‘12 Years a Slave’ wins best picture Oscar

“12 Years a Slave,” the historical drama filmed in the New Orleans area, earned three Academy Awards on Sunday, including the night’s top honor, best picture.

Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave’s” director, included the late Sue Eakin, the Bunkie historian who collaborated with New Orleans history professor Joseph Logsdon on the annotated edition of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, among his thank yous. LSU Press published Eakin’s and Logsdon’s work in 1968.

“I’d like to thank this amazing historian,” McQueen said. “She gave her life’s work to preserving Solomon’s book.”

McQueen also thanked Brad Pitt and the actor’s production company, Plan B.

“Without him this film would just not have been made,” the director said.

Pitt, a producer for “12 Years a Slave,” a supporting player in the film and sometimes New Orleans resident, also spoke.

“It’s been an absolute privilege to work on Solomon’s story,” he said.

“Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live,” said McQueen, who promptly bounced into the arms of his cast. “This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup.”

A year after celebrating Ben Affleck’s “Argo” over Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this time opted for stark realism over more plainly entertaining candidates such as the 3-D space marvel “Gravity” and the starry 1970s caper “American Hustle.”

Those two films came in as the leading nominee getters, and “Gravity” still triumphed as the night’s top award-winner. Cleaning up in technical categories, it earned seven Oscars including best director for Alfonso Cuaron. The Mexican filmmaker is the category’s first Hispanic winner.

But history belonged to “12 Years a Slave,” a modestly budgeted drama that has made $50 million worldwide — a far cry from the more than $700 million “Gravity” has hauled in.

It marks the first time a film directed by a black filmmaker has won best picture. Its breakthrough star, Lupita Nyong’o, also won best supporting actress and John Ridley won best adapted screenplay.

Wearing Nairobi blue, Nyong’o, 31, 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,” Nyong’o said. Glowing backstage, she cradled her statuette: “I’m so happy to be holding this golden man.”

“12 Years a Slave” got its second Oscar of the night with John Ridley’s win for best adapted screenplay.

“All the praise goes to Solomon Northup,” Ridley said of the story’s author. “Those are his words, that is his life. All the thanks goes to the entire crew, the entire cast.”

The Oscars fittingly spread the awards around, feting the starved stars of the Texas AIDS drama “Dallas Buyers Club” — also filmed in New Orleans — Matthew McConaughey (best actor) and Jared Leto (best supporting actor) and the Australian veteran Cate Blanchett for her fallen socialite in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” (best actress, her second Oscar).

New Orleans makeup artist Robin Mathews won the best makeup and hairstyling Oscar for her work in “Dallas Buyers Club.” She shares the honor with hairstylist Adruitha Lee.

In her acceptance speech, Mathews thanked friends, family, the film’s principal actors and its Canadian director.

“To Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, thank you so much for letting us transform and torture you through a million, bazillion hair and makeup changes a day,” Mathews said. “Jean-Marc Vallée, you are a visionary. You are so amazing and thank you for choosing the two of us to take this crazy journey with you.”

The Academy Awards, from Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre, were hosted nimbly by Metairie native Ellen DeGeneres. Her 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 simple, dance-free opening monologue, DeGeneres circulated freely in the crowd.

She 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!”

Another New Orleans Oscar connection was made during the awards ceremony when “20 Feet from Stardom,” a documentary about backup singers that includes former Gert Town resident Merry Clayton, won the Oscar for best documentary feature.

Darlene Love, one the film’s profiled backup singers, helped “20 Feet” director Morgan Neville and producer Caitrin Rogers accept the award.

“I am so happy to be here representing the ladies of ‘20 Feet from Stardom,’ ” Love said before breaking into a show-stopping a cappella performance of the gospel standard, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

Leto won best supporting actor for his acclaimed, gaunt performance as a theatrical transgender suffering from AIDS in the “Dallas Buyers Club.”

Leto gave special thanks to his mother, who was in the audience.

“In 1971, Bossier City, La.,” Leto said, “there was a teenage girl who was pregnant with her second child. She was a high school dropout and a single mom. But somehow she managed to make a better life for herself and her children. She encouraged her kids to be creative, to work hard and to do something special. That girl is my mother and she’s here tonight.”

“Thank you for teaching me to dream,” Leto said. 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.

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.

Advocate writer John Wirt contributed to this story.