In the end the Academy Awards fell right into place with every other awards show this season. Gravity got LOTS of love but it ended with 12 Years A Slave‘s Steve McQueen making the big acceptance speech of the night for Best Picture — just like it went at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Movie Awards, BAFTA, PGA and others. It’s a weird year when a blockbuster picture like Gravity can win seven Oscars including Best Director yet lose the big one. But science fiction is not a category the Oscars have ever embraced in that way, and this year was no exception. In 1977 Star Wars also won seven Oscars yet lost in the end to Best Pic winner Annie Hall, which only picked up four awards overall much like Slave’s haul of three nods this year. The record still stands though with 1972’s Cabaret winning eight Oscars but losing ultimately to The Godfather which won only three including Best Picture.
How do you explain it? It’s called spreading the wealth but wanting to save your most important award for a movie that has real gravitas, one that breaks barriers over what the Academy has ever done before. A movie directed by a black person has never before won nor has a film that so harrowingly details one aspect of the black experience. 12 Years A Slave may have depicted the dark side of this country in a way Oscar had never before recognized, but the Academy wanted to spotlight that and reward it with its highest prize in a year of great films about the black experience. In fact the whole show was full of diversity including numerous black presenters and the Best Director award to Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron.
There was definite relief in the audience because this year proved to be the most suspenseful I can ever recall, at least in terms of what name would be called when the Best Picture envelope was opened. 20th Century Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos told me he was extremely nervous and unsure until that moment. It was that tight. Gianopulos, who oversees the Fox Searchlight division that released 12 Years, said he has had a very good couple of days after the box office success of Son Of God too. “You don’t always have good weekends. This was a very good weekend for sure,” he said. Searchlight’s co-president Nancy Utley echoed that. “I was on pins and needles the whole way — you just never know what will happen,” she told me afterwards at the Governors Ball. “It’s very gratifying.” Utley also clarified that the studio’s final push with the phrase “It’s Time” was aimed at voters who were reluctant to actually see the film because they thought it would be too brutal. Searchlight wanted to address that problem head on — and they did.
Producer Brad Pitt was also at the Governors Ball celebrating his first Oscar win. He was all smiles when I caught up with him just after the show as he carried his statuette through the packed room. His significant other, Angelina Jolie, was beaming too, especially when I acknowledged that both had gotten Oscars this year; she won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award given out in November. Jolie could actually be back in the Oscar game next year with her directorial effort Unbroken. “I can’t wait for you to see it. I am still deep in editing, ” she said of the hotly anticipated project which opens on Christmas Day from Universal.
As for other winners, Cate Blanchett was clearly having the time of her life and stayed at the ball until very late. She was also ebullient as she took photos at her table with new Sony Corp head Kazuo Hirai (the film was released by Sony Pictures Classics). SPC heads Michael Barker and Tom Bernard were also celebrating the major win that has seemed assured since last summer. In fact, Barker told me at June’s Los Angeles Film Festival that he was “sure” he had the best actress winner before anyone had even seen Blue Jasmine. It turned out he was right.
Warner Bros distribution head Dan Fellman also had reason to celebrate at the Governors Ball. After all Warners had picked up an overwhelming total of 10 Oscars including seven for Gravity, two for The Great Gatsby and a Best Original Screenplay nod for Her. Not bad, but you could see it was still a little bittersweet for the studio which came so close to once again winning the top prize (after last year’s Argo). “I guess it is too much to expect to win two years in a row,” he told me. You could feel the disappointment. How many films win seven Oscars but don’t take Best Picture? I ran into Her’s Spike Jonze late at the ball who asked me for directions to the engraving stand. He was so busy getting congratulations he forgot to get his plaque put on his statuette but was determined to do so before heading off to other parties.
