"12 Years a Slave" won the Oscar for best picture at Sunday's Academy Awards, while the 3D space spectacle "Gravity" triumphed as the night's top award-winner.
Steve McQueen's slavery odyssey, based on Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir, has been hailed as a landmark corrective to the movie industry's long omission of slavery stories and years of whiter tales like 1940 best-picture winner "Gone With the Wind."
McQueen dedicated the honor to those who suffered slavery and "the 21 million who still endure slavery today."
"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."
"Gravity" cleaned up in technical categories, earning seven Oscars including best director for Alfonso Cuaron. The Mexican filmmaker is the category's first Latino winner.
"It was a transformative experience," said Cuaron, who spent some five years making the film and developing its visual effects. "For a lot of people, that transformation was wisdom. For me, it was the color of my hair."
The awards for best actor and actress went to Matthew McConaughey, for his role as a desperate and determined AIDS patient in "Dallas Buyers Club," and Cate Blanchett for playing a fragile socialite experiencing a meltdown in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine."
"As random and subjective as this award is, it means a great deal in a year of extraordinary performances by women," Blanchett said before praising fellow nominees Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench.
McConaughey finished his acceptance speech by saying, "To any of us, whatever those things are, whatever we look up to, whatever it is we look forward to and whoever it is we're chasing -- to that I say, alright, alright, alright. And then I say, just keep livin'."
Lupita Nyong'o, the breakout star of "12 Years a Slave," accepted the award for best supporting actress. In her feature film debut, the 31-year-old actress 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," said Nyong'o. She also thanked director Steve McQueen: "I'm certain that the dead are standing about you and they are watching and they are grateful, and so am I."
She added, "When I look down at this golden statue may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you're from, your dreams are valid."
Jared Leto won best supporting actor for his acclaimed performance as a transgender woman with AIDS in "Dallas Buyers Club." He dedicated the award to his mother, his date for the evening. "Thank you for teaching me to dream," he said.
This year's Oscars hung on a nail-biter of a finish, with the best picture race believed to be between the historical drama "12 Years a Slave," the 3D space spectacle "Gravity" and the con-artist comedy "American Hustle," which got completely shut out of Sunday's awards. Host Ellen DeGeneres alluded to the options in her opening monologue.
"Possibility number one: '12 Years a Slave' wins best picture," she said. "Possibility number two: You're all racists."
Her opening went over well in Los Angeles' Dolby Theatre, which had far more mixed reactions to last year's host, Seth MacFarlane. She chided Leto ("Boy, is he pretty"), made a hard-of-hearing joke directed at 84-year-old "Nebraska" nominee June Squibb and ribbed Jennifer Lawrence for falling on her way onto the red carpet, just as she did when she accepted the Oscar last year for "Silver Linings Playbook."
Just as Lawrence hit the carpet and waved to fans, she collapsed in a heap of her red dress, laughing at herself.
"If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar," said DeGeneres to Lawrence, nominated for her performance in "American Hustle."
Though the ceremony lacked a big opening number, it had a musical beat to it. 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 Nyong'o, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio dancing in the aisles.
Best documentary went to the crowd-pleasing backup singer ode "20 Feet From Stardom." One of its stars, Darlene Love, accepted the award singing the gospel tune "His Eye Is on the Sparrow": "I sing because I'm happy / I sing because I'm free."
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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. (Pixar, which Disney owns, has regularly dominated.) With box-office that recently passed $1 billion globally, the film was sure to be the biggest hit to take home an Oscar on Sunday.
Other winners included "The Great Gatsby" for best costume design and production design, and best makeup and hairstyling for the low-budget "Dallas Buyers Club." "The Great Beauty," an Italian film hailed as an ode to Federico Fellini's 1960 film "La Dolce Vita," won best foreign language film.
Though the Oscar ceremony is usually a glitzy bubble separate from real-world happenings, international events were quickly alluded to. In his acceptance speech, Leto addressed people in Ukraine and Venezuela.
"We are here and as you struggle to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible, we're thinking of you," said Leto.
DeGeneres gently mocked Hollywood's insularity, referring to the headlines that have swamped the Los Angeles area lately with a slightly less serious news event.
"It has been raining," said DeGeneres. "We're fine. Thank you for your prayers."
The talk-show host quickly circulated in the audience, delivering pizza and appealing to Harvey Weinstein to pitch in on the bill. She also crowded in as many stars as she could in hopes of generating the most-tweeted photo ever. Meryl Streep giddily exclaimed: "I've never tweeted before!" The resulting image had been retweeted more than 1.5 million times -- and counting.