Oscar shines on '12 Years a Slave' and 'Gravity'

“12 Years a Slave,” the unflinching story of a musician, husband and father who loses his freedom and family — but refuses to fall into despair — was named best picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards.

Producer and actor Brad Pitt accepted the honor and turned the microphone over to director Steve McQueen, who pulled out a list of people to thank as the clock struck midnight on the East Coast. “Everyone deserves not just to survive but to live,” he emphasized.

In the Hollywood version of a split decision, Mexican-born Alfonso Cuaron emerged as best director for the space spectacle “Gravity,” a visually dazzling story about rebirth, relinquishing real and tragic tethers, conquering adversity and believing, “I’m going to make it.”

“Gravity” was the big winner of the night, converting seven of its 10 nominations to Oscars. “Like any other human endeavor, making a film can be a transformative experience,” Mr. Cuaron said, calling leading lady Sandra Bullock the soul and heart of the movie.

The top acting honors went to Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto of “Dallas Buyers Club,” Cate Blanchett for “Blue Jasmine” and Lupita Nyong’o for “12 Years a Slave.”

Mr. McConaughey, proof that some second acts in Hollywood can come with an Oscar for best actor, was honored for his portrayal of Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club.” He stood when his name was called, kissed his wife and hugged fellow nominee Leonardo DiCaprio before ascending the stage and flashing his famous smile.

Woodroof is a womanizing electrician, sometime rodeo cowboy and hell-raising bigot who initially is filled with rage over contracting AIDS and the lack of legal, affordable and safe treatments for the disease.

The actor once associated with action flicks and romcoms famously lost nearly 50 pounds, leaving his cheeks sunken and his belt loops tightened but his acting razor-sharp. The movie had been rejected 137 times until getting the golden go-ahead and cast.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you to the Academy for this,” Mr. McConaughey said, adding he hadn’t seen a false note anywhere among the other performances in his category. He said he daily needs something or someone to look up to, something to look forward to, and something to chase.

He offered a sweet thanks to his dad in heaven — dancing in his underwear with a cold Miller Lite, pot of gumbo and lemon meringue pie — and closed his speech with his signature “All right, all right, all right” from “Dazed and Confused.”

Ms. Blanchett had emerged as the front runner for best actress from the moment “Blue Jasmine” opened and she appeared with that white Chanel jacket, Hermes handbag and increasingly tenuous grip on her sanity.

Her portrayal of the Manhattan socialite who triggers her own downfall brought a bookend for her supporting honor for 2004’s “The Aviator” in which the Aussie-born performer channeled Katharine Hepburn. On Sunday, she was elegant in a Giorgio Armani gown with dangling sparkler earrings.

“Sit down, you’re too old to be standing,” Ms. Blanchett joked to the crowd. “As random and as subjective as this award is, it means a great deal,” she said, mentioning each of her fellow nominees by name, including an absent Judi Dench who, at 79, is in India making a sequel to “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

Ms. Blanchett thanked Woody Allen, who’s been under fire in his personal life, reminded the world that movies about women are not niche films — people want to see them and such pictures make money — and singled out her husband, three sons and fellow cast members.

She was among the winners demonstrating this is how you deliver an acceptance speech — and a heartbreaking performance on screen.

Mr. Leto and Ms. Nyong’o first showed the world how it’s done when they won supporting acting Oscars.

Mr. Leto took a nearly six-year break from acting — concentrating on his alternative rock band, Thirty Seconds to Mars — and was rewarded with a welcome back Oscar for his turn in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

To play Rayon, a transgender woman with AIDS, he wasted away to 114 pounds, shaved his eyebrows, put on size 12 heels at 5 a.m. some days and gave his character a memorable delicacy and bruised quality.

Mr. Leto was accompanied by his mother, Constance Leto, and older brother, Shannon Leto, and he paid tribute to both of them in an expanded, loving acceptance speech that showed how it should be done.

“To my fellow nominees, I’m so proud to share this journey with you, I’m in awe and have so much respect for you all,” said Mr. Leto, who paired black tuxedo pants with a white evening dinner jacket and burgundy bow tie with his Jesus-style hair.

He then turned to the personal, recalling a pregnant teen in 1971 Louisiana who was a high school dropout and yet managed to make a better life for her children, encouraged them to be creative, to work hard and to do something special.

“That girl is my mother and she’s here tonight. I just want to say thank you, Mom, for teaching me to dream,” he said, before calling his musician-brother his best friend.

