LOS ANGELES — 12 Years a Slave took the top prize at the 86th Academy Awards on Sunday night, but the force of Gravity exerted itself as the space drama won seven Oscars including a history-making best director award for Alfonso Cuaron.
The 3-D space spectacle was the most honoured film at the Dolby Theatre ceremony hosted nimbly by Ellen DeGeneres.
The Mexican Cuaron is the first Latino filmmaker to take best director.
“It was a transformative experience,” said Cuaron, who spent some five years making the film and developing its visual effects. “For a lot of people, that transformation was wisdom. For me, it was the colour of my hair.”
He thanked his star, Sanda Bullock, the sole person on screen for much of the lost-in-space drama: “Sandra, you are Gravity.”
Bullock lost the best actress award to Cate Blanchett, the star of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.
Matthew McConaughey won best actor honours while Lupita Nyong’o and Jared Leto took supporting acting prizes in a smooth if safe Oscar ceremony Sunday punctuated by politics, pizza and photo-bombing.
Wearing a dress of Nairobi blue, the 31-year-old Nyong’o, breakout star of the historical drama 12 Years a Slave, accepted the award for best supporting actress.
In her feature film debut, 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!”
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 Wing 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.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake—coyle