And though his film The Great Gatsby took a couple of Oscars for Costume and Production Design, it was The Wolf Of Wall Street and his nomination for Best Picture and Best Actor that really mattered to Leonardo DiCaprio, who was sanguine about it all when I caught up with him at the ball. “Ultimately all that worldwide promotion and those Q&As were worth it to make this movie successful. I don’t regret doing anything,” he told me, though clearly disappointed after a herculean effort and then losing the Best Actor Oscar to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club — who even had a small role in Wolf and embraced DiCaprio before going onstage to accept his Oscar. DiCaprio is criminally overlooked by the Academy. Hopefully his time is coming, but it is hard to fathom how he tops his work in this one. Wolf Of Wall Street was shut out of its five nominations as was Paramount’s other big contender, Nebraska, which along with Sony’s Captain Phillips went 0 for 6. That was nothing compared to Sony’s other contender, American Hustle, which was blanked for all of its 10 nominations, a near-record. Only The Color Purple in 1985 and The Turning Point in 1977 had a worse time of it by losing all 11 of their nominations.
And if you think winning an Oscar means your world changes, think again. The Governors Ball was open seating and Nicholas Reed, winner for the Documentary Short, The Lady In Number 6: Music Changed My Life, just wanted to sit down and eat so he asked if he could join our hightop table. Sure, why not? He plopped down his brand new Oscar which he had just gotten engraved at the engraving stand and proceeded to eat the salmon as it was served. Around the same time I ran into 20 Feet From Stardom Documentary Feature winning director Morgan Neville, who was thrilled with the film’s win, especially by the acceptance speech in which he allowed just enough of his allotted 45 seconds for singer Darlene Love to express her thanks through a stirring little musical interlude. They only had a ticket for one of the film’s four key background singers on the main orchestra floor so Love was the anointed one. The others sat upstairs but the victory was sweet, even though Merry Clayton experienced back problems and had to leave early.
Also at the ball, the Dallas Buyers Club team was experiencing the thrill of a big victory for a movie that took a 20-year journey to get to the screen. It was a big victory for Focus Features as it transitions into a new life under new head Peter Schlessel, who told me he was excited about the Universal specialty label’s future and its upcoming slate beginning with Jason Bateman’s sensational Toronto Film Festival acquisition Bad Words opening March 12. With lead and supporting actor wins for McConaughey and Jared Leto (who made the night’s outstanding acceptance speech right off the bat with the first award of the evening), there was another Oscar for the hair and makeup team who had just a few hundred dollars in their budget to pull off the remarkable transformations. Hair Stylist Robin Mathews clearly deserved her Oscar as she recounted for me the trial and errors in pulling this job off. “I even used my own wigs and had to run over one of them with my car in order to give it the right look,” she said of the primitive methods a future Oscar winner had to use to make it all right.
Foreign Language committee head Mark Johnson was pleased with Italy’s victory for The Great Beauty but said he still plans to institute major changes in the selection process of foreign films. He’s also looking into how the first-year rule of opening up voting to all Academy members and sending DVD screeners of the nominees worked out. He’s concerned that some members may have voted without seeing all five films.
Overall reaction to the second consecutive Oscar show effort from producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron was upbeat, at least according to most I talked to at the ball. From my vantage point in the first mezzanine it was a fun show completely devoid of surprises. But Ellen DeGeneres kept it moving, particularly with her signature bits in the audience and that instant classic moment when she took a selfie with a group of superstar nominees. Now that was a great Oscar moment. Her monologue was hit and miss and a little cruel when it came to a crack about Liza Minnelli. She also walked a thin line in dealing with the serious 12 Years A Slave but drew big laughs saying, “there are two possibilities tonight. Possibility number one is 12 Years A Slave wins best picture. Possibility number two is you’re all racists.” That line had the right blend of biting humor missing from the general softball nature of most of her bits. What was impressive was how she made that audience of nervous nominees so comfortable. This is no easy gig dealing with a crowd filling up with losers as the night goes on, but she made it look effortless.
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The musical interludes were great. All four nominated song performances were first rate and Pink knocked “Over The Rainbow” out of the park. On the other hand the film packages highlighting the show’s purported theme honoring “heroes” felt flat and undercooked. Still for a show that unfolded in a completely predictable fashion there seemed to be a lot of energy in the room with more standing ovations than I have ever seen at an Oscar ceremony. This crowd in fact stood for just about everything. Producer Brad Krevoy, sitting next to me, said “this is a lot more fun than it ever is on television”.
And so it goes. The 86th Annual Academy Awards is history. And it was an American history lesson that finally came out on top.