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.
- Oscars 2014: Show highlights
- The Oscars in a time-lapse minute
- Oscars 2014: Top winners and nominees
- Oscars 2014: Best and worst moments
- Oscars 2014: Behind the scenes at the Academy Awards
- Oscars 2014: Red carpet arrivals
See more photos »
- Animation (Movie Genre)
- 12 Years a Slave
See more topics »
"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."
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.
"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."
And while they handed "12 Years a Slave" the best picture prize, Oscar voters were parsimonious with the rest of their praise. In winning just two other Oscars — it was the recipient of the supporting actress and adapted screenplay statuettes — "12 Years a Slave" matched 2005's "Crash" for taking the best picture honor with only three total wins.
For Degeneres' banter and stunts — serving pizza to Brad Pitt, posing for a selfie with Meryl Streep and Bradley Cooper — the evening was punctuated by several unusually emotional and personal acceptance speeches, including remarks from "12 Years a Slave" supporting actress Lupita Nyong'o, "Dallas Buyers Club" supporting actor Jared Leto and the songwriters of "Let it Go" from "Frozen."
Lupita Nyong'o, the Kenyan actor who made her feature film debut in "12 Years a Slave" as the much-abused slave Patsey, delivered one of the evening's most emotional acceptance speeches, recognizing that her honor was based on the actual suffering her real-life character endured some 170 years ago. "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," Nyong'o said.
John Ridley, who adapted Northup's 19th century memoir of the same name for "12 Years a Slave," similarly bestowed his thanks on the man sold into slavery who memorialized his tale soon after his emancipation. "All the praise goes to Solomon Northup," Ridley said in his adapted screenplay acceptance speech. "Those are his words, that is his life."
For all of its acclaim, "12 Years a Slave" has done solid but not stunning business. It actually has performed better overseas than it has in domestic theater — grossing nerly $90 million internationally and $50 million in North America.