"Heroes" is not a great Oscar theme, though you can see how the Academy landed on it. How best to connect the Hollywood of award season, tellers of weighty ("based on true") stories, with that of the summer, when the increasingly giant films that drive the industry and get seen by vastly wider audiences come out? Well, say they're all about heroes, either ordinary or super. But then you get Matthew McConaughey topping off a genuinely excellent past few years with his first-ever Oscar win for "Dallas Buyers Club," telling the crowd that his hero is... his future self, and the narrative crumbles. The Oscars aren't, in the end, a tribute to the real AIDS victims, slaves or mothers in search of their sons behind these films, though it's always nice when they're given due mention -- they're a mirror in which Hollywood can admire its shiniest, most serious showbiz self.
And so the Oscars dutifully and rightfully gave their highest honor to "12 Years a Slave" after awarding most of the awards for craft to "Gravity" -- including Best Director, making Alfonso Cuarón the first Latino to win the prize. The split felt oddly appropriate, highlighting the dazzling technical achievement of Cuarón's stunning but less thematically hefty film while allowing the final spotlight to shine on Steve McQueen's devastating document of the worst chapter in our country's history. It was a year in which the Best Picture race was a genuine toss-up, and the scattering of awards over the films was representative of a strong field with no sense of dire snubs, even as the duo of warped takes on the American dream, "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" were shut out.
As if to counter the laudatory theme of the night, Ellen DeGeneres offered a determinedly casual take on hosting, opening the ceremony with no pre-taped bit or song but instead a rambling rounding of the room so gentle in its jokes it barely seemed written. DeGeneres' was such a low-key approach to hosting that it verged on anti-humor -- bits involving her sitting on the stage with a guitar or ordering pizza and handing out to the audience never arrived at a punchline, just meandered in the general area of one. By halfway through the night, she was bringing on Brad Pitt by saying he "needs no introduction, but if I don’t introduce him he wouldn't know when to come out," which isn't so much a gag as a blank truth. It wasn't a bad job, if sedate in a way that made the three and a half hour ceremony seem even longer. Through this, the whole selfie thing -- yes, even sponsored by Samsung -- read as a welcome moment of liveliness. Celebrities -- they're just like us! They spend too much time on their phones during inappropriate occasions too!
And there were other highlights. The luminous Lupita Nyong'o, taking home Best Supporting Actress for her role in "12 Years a Slave," gave the loveliest speech of the night, saying "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, and so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey." Bill Murray, introducing the nominees for Best Cinematography ("who’s up for best shootin'"), managed a shoutout to his late collaborator Harold Ramis. Pharrell Williams, in sparkling red high-tops and that oversized Mountie hat, coaxed a shimmy out of Nyong'o, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams while performing the irresistible "Happy." And Darlene Love, up on stage to accept the Best Documentary award for "20 Feet From Stardom," belted out a few impromptu bars of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" that raised goosebumps and brought the crowd to its feet.
It was the kind of event that winners are rarely afforded the time to attempt, but this was the year the Oscars choose not to play anyone off, and Jared Leto and Cate Blanchett in particular got in long speeches, with the latter noting the continued presumption that "female films are niche experiences" -- "they are not, audiences want to see them, and in fact they earn money." It was, despite the length of the night, a nice touch overall, taking away a lot of the sense of panicked urgency that can lead someone like Catherine Martin, winning Best Costume Design for "The Great Gatsby," to start off by promising, "I’ll be very short!"
To let the winners have their moment is, after all, what we're watching for, and the general lack of swelling "get off the stage" music was a relief, as was the muting of the applause during the "In Memoriam," something that in the past has always given the montage the odd feeling of a post-mortem popularity contest. Why it had to then be followed by Bette Midler singing goddamn "Wind Beneath My Wings" was a mystery. In a year notably filled with starry Best Song performances -- Idina Menzel, Karen O, Pharrell, U2 -- that performance and the "Wizard of Oz" tribute featuring Pink felt especially like filler. The real Oscar hero will be the person who someday manages to cut out all the needless montages and other showbiz salutes to itself so that the ceremony can focus on the films at hand, which this year were certainly strong enough to need no extra adornment.