In the end, Oscar voters couldn't truly avert their gaze from "12 Years a Slave."
Even though many Oscar voters found filmmaker Steve McQueen's searing chronicle of enslavement almost
too harrowing to watch, "12 Years a Slave" prevailed Sunday to win the best picture trophy in one of the closest contests in modern Academy Awards history.
In a ceremony in which the space thriller "Gravity" collected a leading seven statuettes — including the first directing Oscar won by a Mexican-born filmmaker — the biggest honor went to the true-life account of the kidnapping and auctioning of Solomon Northup, a New York freeman bartered as a Louisiana cotton picker.
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"Everyone deserves not just to survive but to live," the British director McQueen said in accepting the best picture award at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. "This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery."
Owing to its unflinching representation of whippings, rape and lynchings, "12 Years a Slave" was not intended to be easy viewing. But it was continually buoyed by tremendous critical acclaim, and throughout the seemingly endless awards season it maintained momentum even when facing filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón's blockbuster "Gravity" and writer-director David O. Russell's popular con game tale "American Hustle."
McQueen became the first black director to make a best picture winnner, and "12 Years a Slave" was one of several movies last year that explored the often traumatic history of African Americans, a slate that included "42," "Fruitvale Station" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
The subject matter of "12 Years a Slave" sparked several thorny jokes within Hollywood, with host Ellen Degeneres opening the show at the Dolby Theatre by saying, "So many different possibilities. Possibility No. 1: '12 Years A Slave' wins best picture. Possibility No. 2: You're all racists."
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Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ultimately split their ballots among many films, but the Solomonic vote-splitting left "American Hustle," which entered the evening tied with "Gravity" for the most nominations with 10, without a single statuette.
Proving that "Blue Jasmine" was not a referendum on the personal life of writer-director Woody Allen, Cate Blanchett was named lead actress for her depiction of a society wife whose life is imploding. "I'm here accepting an award in an extraordinary screenplay by Woody Allen. Thank you so much, Woody, for casting me. I truly appreciate it," Blanchett said.
Matthew McConaughey, who lost some 40 pounds to star in (and persuade reluctant financiers to back) the AIDS drama "Dallas Buyers Club," was the lead actor winner.
"Every day, every week, every month and every year of my life my hero is always 10 years away," McConaughey said of how he keeps chasing himself. "I'm never going to be my hero … that's just fine with me because that keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing."