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So, why watch the Oscars? Do they matter? Is it just Hollywood patting itself on the back? The Oscars matter because the stories we all partake of matter. Stories are the very form Jesus used to teach us eternal truths. The Oscars (although judged by Hollywood peers from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) reveal which stories get privileged and are seen as most important and well executed in our media culture.
Films are one of our last shared cultural "carriers" because so few movies are made each year that get wide distribution (only a handful of movies are in the cinemas at any given time), and we have so many ways to view or "catch up" with our movie-watching today: cinemas, VOD, Netflix, Hulu, streaming, DVDs, "On Demand," movies on airplanes, even illegally uploaded movies on YouTube. Young and old all watch the same stories. People talk about stories when they get together: "Seen any good movies lately?"
The 86th Academy Awards (or Oscars) on March 2 were hosted by Ellen DeGeneres who brought humor and a homey, folksy feel to the proceedings. She conducted a good portion of the show from the audience by taking star-studded group "selfies" on her phone (posting them immediately to Twitter) and ordering in pizza for the nominees. The celebrities cooperated grandly, ad-libbing and really having fun--tuxedos, shimmering gowns and all.
The four most prestigious awards are always reserved for the end. These were scooped up by: Best Director, Alfonso Cuarón for "Gravity"; Best Actress, Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine"; Best Actor, Matthew McConaughey for "Dallas Buyers Club"; Best Picture, "12 Years a Slave." In my estimation, these were excellent and diverse choices. "Gravity" was a heart-pounding, nail-biting feat of technical genius. "Blue Jasmine" was a lighthearted tragicomedy with a standout female performance. "Dallas Buyers Club" was a difficult story of a man dying of AIDS, and "Twelve Years a Slave" was another difficult-to-watch story of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of egregious injustice and cruelty.
The highlights of the evening were undoubtedly some truly wonderful and inspiring acceptance speeches. It's marvelous how many thank parents, wives, husbands and children first. This is also when the actors and filmmakers speak unscripted and we get to hear what they're thinking and see who they really are.
Jared Leto (Best Actor in a Supporting Role) set the tone for the evening with a serious speech thanking his mom and brother and mentioning Ukraine and Venezuela.
Lupita Nyong'o (Best Actress in a Supporting Role) won her Oscar for "12 Years a Slave," her very first film role! Her elegant speech was aimed at children, telling them that "no matter where you're from, your dreams are valid."
Darlene Love (Best Documentary) burst out full-throatedly in a famous Black Gospel hymn for her "speech" and got a standing ovation.
Cate Blanchett (Best Actress in a Leading Role) thanked her "glorious" three boys, "legendary" husband, "goddess" agent and "sublime" co-star while playfully dissing two other nominees. To the great joy of women everywhere, she added that her winning role in "Blue Jasmine" proves to "those of us in the industry still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center" are not "niche experiences." "Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people." Multi-winning "Gravity" was also practically a one-woman show, with Sandra Bullock.
Matthew McConaughey gave a protracted shout-out to God, and Steve McQueen (Best Picture) thanked his "hard-headed" mother twice, and reminded us that many humans are still enslaved today.
"Gravity" mopped up with a whopping seven Oscars (it deserved to win in all technical award categories--even though that meant Smaug got left out), but I would rather have seen the Best Original Score go to "Philomena" or "Her," notwithstanding the gem of a brief speech by first-time Oscar winner, Stephen Price, who thanked his parents for putting up with all the noise he made growing up. ("Gravity's" music was run-of-the-mill, overwrought, and mawkish.) The best live performance of the night was Pink's fresh rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in her contemporary, husky, easy-on-the-ears voice.
Three films that were completely shutout (although nominated in multiple categories) were "American Hustle" (fun, but not even Oscar material, IMHO), "Philomena" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."