscars2014