Originally Published: March 2, 2014 10:11 p.m.
LOS ANGELES (AP) - 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."
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 3-D 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 Cuaron. The Mexican filmmaker is the category's first Latino winner.
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), and the Australian veteran Cate Blanchett for her fallen socialite in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" (best actress, her second Oscar).
But history belonged to "12 Years a Slave," a modestly budgeted drama produced by 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.
First-time winner Nyong'o made an indelible impression as the tortured slave Patsey.
"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 for her guidance," said Nyong'o. Glowing backstage, she cradled her statuette: "I'm so happy to be holding this golden man."
DeGeneres' second stint was a kind of amiable, light-footed correction from last year's "We Saw Your Boob"-singing host Seth MacFarlane.
After warmly needling stars in a dance-free opening monologue, she circulated freely in the crowd. DeGeneres had pizza delivered, appealing to 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!"
Jared Leto won best supporting actor for his acclaimed, gaunt performance as a theatrical transgender suffering from AIDS in the Texas drama "Dallas Buyers Club." He thanked his mother, his date on the night.
"Thank you for teaching me to dream," said Leto. Later backstage, he passed around his Oscar to members of the press, urging them to "fondle" it. The long-haired actor, who has devoted himself in recent years to his rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, gravely vowed: "I will revel tonight."
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."
Though the Oscar ceremony is usually a glitzy bubble separate from real-world happenings, international events were immediately referenced. In his acceptance speech, Leto addressed people in Ukraine and Venezuela.
"We are here and as you struggle to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible, we're thinking of you," said Leto.
Russian state-owned broadcaster Channel One Russia said it would not broadcast the Oscars live because of the necessity for news coverage of Russia's invasion of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. It will instead transmit the Oscars early Tuesday morning, local time.
Venezuelan protesters, via social media, urged Oscar winners to bring attention to their plight. Anti-government protests have roiled the country in recent weeks.
Italy's "The Great Beauty" won the Oscar for best foreign language film. In accepting the award for his rumination on life and Rome's decadence, director Paolo Sorrentino thanked his heroes, including Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese and soccer star Diego Maradona.
In her opening, DeGeneres gently mocked Hollywood's insularity, referring to the headlines that have swamped the Los Angeles area lately with a slightly less serious news event.
"It has been raining," said DeGeneres. "We're fine. Thank you for your prayers."
ABC, which is telecasting the ceremony, hopes the drama of the best-picture race will be enough to entice viewers. The show last year drew an audience of 40.3 million, up from 39.3 million the year before when the silent-film ode "The Artist" won best picture.
There was a sense of deja vu Saturday. Just as she hit the red carpet, Jennifer Lawrence briefly collapsed in a heap of laughter, just as she tripped ascending the stairs last year to accept best actress for "Silver Linings Playbook."
"If you win tonight," said DeGeneres, "I think we should bring you the Oscar."