Why ‘12 Years a Slave’ Is the Most Satisfying Oscar Winner in Years
PETER DEBRUGE: All is right with the universe. Not sure I felt this way going in, but as it turns out, the Oscar race was all about race. As Ellen DeGeneres joked at the top of the telecast, “Possibility No. 1: ‘12 Years a Slave’ wins best picture. Possibility No. 2: You’re all racists. And now please welcome our first white presenter, Anne Hathaway … ”
And yet, the evening proved to be incredibly diverse, both in its presenters and in its recipients. Of course, “12 Years” did go on to win, reflecting the Academy’s deep admiration for a film that tackles a subject the industry has been largely remiss in addressing. Though I hope its choices were indeed made from the heart, as opposed to on behalf of an actual agenda, such recognition is especially encouraging in light of the Los Angeles Times investigation that estimated the Academy’s 5,765 active voting members to be 94% white.
On the air, DeGeneres made a point of introducing Cheryl Boone Isaacs as the first African-American woman to head up the org, while kudocast producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron presumably went out of their way to tap such Oscar dignitaries as Sidney Poitier, Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis, as well as two 2014 Razzie recipients — Tyler Perry and Will Smith — to present.
Though the choice of “12 Years” makes a clear statement, I believe voters responded to Cate Blanchett’s exceptional performance in “Blue Jasmine” without considering the implications — namely, that there is an audience for “female films with women at the center,” as Blanchett put it at the podium. And I read Alfonso Cuaron’s best director win, coming just one year after Ang Lee took the same prize, as a color-blind victory. If the Academy took any kind of stand with “Gravity,” it was in acknowledging that new virtual techniques in cinematography and editing warrant recognition.
SCOTT FOUNDAS: I’m not sure that the cinematography Oscar for “Gravity” acknowledges anything with regard to virtual filmmaking that the previous awards in that category for “Life of Pi” and “Avatar” didn’t — all of them controversial among some analog purists who claim that such films have erased the line between cinematography and visual effects. Then again, if people actually bother to investigate how all those films were made, which elements were captured physically on the set and which were created in the effects studio, and how the cinematographer and visual effects artists collaborated with each other, it’s actually quite clear that these are still two very distinct disciplines.
But we can certainly agree, Peter, that the best picture win for “12 Years a Slave,” something we both predicted early and often, is a very satisfying one indeed. That movie in many ways represents the Hollywood system working the way it can at its best and should more often. An A-list movie star used his industry clout to greenlight a modestly budgeted film ($20 million) on a difficult subject, recruited a maverick indie director who had never done a film of this size and scope, let him cast the right actors for the roles rather than loading them up with name stars (who likely would have distracted from the film’s verisimilitude, the way Pitt himself does a slight bit in his third-act cameo), and the result has been not just a formidable critical success but a commercial one too, $140 million worldwide and counting as of this writing. I wish I could say I think it will start a trend, but I’m not holding my breath.