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Best Picture Win For '12 Years A Slave' Sends New Message To Hollywood?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'd like to finish up the program today talking about the Oscars. Yes, the 86th Academy Awards were last night. Host Ellen DeGeneres hinted at what was to come in her opening monologue.


ELLEN DEGENERES: It's going to be an exciting night. Anything can happen. So many different possibilities. Possibility number one - "12 Years a Slave" wins Best Picture.


DEGENERES: Possibility number two - you're all racists.


MARTIN: Well, the movie did indeed win Best Picture, as well as Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong'o and Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley, who brought the story of Solomon Northup to life. In a minute, we'll reprise a conversation I had earlier with actress Alfre Woodard, who has a small but powerful role in the film. But first, we want to talk more about Oscar night - both what we saw on stage and on the red carpet. So I'm joined by People magazine's movie critic Alynda Wheat. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

ALYNDA WHEAT: Thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And, as we said, "12 Years a Slave" won best film, Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey both won for their roles in "Dallas Buyers Club." Cate Blanchett won for "Blue Jasmine." Alfonso Cuaron, best director for "Gravity." So do you think that there was any overall message in these picks, which were kind of all - kind of distributed, if you will, you know, want to say it. Kind of - a little for you, a little for you.

WHEAT: Right, I mean, I think in terms of the awards - everything kind of went where it should. There were message films in there, and those did very well. "Dallas Buyers Club," for which McConaughey and Jared Leto both one. It was about the early fight against AIDS. Obviously, "12 Years a Slave" is about one of the most shameful periods in our nation's history. I mean, and those are the films - you know, "Gravity" won big. Not a message film, but just really cool sci-fi. And I really do believe that everything went where it should go. The show, on the other hand, was a whole different matter.

MARTIN: What's your take on the show? What's your response to that?

WHEAT: Well, you know, it seemed like they wrote Ellen, you know, lines for the first hour and then said, oh, you just go ahead and wing it for the rest. I mean, 'cause it's just - she, you know, you played her best moment, which is when she says, you know, essentially either "12 Years a Slave" wins or you're all racists. So it's hilarious. And she kind of went downhill from there, you know, ordering pizza, taking a big selfie that ended up crashing Twitter.

MARTIN: Well, the selfie was popular. It's now made history as the most retweeted - well, the biggest retweet in history. It even beat out the earlier, you know, Obama victory tweet. So that seemed to have been popular with somebody. But you think overall, you feel the show was a big hot mess?

WHEAT: It kind of was. And, I mean, it isn't completely Ellen's fault, obviously. There were serious teleprompter issues for a lot of people. Let's most notably point out John Travolta.

MARTIN: Yeah, what happened there?

WHEAT: Oh, my goodness.

MARTIN: Who messed up Idina Menzel's name?

WHEAT: It's such a shame.

MARTIN: Tell me what happened.

WHEAT: As he's introducing Idina Menzel, who's going to sing the Oscar-winning song "Let It Go" from "Frozen," he calls her Adele Dazeem (ph), Adel Dazeem. And Twitter exploded. It was so bad in fact that Adele Dazeem now has her own Twitter account and you can follow her.

MARTIN: So that was a prompter fail?

WHEAT: You know what - I don't think it was a prompter fail, as so much as he couldn't read the prompter.

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

WHEAT: Yeah, I'm not sure what was going on there.

MARTIN: Well, that was a painful moment. That was a painful moment. Well, but there were some uplifting moments, I think people might agree. In fact, I just want to point out Lupita Nyong'o's acceptance speech. Let me just play a short clip for people who didn't hear it. Here it is.


NYONG'O: 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. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own.

MARTIN: Now she got a rousing reception there. Do you think that people were applauding the award, the - her performance or her speech - what's your take on it, Alynda?

WHEAT: All of the above. I mean, it is a beautiful performance. And, you know, such a standout in a film filled with people who are amazing actors. I mean, there's not a bad performance in "12 Years a Slave." Everyone from Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was of course nominated last night, to Michael Fassbender, who also was. Even down to the smaller roles - Sarah Paulson and Paul Giamatti, who are clearly on the wrong side of history on the slavery question - their characters.

But her speech was just so beautiful. It was spot on what you want to hear. Particularly from someone who was new to the Hollywood community. Remember that this is her first major role. She's also in "Non-Stop," the Liam Neeson action movie that came out on Friday. But, you know, this is a substantial role for someone so new. We're still being introduced to Lupita Nyong'o in a lot of ways. And she was just absolutely spot on in what she said, it was a beautiful speech.

MARTIN: You know, for those interested in firsts - I mean, "Gravity" won seven awards, including Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron. Now he's the first Latino to win that honor. And "12 Years a Slave" director, Steve McQueen, he didn't didn't win Best Director, but his film was the first time that a film directed by an African-American - well, he's actually British - but by a black person, let's say...

WHEAT: Exactly.

MARTIN: Has won - who is in the best director chair won Best Picture. Any interest in what that might mean? Does that foretell any sort of future opening up of opportunities for others? What is your perspective on that?

WHEAT: You know, it's an excellent step in the right direction obviously. And, by the way, don't feel bad for McQueen because as a producer of "12 Years a Slave" he will also get an Oscar for that. But, you know, it's clearly not going to make any major shifts in Hollywood. What it does is show Hollywood that these kinds of movies not only can be made well, but that they also make money.