“To all the dreamers out there around the world watching this in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela, I want to say, we are here and as you struggle to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible, we’re thinking of you tonight.”

He closed his speech by remembering the 36 million people who died of AIDS and “those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love.”

It took 90 minutes before the other supporting honor was handed to Ms. Nyong’o, clad in a pale powder blue Prada gown (fittingly) inspired by champagne bubbles and the colors of her youth in Nairobi.

Ms. Nyong’o was born in Mexico, reared in Kenya, educated at Yale and the only actress to emerge from a field of 1,000 contenders to play Patsey in “12 Years a Slave.” Director McQueen called the search for the right woman a quest and the actress paid him tribute with tears in her eyes.

She thanked the Academy for the “incredible recognition” and saluted the spirit of Patsey. She picks 500 pounds of cotton a day and suffers, literally, at the hands of the cotton plantation owner who lusts after her and hates himself for it — although no more than his spiteful, coldly enraged wife.

“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,” she said, adding her gratitude for Solomon Northup telling his story and Patsey’s in his memoir.

“Thank you so much for putting me in this position, it has been the joy of my life,” she said to Mr. McQueen. “I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I,” she said, also singling out co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard and those behind the scenes.

“When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid,” she said.

“12 Years a Slave” screenwriter John Ridley won for his screenplay adaptation of Northup’s memoir. “All the praise goes to Solomon Northup. Those are his words, that is his life,” Mr. Ridley said of the Northerner duped, drugged and sold into slavery.

Spike Jonze’s “Her,” the definition of original with its romance between a divorced man and an artificially intelligent operating system, took the prize for original screenplay.

“Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson, tracks their relationship with all of its human emotions, from giddy infatuation to jealousy, and introduces other flesh-and-blood characters along the way.

“20 Feet From Stardom” took best documentary — with a radiant Darlene Love representing the backup singers chronicled in the movie by belting out “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” — while “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” about Alice Herz-Sommer, was named best documentary short subject.

Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed said when they met Herz-Sommer, they were struck by her enormous capacity for joy and for forgiveness. She died a week before the Oscar ceremony at age 110, the oldest known survivor of the Holocaust.

“See the film, she’ll help you live a much happier life,” Mr. Clarke and Mr. Reed advised of the resilient pianist who survived a Nazi prison camp through devotion to music and her son.

Italy’s “The Great Beauty,” already a winner at the Golden Globes and BAFTA honors, won the foreign language prize.

Fan favorite “Frozen” was named best animated feature and its signature tune, “Let It Go,” took best song. Composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez rhyming and singing part of their acceptance.

The inventive “Mr. Hublot” nudged aside Disney’s “Get a Horse!” to take the best animated short film honor. “Helium,” about a dying boy who finds comfort in the sweet stories of a hospital janitor, was named best live action short film.

“Dallas Buyers Club” took honors for best makeup and hairstyling, while “The Great Gatsby” won for its period costumes and production design.

“Gravity” won its first award of the night at 9:22 p.m., taking the prize for achievement in visual effects, and following that with Oscars for sound mixing (the winners said appropriately they were “over the moon”), sound editing, cinematography, film editing and original score.

Ellen DeGeneres, who opened the show with a joke about the rain in Los Angeles, poked fun at 84-year-old June Squibb’s hearing, acknowledged first-timers Ms. Nyong’o and Barkhad Abdi, the real Captain Phillips and Philomena Lee, and Jennifer Lawrence’s habit of stumbling in public.

Ms. Lawrence good-naturedly accepted Ms. DeGeneres’ jokes about her tripping up the stairs last year and another tumble this year, on a cone on the red carpet after getting out of her car. The host suggested this time, the presenters should bring Ms. Lawrence the Oscar, rather than having her collect it if she won.

Like millions of Americans watching at home, Ms. DeGeneres ordered pizza but, unlike millions, served it to men and women in tuxedos, ball gowns and (we would bet) Spanx restraining stomachs that haven’t tasted carbs in some time.

After Bradley Cooper lost the supporting award to Mr. Leto, Ms. DeGeneres gave him a quarter and some scratch-off lottery tickets. She took a selfie with Ms. Minnelli and then assembled a who’s who ensemble for a selfie she hoped would set a retweeting record.

She did. “We just made history,” she said, after a commercial break. “We broke Twitter,” she said gleefully, although the social media platform bounced back like an actor making a comeback.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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