By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 03, 2014 at 06:00 PM EST
Credit: John Shearer/Invision/AP

In recent years, grousing about the Oscars, which used to begin and end as water cooler chatter, has turned into a trivially self-serious industry, an annual collective rant in which the Sins of the Telecast are dutifully compiled and picked over and excoriated. “The show was way too long!” “It was boring!” “The host was a bust: unfunny and, at times, offensive!” “He (or she) should never be invited back!” “The musical numbers were terrible, and the In Memoriam segment left out far too many people!” “The tribute to _____ stopped the show dead in its tracks, and so did the montages!” “They were badly done, and there were at least three too many of them!” “______’s gown was hideous!” “The acceptance speeches went on way too long!” “Except for the ones that were cut off by those egregious music cues!” “And what was up with ______? My God, he looked so old!”

What’s really going on, of course, is that grousing about the Oscars has become an essential part of the ritual, a way that covetous outsiders can “participate” in the ultimate ceremony of Hollywood clubbiness, even as they hold themselves above it. Yet the criticisms, huffy and overstated as they often are, are not always wrong, and that’s what made last night’s Oscar ceremony a kind of deliverance: It was as if the people who put the show together had listened — really listened — to all those years of gripes, and had labored to come up with an Academy Awards night that wasn’t too long, that wasn’t boring, and, most important, that didn’t fall into all those crime-against-humanity lapses of taste and judgment. A show, in short, that seemed to be the exact kind of show that the grousers have been arguing for.

In my humble estimation, they brought it off. The show was trim, fleet, elegant, and organic, with few unnecessary bells and whistles; almost everything in it seemed to have a purpose. You could tell that a great many decisions, large and small, had been made to keep the flow of the evening going, and those decisions paid off, from the axing of production numbers to the very smart notion of relegating the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to a brief clip of a ceremony that had already taken place (a judgment call that required real discipline, considering that Angelina Jolie won the award, which might have seemed like catnip to producers in the past). From the start, Ellen DeGeneres set a perfect tone: Her job was to be one of those hosts, like Hugh Jackman (or, decades ago, Johnny Carson), who hold the evening together and give it some flavor without becoming top-heavy with her own edgy importance, and Ellen, to me, struck an ideal balance. Most of her jokes were light and tart and went down easy, but just enough of them had a testy sting, like when she praised the amazingly authentic Liza Minnelli “impersonator” in the audience (looking right at Minnelli, she offered a jaunty, “Good job, sir!”) or said that Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street “showed us something in that film that I have not seen in a very, very long time.” As Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have demonstrated in their stints co-hosting the Golden Globes, there’s a way to be cutting and humane at the same time, and Ellen skated that line with infectious finesse (though personally, I could have used half a dozen more cutting jokes).

Her real achievement, though, was to make the prospect of an Oscar host roaming through — and interacting with — the celebrity audience feel, for the first time, like a relaxed, fun, and totally natural thing to do, and not just a glorified let’s-try-something-different stunt. The “Let’s order pizzas!” bit sounded like a fairly strained gag, until you saw the way that Ellen used it to reveal what assorted celebrities would actually do (who grabbed a slice and who didn’t; Jared Leto very smartly giving one to his mom; Harvey Weinstein making a slightly awkward point of ponying up $200 while everyone else threw in $20). And by the time that she put together that instant-classic selfie, and used it to crash Twitter, she was drawing on the energy of the audience: You could tell that everyone really wanted to be in that shot — and at that moment, the Oscars trumped even the Globes in getting the biggest movie stars on the planet to let their hair down and connect with the audience at home.

Other good things: The show, for the first time in a while, didn’t pander to the blockbuster-movie fixations of the cravingly coveted youth demo (but won that demo anyway). Pharrell’s infectious, strolling rendition of “Happy,” his nominated song from Despicable Me 2, was so good that it was like a crackerjack performance from the VMAs, and it gave the broadcast an early injection of energized good vibrations. Visually, the evening was as close to stunning as the Oscars get. It wasn’t just that the set, with its beautiful carved white-line-on-ebony floors and lush light-bulb glow, entrancingly fused the old and the new — it was that the audience itself, observed in numerous shots from the point-of-view of the stage, became a vertical element in the show’s visual design, framed by those fantastic overhanging candy-apple-red opera seats. And one small but important way that the producers listened to the critics was that they officially stopped cutting people off in the middle of their acceptance speeches — a trend that had, over the last few years, grown almost corporate in its obnoxiousness, since those speeches, even when they do go on for too long, are the only real spontaneous moments in the show.

