Oscars 2014
Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Despite a terrifically loose Ellen DeGeneres, the first half of the Oscars was the type of slog that makes you wonder if your friends who don’t watch TV are onto something.

Last night got off to a dreadfully slow start — Ellen’s great monologue aside, which included that surprising and just-this-side-of-cruel dig on Liza Minnelli. From the beginning the show was almost fatally crippled by the thick-with-self-regard theme of “Heroes in Hollywood.” That meant puffy, poorly edited montages of animated heroes, action heroes, and those ordinary among us who commit quiet acts of heroism (you know, average Joes like Abraham Lincoln and Muhammad Ali). Amy Adams spoke for all of us suffering quietly at home when she got caught checking her phone during Harrison Ford’s snoozy line reading of some Best Picture nominees.

The choice to have Bette Midler sing her old weepy “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the In Memoriam montage felt cheap and manipulative. (The segment producers could take notes from the elegance of Bill Murray, whose introduction of Harold Ramis as a 6th Best Cinematographer nominee was as poignant as it was understated.) And I think I speak for parents everywhere who cursed the whole production for holding Idina Menzel’s performance of “Let It Go” until the end after we promised our young children they could stay up and watch. (#John Travolta, you’re a mess.)

There were redeeming moments of spontaneous fun, like when Meryl Streep shook her bosom with Pharrell Williams, or when Lupita Nyong’o’s equally adorable brother wanted in on Ellen’s selfie, or when Brad Pitt passed out paper plates to pizza eaters. That pizza bit shouldn’t have worked so well, but Ellen committed, as did the mystified looking delivery man and Kevin Spacey with his tips for the pizza guy and for our lovely host, too.

But by my watch, the first transcendent moment of joy didn’t arrive until well into the second hour, when gorgeous Darlene Love sang her thanks for 20 Feet From Stardom‘s Best Documentary Oscar. Her few belted-out bars of the gospel hymn “His Eye on the Sparrow” were so bold and beautiful that they brought a grateful Bill Murray — and then the rest of the crowd — to his feet, pumping his fist. Then, at the hour and 42 minute mark, the night’s true Cinderella — Lupita Nyong’o — gave one of the most endearing, articulate, profound, and joyful speeches in awards show show history when she accepted her statuette for Best Supporting Actress. (She didn’t waste a word — the same of which can’t be said for Jared Leto or Matthew McConaughey, who must have talked poor Jennifer Garner’s underwritten ears off on the set of Dallas Buyers’ Club.)

When accepting her award for Best Actress, Cate Blanchett did the seemingly impossible. In praising the other nominees’ performances, she managed to love on each woman in specific, sincere fashion. And, just as she did at the SAG awards when she protested being rushed through her speech after McConaughey got to wax on (and on) about Neptune, and then at the Spirit Awards when she wondered why there were only five Best Actress nominees to Best Actor’s six, she was the heroic voice of reason bemoaning Hollywood’s continued wariness of female-driven movies. “Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they make money,” she said. “The world is round, people!” Preach, sister.

So thank you to Ellen, and to Bill Murray and Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey, to the “Let It Go” songwriters for their magnificent earworm of a tune and their effervescent speech, Tina Fey munching on potpourri in those AmEx commercials, Darlene Love, Lupita Nyong’o, Cate Blanchett, and Steve McQueen’s invisible box jump after 12 Years a Slave‘s big win, for elevating a show that should’ve been better. Good night, people.

12 Years a Slave
  • Movie
  • 134 minutes