Finding God, Laughs & Poignancy at the 2014 Oscars

The 2014 Oscars were my favorite in quite a few years despite running a half-hour long. Ellen DeGeneres proved a funny and classy host, the acceptance speeches were, by and large, interesting as opposed to just a list of names, and God even received a couple of shout outs.

It all began with DeGeneres who, after last year’s sometimes-crass hosting job by Seth MacFarlane, felt like a breath of fresh air with her good-natured ability to poke fun at people.

For instance, she said she was impressed by the best Liza Minnelli impersonator she’s ever seen. Then the camera cut to the actual Liza in the audience. “Really good job, sir,” quipped Ellen.

DeGeneres also spearheaded the running gag of the evening, which involved ordering pizza for the stars in the front rows of the auditorium. I assumed it was just a joke at first, but later on, a pizza delivery guy showed up and started making the rounds to celebrities to take a slice. So we were treated to the oddball site of Harrison Ford, Jennifer Lawrence and other dressed-to-the-hilt celebs actually chowing down on a slice in the middle of Hollywood’s biggest night.

Another great moment was DeGeneres taking a celeb-filled selfie with Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and a host of others, then asking viewers to ReTweet it. Supposedly it was so popular, DeGeneres claimed that Twitter crashed for a while.

Another welcome change was the “In Memoriam” part of the evening returning to a full-screen montage on television, instead of the split-screen of sorts that was used in recent years featuring a famous artist singing a sad song while sharing the screen with pictures of the industry people who died over the past year. The dead really don’t need to share their screentime with someone else, so I was happy to see that rectified.

In terms of fashion, you’ll have to find a critique by someone besides me. I thought everybody looked good. My only comment is that the light flashes produced by Anne Hathaway’s shimmering dress made me wonder if she was trying to communicate a message in morse code to the audience: possibly that James Franco has been holding her hostage since they co-hosted the Oscars together a few years ago and she wanted someone to save her. (Hopefully the FBI looks into that.)

In general, acceptance speeches tried to convey either a general message about following your dreams or a story about a particular person who was important to the winner’s life or career. And in the case of Best Original Song winners for Frozen’s “Let It Go,” Robert Lopez and his wife Kristin Anderson-Lopez, they recited a list of names, but they did it in rhyme which made it entertaining. (And after John Travolta unfortunately mangled “Let It Go” singer Idina Menzel’s name, calling her something like Adele Mazeem, the win seemed at least a small consolation.)

One sweet moment occurred during Jared Leto’s Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech when he spoke about his mother’s past and shared a story that could give hope to other young women in the audience facing an unplanned pregnancy, a story that showed that choosing to have that child doesn’t have to stand in the way of a bright future for anyone.

Leto said, “In 1971 in Louisiana, there was a teenage girl who was pregnant with her second child. She was a high school dropout and a single mom. Yet 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. I just want to say, ‘I love you, Mom, and thank you for teaching me to dream.'”

Though emotional thank yous like that aren’t rare at the Oscars, a couple of God references were surprising to me. The first came from singer Darlene Love who was one of the backup singers profiled in the Best Documentary Feature winner “20 Feet from Stardom.” After the producers finished talking, Love took to the microphone, starting with the words, “Lord God, I praise You,” then sang the last few lines of the Christian hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow” bringing the audience to their feet. For a few moments, the Oscars turned into a soulful church.

The other surprising God reference came in Matthew McConaughey’s acceptance speech for Best Actor in “Dallas Buyers Club.” If you only remember McConaughey from his antics like getting arrested for playing the bongos naked some years back, the more mature actor will be a shock to you. In the ensuing years, he’s gotten married and become a father. And while he still retains the air of a sweet-talking charmer, he seems a little more grounded than in his young days.

McConaughey began by saying, “There are three things, by my count, that I need each day: one is something to look up to, another is something to look forward to, and another is someone to chase. Now first off, I want to thank God because that’s who I look up to. He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand.”

He then went on to thank his family and to explain how he’s always in pursuit of a better version of himself. It was a speech that left you smiling, which is what all Oscar speeches should be.

Kudos to the producers of this year’s Oscars, Craig Zedan and Neil Meron, for putting on a memorable show that didn’t leave me bored and wishing it was over already. It was a fun evening with moments of genuine substance that made it a pleasure to watch.

Or as McConaughey would say, “all right, all right, all right.”

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