There’s a line in the song “So Lonely” by The Police that seems relevant when discussing the Academy Awards: “No surprise, no mystery.” Was anyone surprised that Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gave the best performance in the most important movie of 2013 (that’s 12 Years a Slave), lost out to Matthew McConaughey, who gave a nearly-as-good performance in Dallas Buyers Club?
Was anyone surprised that Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for the paper-thin, no-character-development, seen-it-before Gravity over 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen? Nah. (Or at least probably not.) Remember when considering your Oscar chances, kids: Space adventures beat the suffering of millions of people.
Maybe that’s the cynic in me, but at least some things about the Oscars did surprise: Jared Leto’s hair was wonderful. Ellen DeGeneres’ pizza gag—which tanked on multiple levels—was saved for a moment or two by Brad Pitt, who started handing out paper plates.
Then there was John Ridley’s win for Best Adapted Screenplay. The win itself isn’t a surprise, but it did surprise me that a guy who used to be a sitcom writer (and wrote the story for David O. Russell’s early movie Three Kings) would become one of the most sought-after scribes in Hollywood. Lesson to Ted Cohen and Andrew Reich, creators of “Work It,” ABC’s famously unfunny 2012 men-in-drag sitcom: There’s hope for you.
Other surprises: The tone deaf (literally) performance by Bette Midler of the 1980s tearjerker “Wind Beneath My Wings.” (At least they kept the period keyboard sound that dates the song so badly.) John Travolta’s odd hairline was upstaged only by his garbled pronunciation of Idina Menzel’s name. Menzel sang “Let It Go,” which beat Pharell’s superior “Happy” for Best Original Song. (His performance was better, too.)
All that griping leaves out one salient point. The Academy got something right in an era when it gets so many things wrong. As my friend and fellow film critic Kristofer Jenson said on Twitter last night, “12 Years a Slave wins. I don’t tell you this enough, society, but I’m proud of you. #Oscars.”
It’s important to note that, for once, the Academy, as they loftily call themselves, made the correct choice. I’d been bracing for a Gravity win for Best Picture of the Year (or worse, American Hustle) and was pleasantly surprised to see a beautiful—if heartbreakingly difficult—picture such as 12 Years a Slave get the recognition it deserves.
And “deserves” is a difficult word for awards such as the Oscars. This is the same rich-people-partying larf-fest that encourages the world’s most doofus-like selfie be retweeted more than any other photo in history (see above).
Such is life, and it’s the little victories that count. The Oscars are a sham, but they’re a sham that rewards people like Steve McQueen, Slave’s director. That picture’s big-name producer, Brad Pitt, had the good taste to step aside and let McQueen talk after a sincere introduction. And if the trade-off is that a dumb photo is in the headlines this morning, that’s OK. At least Lupita Nyong’o, Best Supporting Actress winner for 12 Years a Slave, made it in the pic.