Given more leeway, the winners respected their freedom, much as the drivers on European highways that don’t have a speed limit comply by not abusing the power to drive fast. Even without those “Shut up and get the hell off the stage!” music cues, most of the winners kept it relatively short and sweet, and the ones who chose to wax on did so not indulgently but forcefully, earning the time they spent in thanks by really saying something. Lupita Nyong’o, radiant and wise, constructed her speech like a slow-building anthem of joy, Jared Leto revealed a soul every bit as intelligently generous as the performance he was honored for, Cate Blanchett made her ardent plea to see Hollywood produce more movies with women at their center not just a “cause” but the impassioned cutting edge of common sense, and Matthew McConaughey…well, this is the third acceptance speech I’ve heard him give this year (after the Golden Globes and the Independent Spirit Awards), and all three have been different, and all three have been perfect. Last night, his unvarnished eloquence let you feel, and touch, what an honor like this truly means to an actor — how, and why, it’s so much bigger than his ego. And allowing the winners to speak in their own time didn’t add unnecessary minutes onto the show. When Steve McQueen, the director or 12 Years a Slave, wrapped up his Best Picture acceptance speech and allowed himself a little end-zone victory dance, I glanced at the clock, and it was just midnight. They got through the entire show without anyone’s coach turning into a pumpkin.

There were things last night that I didn’t care for. In theory, it’s nice to commemorate the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz (though I feel as if the movie has been commemorated with anniversaries ever since it turned 50), but putting Pink in a gown the color of ruby slippers still doesn’t give that spiky chanteuse much spiritual connection to a movie that is so much bigger and more audacious than “Over the Rainbow,” and the tribute felt wan, underpopulated, perfunctory. The evening’s “theme,” Heroes in Hollywood, was not only super-banal (wow, movies are about people we root for and admire and wish we could be!), it felt like something left over from the Reagan ’80s, an attempt by liberal Hollywood to demonstrate that, yes, they really are down with traditional four-square role models. And while the In Memoriam segment was lovely, and admirably inclusive, we didn’t need Bette Midler elevating our lump in the throat to something official and monument-like — and even tying it into the “Heroes” theme — with her warbly rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings.” It inspired a standing ovation, which I guess was appropriate (the crowd was really standing for all those artists who had left us), but the evening, like Broadway, had too many standing ovations, with their meaning lessening over the course of several hours.

The real theme of the show was the extraordinary power of our current movie moment. It’s become routine for actors to honor their fellow nominees during acceptance speeches, but this year, listening to the way that Cate Blanchett sang out the praises of Amy Adams (at the Independent Spirit Awards the night before, Blanchett had made a point of singling out the un-nominated Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha), or hearing Jared Leto pay stirring tribute to the company he was in, or watching Matthew McConaughey give an obviously heartfelt hug to Leonardo DiCaprio on his way up to the stage, I sensed that the usual courtly display of nonselfishness was expressing something larger. The acting categories really were stocked with genius this year, and those incredible performances spoke to the level at which our movies are now working. I think that if Marlon Brando — that great acting artist who was also a great curmudgeon cynic, especially regarding all things Hollywood — had been around to see the movies that were nominated this year, even he might well have sung their praises. 12 Years a Slave (which won three awards), Gravity (which won seven), American Hustle (which won none, but is a movie that I think people will watch for decades): Just think of the astonishing range of daring and craft and expression that those three movies represent. The Oscars, in the end, aren’t just about awards. They’re an opportunity for the audience to bask in their love of the movies that were made that year. And this year the collective pull of those films was extraordinary. I personally think that it was the sharpest, most moving and well-executed Oscar show in memory, and maybe the ultimate explanation for that is that what the show added up to is a feeling that the system for making great movies, as flawed as it may be, as economically challenged by the imperatives of global franchise filmmaking…the system, in the end, is working. It is even thriving. And that makes the people who are making those movies the real heroes.

So what did you think of the Oscars last night?

12 Years a Slave

  • Movie
  • R
  • 134 minutes
  • Steve McQueen