So, yeah, hopefully the wins do boost things for a more diverse pool of directors. But, you know, for instance, you know, we saw Kathryn Bigelow when - for "Zero Dark Thirty" a couple of years ago and it's not like there's been an explosion of female directed films out there. So there's still a lot of work to be done.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, you know, Cate Blanchett spoke about the films that have women at their leads. And she made the point that you just made about her film - she said, look, these are not niche films, they make money. And then also it was a struggle for films like "12 Years a Slave" and "Dallas Buyers Club" to be made. A number of people made a point of thanking Brad Pitt. They said that without his participation, "12 Years a Slave" would not have been made. Could you just tell us a little bit about, you know, why that is and will these victories help that scenario at all?

WHEAT: You know, I mean, Hollywood is still about the bottom dollar - the bottom line. And they don't think outside of the box very much. You know, they will easily green light the next superhero movie or, you know, the next massive action thriller - they don't think to put a lot of money beside something behind - behind something like a Woody Allen film - has its own controversies for different reasons - or, you know, a film with a strong female presence.

I mean, but this was an incredibly strong year for women in terms of those acting roles, especially compared to the men. I mean, you look at the women that were nominated for Best Actress, between them they had 38 Oscar nods going into last night. The guys had 11. So, I mean, the women were killing it last night.

MARTIN: Let me just clarify one thing. I think Kathryn Bigelow won for "The Hurt Locker."

WHEAT: "The Hurt Locker," I'm sorry. Did I say...

MARTIN: Not "Zero Dark Thirty." Not "Zero Dark Thirty." It was a late night for you. So...

WHEAT: It was.

MARTIN: Let me just take a minute - you're speaking about how the women were killing it out there - let me highlight the winner of the Best Documentary, "20 Feet From Stardom." This was singer Darlene Love, who's one of the stars of the movie accepting the award. Here it is.


DARLENE LOVE: (Singing) I sing because I'm happy. I sing because I'm free. 'Cause his eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.

MARTIN: That was another one of those kind of brought the house down.

WHEAT: It was truly one of the best moments of night.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about the film if you would. And I mentioned it won against some heavy hitters like "The Square" and "Dirty Wars." Tell us a little bit about this film if you would.

WHEAT: This was the crowd-pleaser film out of the group of very serious, dark, heavy Oscars. This was the light one about backup singers who worked with groups from like The Rolling Stones, worked with Sting, worked with Luther Vandross. And everyone from Darlene Love, as you mentioned, to Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer - who's kind of my spirit person at this point, we're best friends, she has no idea. But, you know, it's such a fun movie and one that you can really sort of get behind.

You watch that film, you cannot help but sort of tap along and dance along to it. It is really a crowd-pleaser. And that's why it won over heavier stuff, even the ones I would've like "The Square" or even

"The Act of Killing," which I found just - I mean, a phenomenal documentary.

MARTIN: We cannot help but talk about the fashion. I mean - I'm sorry, that's the whole reason some of us watch, I'm going to be honest about that. You know, Twitter also went mad for Lupita Nyong'o and what she called her Nairobi blue Prada gown.

WHEAT: Exactly, that gorgeous Prada.

MARTIN: And also Cate Blanchett in Armani. Who do you think won the red carpet?

WHEAT: Well, I think she was fantastic. That flowing, beautiful Prada made her look like a princess. And who doesn't want to look like a princess on the night they're getting crowned in Hollywood. I thought Amy Adams was stunning in a deep blue Gucci dress, that just was beautifully sexy. Cate Blanchett was lovely in Armani. It was a thrall Armani number that's really fantastic. You know, people really also loved Kerry Washington's Jason Wu gown - beautiful violet.


MARTIN: Beautiful violet, showing her bump.

WHEAT: Her belly bump.

MARTIN: Her baby bump, yeah.

WHEAT: Exactly.

MARTIN: Was there anybody that - who didn't do it for you? I mean...

WHEAT: Well, can we talk about Pharrell?

MARTIN: Yes, we should. We definitely have to.

WHEAT: I mean, between the giant black hat, which is, you know, reminiscent of the one he wore before and the tuxedo shorts - I think he did a great job singing "Happy," but, you know, yeah - the outfit left a lot.

MARTIN: I thought the shorts were hilarious. I thought it was absolutely hilarious. I mean, if you cannot...

WHEAT: They were hysterical for all the wrong reasons.

MARTIN: I think that he is showing that he is just so important that he can wear anything he wants, including footie pajamas. If he wanted to wear some footie pajamas...

WHEAT: Exactly.

MARTIN: I think that he would be fine.

WHEAT: If you tell me that Sidney Poitier is coming where I'm going, I'm going to be dressed to the nines. I'm not going to put on shorts.

MARTIN: I think that - well, anybody else? It was a pretty night. I mean, the gowns were pretty.

WHEAT: The gowns very - they were pretty safe too, which is why I don't think we have a lot of, like, real clunkers out there to talk about.

MARTIN: There were no swans, there were no major headdresses, like in the days - don't you kind of miss it though? Don't you miss the - Cher and her headdresses?

WHEAT: You miss Cher and her headdress, you know, yes. You miss the swan cocktail dress of the days or yore. But, you know, people don't want to end up on worst dressed list. They do not want to look crazy...


MARTIN: Alynda Wheat is People magazine's movie critic. She joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Alynda, thanks so much for joining us.

WHEAT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.