The period drama "12 Years a Slave" swept through the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, taking five prizes including feature, director, supporting female, screenplay and cinematography. It won in all but two categories in which it was nominated.
"I cannot tell you, as much as I thought the memoir and Solomon's words and work was special, I had no concept until I saw the movie for the first time," said the film's screenwriter, John Ridley, accepting the prize in that category as he referred to protagonist Solomon Northup.
The film, which is nominated for nine Oscars including best picture, has had an up-and-down ride through awards season, garnering predictions of best picture certitude as far back as September and its share of skepticism since. But it was the toast of the tent in Santa Monica where the Spirit Awards are held.
The film's Steve McQueen won the director prize, Lupita Nyong'o won for supporting female and Sean Bobbitt landed cinematography honors. The film's only podium absences came at the hands of "Dallas Buyers Club" — Chiwetel Ejiofor lost to Matthew McConaughey in male lead and Michael Fassbender to Jared Leto for supporting actor, results that were thought by many a foregone conclusion both Saturday and at Sunday's Oscars.
Released by Fox Searchlight, "12 Years" is in part the product of the perseverance of Brad Pitt and his production company, Plan B Entertainment. "Mr. Brad Pitt," as McQueen called him Saturday, was in attendance with partner Angelina Jolie and was referenced throughout the ceremony but didn't speak upon taking the stage for the feature win.
McQueen gave a shout-out to John Cassavetes as a formative influence when he accepted the director prize, and during his feature acceptance speech offered praise to the film's two nominated actors who didn't come away victorious.
Of Fassbender, who has starred in three of McQueen's films, he said, "Michael Fassbender is a genius," adding, "he's feminine, he's masculine. Mr. Brando would be extremely proud of you sir ... there is nothing he won't do, nothing he can't do."
And McQueen called Ejiofor, who played the lead role's free man kidnapped into slavery, "the heart and soul of this movie.... Thank you for making this movie the movie it is."
The Spirit Awards' four acting winners continued a sweep through this awards season. In addition to Nyong'o, McConaughey and Leto, Cate Blanchett won best female lead for her turn as a fallen socialite in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine."
Continuing a recent career resurgence, McConaughey offered an entertaining and elaborate highway metaphor about "Dallas" and independent film in general after winning his second Spirit Award in as many years.
"It's not an autobahn film, it's not a freeway, it's not I-35, it's not even a two-lane highway," he said. "It's a feeder road … sometimes it's gravel, sometimes it's blacktop and sometimes it's dirt." He also offered an obligatory, "All right, all right, all right," referencing his "Dazed and Confused"-inspired catchphrase from the Golden Globes in January.
McConaughey's costar Leto continued his powerhouse awards run by taking best supporting actor for his turn as the transgender AIDS patient Rayon in "Dallas."
He stole the show with an acceptance speech that was both swaggering and self-effacing as he ran through a long list of those he wanted to thank, including Herman Hesse, Steve Jobs and Wayne Gretzky.
Nyong'o, who won for her turn as Patsey in "12 Years a Slave," took the stage later and, noting it was her birthday, offered a heartfelt ode to independent movies, which she said she only began to understand when she arrived in the U.S. from her native Kenya.
Continuing her dominating run throughout the awards season, Blanchett began her speech by pointing out that there were six nominees in the actor category and only five for lead actress, singling out the snub for Greta Gerwig from "Frances Ha." She then continued her tactful maneuvers around the recently renewed controversy surrounding Woody Allen, referencing the filmmaker as a prolific presence and a man who has made movies with "alarming regularity."
Blanchett concluded by suggesting the relative box office success of "Blue Jasmine" shows audiences are "interested in stories led by women, and they can also make money."
In other categories there was a hint of things to come when one of the stars of "Fruitvale Station," actress Octavia Spencer, came out to present the award for best first feature, which went to the film and to writer-director Ryan Coogler.
In a moving speech that brought some in the audience to their feet, Coogler spoke not only of Oscar Grant, whose story inspired "Fruitvale Station," but also of the fact that there are "thousands of Oscar Grants every year, who are losing their lives to gun violence."
"20 Feet From Stardom," a film about the unsung lives of backup singers, took the prize for best documentary. Director Morgan Neville noted the strong field of films for the year before adding, "It's never been more exciting.... We're all out there basically trying to tell the truth."
The Spirit Awards are presented by Film Independent, a membership organization that also puts on the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Film Independent at LACMA film series, as well as programs to support independent filmmakers.
The show, which takes place annually on Oscar weekend, often overlaps some of its best picture choices with Sunday's grand event but is not generally considered a predictor of those awards. This year, though, all four acting winners look like good bets to repeat at the Oscars — the first time that would happen — with Nyong'o perhaps the one wild card.