“12 Years A Slave” won the Oscar for best picture, a resonant choice for a ceremony that feels more and more oppressive each year.
Host Ellen DeGeneres did her daytime best to keep things “light,” after last year’s host Seth MacFarlane offended almost every gender, ethnicity, sexuality and religion in the room, but she did manage to get in a serious joke that captured the nastiness of Academy politics.
“Possibility No. 1: ‘12 Years a Slave’ wins,” DeGeneres began. “Possibility No. 2: You're all racists."
The “joke” seemed to capture the anxiety some members of the Academy feel in acknowledging important films over their favorite ones. It was an argument I heard over and over in the weeks leading up to the Oscars, in which some foolishly argued that the point of “12 Years” was to induce liberal guilt. Almost invariably, the people supporting that view preferred “The Wolf Of Wall Street” to win.
The difference between “12 Years A Slave” and “Wolf of Wall Street” is that the former possesses moral vision, while the latter offers a decadent romp through moral corruption. Casting Leonardo DiCaprio to play the villain is all part of the seduction, daring audiences to desire the depravity on screen. “12 Years A Slave” dares us to watch as witnesses, without the remote possibility we’d want to experience any of its world at all.
That may not be a film to like, but it’s a film to laud. Accepting the Oscar for best supporting actress, Lupita Nyong’o acknowledged the gravitas of the experience: “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.
DeGeneres was aiming at something real with her wisecrack: An Oscar vote can sometimes involve moral choice, not simply recognition of artistic excellence.
For Jared Leto, who won for his role as a transgender AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyers Club,” the film’s moral dimension was obviously part of its appeal. “[To the] 36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS, and to those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love, tonight I stand here in front of the world with you and for you,” Leto said in his acceptance speech. The political seriousness of “Dallas Buyers Club” has also, perhaps, enabled its young star to speak with some authority about other political conflicts. In his speech, Leto also addressed the ongoing civilian protests in Ukraine and Venezuela, pledging his solidarity with them and encouraging them to dream. “To all the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight, we are here… as you struggle…to make your dreams happen.”
Unfortunately, his co-star Matthew McConaughey, who won best actor for playing Ron Woodroof, the AIDS patient, huckster and activist, failed to mention any of the historical actors that made his Hollywood comeback possible. He chose, instead, to praise the Academy, God, and, in a bizarre ramble about heroes, himself. (“You know who [my hero] is? It’s me in 10 years.”)
Overall, the ceremony itself was lacking in gravity; though the film “Gravity” won a host of technical awards and a best director honor for Alfonso Cuarón. The emotional climax of the telecast came during Nyong’o’s speech, which occurred about two hours in to an almost four-hour show. The ceremony stretched on so long, in fact, that host DeGeneres saw fit to order pizza for the presumably hungry crowd (Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep were generous takers, as was a pregnant Kerry Washington, but the dashing DiCaprio conspicuously declined). It was a strange, stolid moment in a show watched by nearly 43 million viewers (a roster of writers could come up with nothing better than pizza delivery?) saved mainly by Brad Pitt, who graciously trailed DeGeneres, passing out paper plates.
Pitt was really the scene-stealer of the night, injecting bits of playfulness into an otherwise slogging show. He jumped out of his seat to join the now-infamous Oscar “selfie” DeGeneres wanted to take of herself and Streep, encouraging others in the A-list front rows to join in, too, including his partner Angelina Jolie. (The ingenuous “Oscar selfie” received more than 2.7 million retweets by midnight, reportedly causing a service disruption on Twitter.)
Pitt was equally bighearted when accepting the award for best picture for “12 Years A Slave,” a film he produced, offering brief words of thanks before giving credit elsewhere: “We all get to stand up here tonight because of one man who brought us all together to tell [this] story. And that is the indomitable Mr. Steve McQueen,” Pitt said.
Unlike DiCaprio, Hollywood’s other huge heartthrob, Pitt isn’t interested in using his star power to glamourize the bad guys. In “12 Years” he took a bit part as a white voice of conscience in the deep, depraved south, choosing to magnify the film’s message rather than bolster his credentials in a more award-worthy role.
This year, the dream factory honored a film with a dream at its heart; and it’s a credit to the Academy that they honored Pitt, a virtuoso who is also so virtuous.