LOS ANGELES — Perhaps atoning for past sins, Hollywood named the brutal, unshrinking historical drama “12 Years a Slave” best picture at the 86th annual Academy Awards.
Steve McQueen’s slavery odyssey, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, has been hailed as a landmark corrective to the movie industry’s long omission of slavery stories and years of whiter tales like 1940 best-picture winner “Gone With the Wind.”
McQueen dedicated the honor to those who suffered slavery and “the 21 million who still endure slavery today.”
“Everyone deserves not just to survive but to live,” said McQueen, who promptly bounced into the arms of his cast. “This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup.”
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A year after celebrating Ben Affleck’s “Argo” over Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this time opted for stark realism over more plainly entertaining candidates like the 3D space marvel “Gravity” and the starry 1970s caper “American Hustle.”
Those two films came in as the leading nominee-getters, and “Gravity” still triumphed as the night’s top award-winner. Cleaning up in technical categories, it earned seven Oscars including best director for Alfonso Cuarón. The Mexican filmmaker is the category’s first Latino winner.
“It was a transformative experience,” said Cuarón, who spent some five years making the film and developing its visual effects. “For a lot of people, that transformation was wisdom. For me, it was the color of my hair.”
He thanked his star, Sanda Bullock, the sole person on screen for much of the lost-in-space drama: “Sandra, you are ‘Gravity.’ ” Bullock lost the best-actress award to Cate Blanchett, the star of Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.”
But history belonged to “12 Years a Slave,” a modestly budgeted drama produced by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, that has made $50 million worldwide — a far cry from the more than $700 million “Gravity” has hauled in. It marks the first time a film directed by a black filmmaker has won best picture. Its graceful breakthrough star, Lupita Nyong’o, also won best supporting actress and John Ridley won best adapted screenplay.
The Oscars fittingly spread the awards around, feting the starved stars of the Texas AIDS drama “Dallas Buyers Club,” Matthew McConaughey (best actor) and Jared Leto (best supporting actor), in a smooth, if safe, Sunday-night ceremony.
Ellen DeGeneres’ second stint as host was a kind of amiable, light-footed correction from last year’s “We Saw Your Boobs”-singing host Seth MacFarlane.
After warmly needling stars in a dance-free opening monologue, DeGeneres circulated freely in the crowd. She had pizza delivered, appealing to producer Harvey Weinstein to pitch in, and gathered stars to snap a selfie she hoped would be a record-setter on Twitter (1.4 million tweets in an hour and still counting). One participant, Meryl Streep, giddily exclaimed: “I’ve never tweeted before!”
Though the ceremony lacked a big opening number, it had a steady musical beat to it. To a standing ovation, Bono and U2 performed an acoustic version of “Ordinary Love,” their Oscar-nominated song from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” a tune penned in tribute to the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.
Singing his nominated “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2,” Pharrell Williams had Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio dancing in the aisles.
Pink was cheered for her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” part of a 75th anniversary tribute to “The Wizard of Oz.” And Bette Midler sang — what else? — “Wind Beneath My Wings” for the in memoriam segment — an especially heartfelt one, considering the deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Harold Ramis, James Gandolfini and others.
Best documentary went to the crowd-pleasing backup-singer ode “20 Feet from Stardom.” One of its stars, Darlene Love, accepted the award singing the gospel tune “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”: “I sing because I’m happy / I sing because I’m free.”
Disney’s global hit “Frozen” won best animated film, marking — somewhat remarkably — the studio’s first win in the 14 years of the best-animated-feature category. (Pixar, which Disney owns, has regularly dominated.) With box-office that recently passed $1 billion globally, the film was sure to be the biggest hit to take home an Oscar on Sunday. The film’s “Let It Go” won best original song.
“We’re all just trying to make films that touch people,” said co-director Chris Buck backstage. “Once in a while, you get lucky.”