Steve McQueen celebrates after winning Best Picture for '12 Years a Slave'
Steve McQueen celebrates after winning Best Picture for '12 Years a Slave.' Photo by Reuters
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Niv Adiri (center) celebrates with his colleagues after winning the Best Sound Mixing Oscar for 'Gravity.' Photo by Reuters

Sometimes it seems like anticipating the Academy Awards ceremony is more exciting than the ceremony itself, and this was the case for the 86th annual ceremony, held Sunday night in Los Angeles. It was a businesslike affair, rather dry, lackluster and less glittery than usual, perhaps to reflect America’s economic crisis.

Ellen DeGeneres moderated the event as if it were an episode of the daytime talk show she’s successfully hosted for a decade. Her jokes were cautious and without bite; only once did she slightly cross the line by saying that if the film “12 Years a Slave” didn’t win for best picture, it was a sign that everyone in the hall was racist. And her endless joke about ordering pizza, distributing it to some of those in attendance and collecting money for it should have been canned in advance.

There were no surprises at the ceremony. Most pundits anticipated the results fairly accurately. “12 Years a Slave” won the Best Picture Oscar and two more – one for Lupita Nyong’o, who took the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award, the other to John Ridley for Best Adapted Screenplay.

As was also expected, the Best Directing award didn’t go to Steve McQueen (the director of the Best Picture winner) but to Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity,” which won the most Oscars, seven. This, too, was expected.

Once again I was reminded of what happened in 1936, when John Ford’s film “The Informer” claimed best director, screenplay, actor and musical score, but the Best Picture award was given to “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Ford joked at the time that members of the Academy seemed to have liked everything about his movie except the movie itself.

But the case of “12 Years a Slave” is different. Here it was not the quality of the film that made it a winner – if it hadn’t been nominated, “Gravity” would have also won Best Picture – but its subject and historical importance in the history of American cinema.

And although McQueen lost the directing award, he was still able to hold an Oscar at the height of the ceremony as one of the winning film’s producers. At the end of his acceptance speech – in which, as expected, he touched on the problem of slavery that still exists in the world – he broke into a joyous dance.

Because Brad Pitt was also one of the winning film’s producers, he won his first Oscar this year. And since Cuaron was not only the director of “Gravity” but also one of its two editors, and the movie also took Best Film Editing, he actually won two Oscars (the editing award was shared with Mark Sanger).

Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture, four won Oscars of some kind but the rest left empty-handed. In addition to “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity,” the Best Original Screenplay award went to Spike Jonze for “Her,” while the two male acting awards went to the stars of “Dallas Buyers Club,” with Matthew McConaughey winning the Best Actor in a Leading Role statue and Jared Leto taking Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The film also claimed a third Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

The two winning actors gave the most notable acceptance speeches of the evening. Leto, whose award opened the ceremony, saluted his single mother, who gave birth to him when she was 17 and taught him to always believe in himself (his mother, like the parents of several other nominees, was in the audience). He also made several other statements apparently meant to inspire (“Beautiful,” said DeGeneres, when Leto left the stage).

McConaughey, meanwhile, delivered a bizarre speech in which he thanked God, among others, and offered some kind of puzzling allegory whose bottom line seemed to be: You can never be your own hero. He seemed somewhat frantic.

By contrast, Cate Blanchett, who won Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” gave an emotionally restrained speech. She only mentioned Allen once, when she thanked him for the screenplay. Most of the other speeches were predictable and consisted mainly of the names of people the winners wanted to thank.

Another expected winner was Italian director Paolo Sorrentino for “The Great Beauty,” which won for Best Foreign Language Film. The sound mixing award went to “Gravity,” whose sound team included Israeli Niv Adiri. “I’m the happiest Israeli alive at the moment,” said Adiri, who has lived in England for the past 14 years. “It’s been an amazing night. I feel very lucky and proud.”

So what happened at the ceremony? Particularly banal montages dealing with heroes of American cinematic history; a tribute to “The Wizard of Oz,” on its 75th anniversary, with star Judy Garland’s three children – Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft and Joey Luft – in the audience; the annual tribute to cinema figures who died this past year (whose producers were unable to include in the long list the name of French director Alain Resnais, who died Sunday).

There was also an emotional moment when Angelina Jolie took the stage along with Sidney Poitier, 84, to present the Best Director award and mark 50 years since he became the first black actor to win an Oscar. Poitier, who was leaning on Jolie’s arm and has difficulty walking and even speaking, seemed frail and weak, but the dignity he always conveys was still evident.

The oddest couple to present an award at the ceremony was Matthew McConaughey and Kim Novak, who, after many years in which she refused to attend events of this kind, has been appearing again in public – first at Cannes, where a restored version of the 1958 movie “Vertigo,” in which she starred, was screened, and now at the Oscars. I’m not sure this was a wise move on her part.

Among the films not nominated for Best Picture that still won Oscars, the standout was “The Great Gatsby,” which won two. Both went to Catherine Martin, wife of the film’s director, Baz Luhrmann, for costume design and production design (the latter shared with a fellow Australian, Beverley Dunn).

There was a moment that linked the ceremony to these parts, when “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” by Malcolm Clarke, won for Best Documentary Short. The film tells the story of Holocaust survivor Alice-Herz Sommer, and Clarke made sure to inform the public that the film’s hero had died a week earlier, aged 110.

So the Oscars have come and gone, and in less than a year the excitement will start anew. And again we’ll forget that almost all the Academy Awards ceremonies of recent years have been pretty tedious affairs. We’ll hope that the next ceremony will be exciting and moving – while most likely it will be disappointing, yet again.