For a ceremony that wasn't even advertising itself as “the young, hip Oscars” — how sparkly and limber Anne Hathaway looked in her presenting stint, relieved of that thankless, three-year-old yoke — you could hardly move for all the pointed assurances that last night's Academy Awards were definitely taking place in the 21st century.
Selfies! Twitter! Lupita Nyong'o getting down to Pharrell! Bette Midler lusking out “The Wind Beneath My Wings!” Well, maybe not entirely in the 21st century. (At least some of it was in an altogether parallel universe, and not just the performance by venerated stage chanteuse Adele Dazim.) Still, a larger-than-usual proportion of the show was at least in the present tense, which is where it needed to be — not least given that voters were evidently torn between one film that processes and reflects America's past, and another that offers glistening pointers to an entire medium's future.
The very real tension between “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” (the first actual race to the finish we've had in the Best Picture category in at least seven years) didn't just give the night a convenient structural urgency that producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron could hardly fabricate themselves, but gave the night a rare spirit of all-purpose celebration. The march to Best Picture wasn't the usual coronation of a single film: Alfonso Cuarón's space stunner may have come in second, but how much of a loser can you feel like while holding over twice as many trophies as your rival? (With seven wins, “Gravity” slots in between “Cabaret,” “A Place in the Sun” and “Star Wars” in the ranks of most-awarded films to miss out on the top prize — no bad place to be.) Rather, the evening played more as an ode to an industry capable of producing such a high-level contest in the first place.
Not for nothing was host Ellen DeGeneres's most elaborate gag — one that exemplified the jovial, we're-all-in-this-together approach that her defenders (this one included) find warmly immediate, and her detractors hopelessly naff — her already ubiquitous “selfie.” (Well, Bradley Cooper's selfie, if we're being literal about it.) That feverishly retweeted gathering of myriad A-listers (and Peter Nyong'o, supremely well-placed as poor Liza Minnelli struggled to get a look-in) was a cute enough gimmick, but it also had the air of a Hollywood Class of 2013 portrait, capturing a community of artists looking rightly pleased with what they and their colleagues had done to be there.
If it all threatened coming off a little smug — a night dedicated partly to rewarding films, and partly to rewarding themselves for rewarding them — credit DeGeneres's hosting with making it seem less inside-baseball than it could have done. Not everyone's a fan of her loose riffing and crowd participation stunts, but the sheer amount of time she spent interacting with Hollywood's great and good seemed a calculated strategy to bring them, and thereby the Oscars, closer to the audience. Rich and pretty and inordinately gifted they may be, but they eat takeaway pizza like the rest of us! (Leonardo DiCaprio excepted, of course.) For a film industry paranoid about losing its audience to alternate media, this party made every attempt to make viewers feel at home — the results weren't always especially slick or smart, but it was a more spirited ceremony than I was expecting after a lengthy season that turned alarmingly sour at points, even allowing for the closeness of the competition.
Every year, the Oscars effectively function as Hollywood's own selfie, and in some years they get the angle right better than others. Regardless of your personal preferences and persuasions — and yes, I do personally believe that the better film was pipped to the post — it was hard not to feel good about last night's slate of winners.
“12 Years a Slave” is a rich, resoundingly alive testament to still-bristling past injustices; a filmmaker as sensually and physically specific as Steve McQueen couldn't make an ossified-looking film if he tried. The director of “Hunger” and “Shame” (both films that deserved rather more notice than the Academy granted them) vividly filters decade upon decade of ensuing Civil Rights history, right up to the country's still-fractious political present, through the experience of Solomon Northup.
As such, it's a more lacerating meditation on contemporary racial tensions than Paul Haggis's “Crash,” a blunter instrument which the Academy was so eager to enshrine eight years ago. There's been much talk from “Slave's” more nervous advocates in recent weeks about how this was a film the Academy “needed” to reward, because it's the one that would make them look wisest in years to come. That's fool's talk: no one can anticipate how the public will archive even the most formidable film, and Oscar's annals are strewn with now-petrified issue films that, at the time of voting, seemed like a really big deal. More important is that “12 Years a Slave” is a winner that reflects well on the Academy right now. Not because it's Important — so is flossing and income tax — but because it's tactile, exciting filmmaking that a lot of people deeply care about. There's every chance it will date or be outdone by other cinematic essays on the same subject, but no matter: future records will show that it mattered to audiences and the industry in 2013, and that in itself will be of cultural and historical value.
