Oscars 2014: Why '12 Years a Slave,' 'Gravity' both won big

At the Oscars Sunday, 'Gravity' took home the most awards, seven, but Best Picture went to '12 Years a Slave.' That could reflect different values that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wants to recognize.

John Shearer/Invision/AP
Director Steve McQueen, left, congratulates Lupita Nyong'o on her win for best actress in a supporting role for "12 Years a Slave" as her brother Peter, background from left, and actors John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, look on, during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Oscars 2014 showed that Hollywood has embraced diversity, loves special effects that drive the box office, but is still reluctant to give its top award to a film without a moral center or social gravitas. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is intent on projecting its breadth to overcome past characterizations that it is a chummy, white man’s club.

Those are the observations of several critics, sociologists, film historians, and cinema teachers asked to critique Sunday’s Oscar telecast.

“The gap between what the press has said often about the academy, and what it actually is, was on display tonight, showing the diversity and breadth of people who come to Hollywood to achieve their goals,” says Charles Bernstein, former academy vice president and music branch governor, who attended the awards show.

Besides the first Latino ever to win Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón) and a black man from London directing Best Picture (Steve McQueen of “12 Years a Slave”), there were other signs of cultural diversity in the awards show, Mr. Bernstein says, including Cate Blanchett speaking to her Australian theater company and two nominated actors being from different African countries (Somalian Barkhad Abdi, nominated for “Captain Phillips,” and Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o, who won Best Supporting Actress.).

In terms of numbers, the biggest winner was “Gravity,” which took home seven awards, mostly in technical categories (Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Film Editing). But Best Picture went to “12 Years a Slave.”

"I had no doubt that '12 Years a Slave' would take the best pic Oscar –there was no moral alternative,” says Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communication at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. " Hollywood wants to pretend to forget all the Civil War films it made, and continues to make, that romanticize the Confederacy.”

As host Ellen DeGeneres quipped at the opening of the awards show: "Possibility No. 1, '12 Years a Slave' gets Best Picture. Possibility No. 2, you're all racists."

The show reflected the push and pull that Hollywood is caught in: that socially important stories need to be told, but often don’t make a lot of money. People want fantasy, go to movies primarily for entertainment, and don’t really relish reality.

“The Hurt Locker” (2008) – a true story of elite soldiers who disarm bombs in the heat of combat – is currently the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever. “The Avengers” – about a crew of cartoon superheroes who try to save the world from disaster – was the highest-grossing movie of 2012.

“I think the awards show showed Hollywood decided to compromise,” adds Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “ ‘Gravity’ swept the technical categories but was one of the most empty movies ever made, but ‘12 Years,’ which is a very difficult movie to watch, won three top awards [Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress].” The academy, Dixon says, wanted to award a movie that advances the technological underpinnings of moviemaking – but also wanted to honor a picture with a socially important story, no matter how grim a narrative.

Some see the trend continuing.

“So much of what Hollywood is doing these days is making these beautifully rendered special effects and CGI [computer-generated imagery] – the kinds of films that are very entertaining and pull in lots of money,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “But the same thing that fits into this business and creative plan of Hollywood is probably also not the kind of film that the academy is going to vote as Best Picture. I sense we may see more and more of this standard model.”

As for the show itself, reactions seemed mixed. Hezekiah Lewis, professor of film studies at Villanova University outside Philadelphia, thought Ms. DeGeneres did an “amazing job” and loved her shtick of taking and tweeting a “selfie” – which became the most retweeted tweet of all time, crashing Twitter.

But Professor Sharrett of Seton Hall says, “The Oscar show was an exercise in enforced mediocrity, beginning with the dismal performance of Ellen DeGeneres: Will people wake up one day and realize that this person isn't funny?” Hollywood Reporter said DeGeneres was long, boring, and self-involved.

Mr. Thompson of Syracuse saw the show as having a total lack of interest.

“I can’t think of a single thing that happened that would ever be put in a clip reel of Oscar greatest hits,” he says. The fact that so many presenters stumbled over their lines was an indictment of the academy, he says: “Here you have in one room some of the most talented living entertainers in the world, and you give them this incredibly bad copy to read off the teleprompter.”

Sharrett thought the "In Memoriam" segment was “amazingly callous” because such greats as Peter O'Toole, Joan Fontaine, Maximilian Schell, and Philip Seymour Hoffman “all got the same five seconds as producers, technicians, and agents who died this year.”

But others applauded the fact that some of the unknown people behind the camera were given equal – some say elevated – status for that segment.

Staff writer Gloria Goodale contributed to this report.

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