But then, more of that goes for “Gravity” than its detractors — fond of recycling memes that Cuarón's film, with its urgent curiosity about mortality, afterlife and the violation of more than one great beyond, isn't About Anything — are willing to admit. As so often happens in the heat of Oscar season, when vociferous side-taking seemingly forces the abandonment of past loyalties, even some of the film's initial admirers began sneering at it as a “mere” thrill-ride. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for the Oscars to recognize the value of “pure,” pristinely crafted entertainment, free of social or intellectual obligations, but “Gravity's” keenest fans (this one included) are also allowed to see it as more: the rare popular blockbuster that genuinely and provocatively engages with non-denominational spiritualism. That'd have been a pretty radical, enthralling Best Picture choice too, and that's before you even consider what an unprecedented leap it represented for the Academy in terms of its perceived aesthetic (and genre) limitations.
The point is that this year's Oscar class presented the Academy with no easy or obvious choices between art and commerce, right and wrong, or even popular and critical favorites. In a sense, they almost didn't have to make a choice at all: giving seven awards (Best Director among them) to one film and three (Best Picture among them) to another is about as democratic a gesture as an awards body can make, short of an actual tie. 2013 shouldn't be remembered as the year that the industry chose McQueen's bold, boundary-pushing vision over Cuarón's, but the year they congratulated themselves for collectively having the talent, liberty and wherewithal to make both, and many others besides.
That pride was palpable throughout the ceremony, and not just where the Big Two were concerned. Look to the acting categories, where non-obligatory standing ovations greeted more than one of the winners, who all took pleasingly different paths to glory. I was slightly stunned to learn that Matthew McConaughey and Cate Blanchett — this year's homecoming king and queen, if you want to extend the Class of 2013 metaphor — are both 44 years old, because their careers hardly feel like ones we've observed in parallel.
The Academy evidently couldn't be more thrilled for McConaughey, the megawatt movie star whose recent, risky release of his inner character actor has yielded a reinvention entirely of his own volition and design. Blanchett's second Oscar, on the other hand, felt like Hollywood renewing its vows to an actor's actor so long burdened with “best of her generation” titles that she could afford to take a Sydney stage sabbatical. Two different “comeback” Oscars then, both for wildly charismatic star turns that pivot and expand on their existing actorly personae, both awarded with evident “we're happy to still have you” sentiment. Where Blanchett and McConaughey go from here is clearer, perhaps, than the outlook for hesitant part-timer Jared Leto and radiant newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, but there was no mistaking the universal warmth and enthusiasm that greeted those supporting winners — and their speeches, the two most heart-on-sleeve of the night — in the room.
It was that sense of communal accomplishment, and excitement for that accomplishment, that kept me smiling through a ceremony I'd otherwise be hard pressed to describe as one for the ages. Zadan and Meron couldn't do much about the lack of surprises in the awards themselves — only the gratifying win for French underdog “Mr. Hublot” over Disney's “Get a Horse!” in the Animated Short race went against pundit consensus, happily suggesting that voters were viewing all the nominees after all.
But the frequently careless staging and direction of proceedings is on them for a second year in a row. Musical numbers were presented in the most vanilla fashion possible. The much-vaunted “Heroes” theme predictable amounted to little more than a handful of ill-thought and depressingly male-driven montages. (Blanchett's smashing shout-out to female-led cinema in her acceptance speech could hardly have been better timed.) And perhaps the half-hearted “Wizard of Oz” could have been saved for next year, the actual 75th anniversary of the 1939 Oscars — and more comprehensively celebrate a year still regarded as Hollywood's annus mirabilis?
The 2013 Oscars are unlikely to be remembered with similar across-the-board reverence, though we have yet to see how this class ages even one year, let alone 75. Am I alone in wondering if “Her” (deservingly rewarded yet fashionably under-rewarded with Spike Jonze's Original Screenplay Oscar) might eclipse both last night's Best Picture duellists as the film that most immediately represents its no-longer-celluloid generation? Perhaps, perhaps not. I do suspect, however, that this will be remembered as one of the closest, most intelligently matched contests in Oscar history, long after last night's amiable, enjoyable, not-quite-effervescent ceremony has slid from memory. The selfie will remain — maybe not Ellen's, but the larger one taken yesterday. Everyone looks pretty damn good in it.