Oscars: A Closer Look at the Results That Were Overshadowed By the Chaos

THR's awards columnist tries to make sense of one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.
Kevin Winter/Getty

It's early Monday morning, and I'm finally back at my desk and starting to process what I witnessed only a few hours ago. One thing's for sure: Bonnie and Clyde ended better for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway than the 89th Oscars did.

When the two Hollywood legends took the stage to present best picture and Dunaway shouted "La La Land," the storyline for the evening couldn't have been more positive for the Academy. Jimmy Kimmel, who ABC had persuaded the organization and Oscars producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd to hire as host, had aced his job, evoking laughs in a cool manner reminiscent of Bob Hope. #OscarsSoWhite, the controversy with which the Academy has had to contend for the past two years, was on its heels, with two of the four acting awards having gone to black performers (Moonlight's Mahershala Ali and Fences' Viola Davis), and Moonlight's black screenwriters (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney) having won best adapted screenplay. And La La Land, an original musical that celebrates Hollywood's artists and dreamers recognized with a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, had just won best picture.

Until it hadn't.

What we witnessed on Sunday night was the greatest debacle in the history of the Academy Awards. Sure, other mistakes of this kind have happened before. In 1933, Will Rogers opened the best director envelope and said, "Come up and get it, Frank," and Lady for a Day's Frank Capra jumped out of his seat and was halfway to the stage before he realized that the winner was, in fact, Cavalcade's Frank Lloyd. And in 1964, Sammy Davis, Jr., who was to present two music-related awards, accidentally was handed the envelope for the second before the first, resulting in him announcing a winner who wasn't even nominated in the first category. But this was best picture, the biggest award of the night, and the mistakes that led up to what happened during the final minutes of the show are simply astonishing.

Mistake #1: An employee of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the world-renowned accounting firm that has coordinated Oscar balloting for the Academy ever since 1935, apparently handed Beatty and Dunaway the wrong envelope. PwC keeps a second copy of each envelope just offstage in case the first is misplaced, and their employee apparently handed Beatty and Dunaway the second envelope for best actress, rather than either of the two for best picture.

Mistake #2: Beatty opened the envelope, looked at it, knew something was wrong — and then passed it to Dunaway to read, rather than calling for assistance. Neither of them apparently thought there was anything weird about seeing the name "Emma Stone," rather than that of producers, alongside La La Land on a best picture ballot.

Mistake #3: The entire principal cast and crew of La La Land got from their seats to the stage, two producers delivered acceptance speeches and a third was about to follow before PwC did anything to correct the situation. This undoubtedly caused embarrassment and humiliation for Team La La Land, although they comported themselves with class — particularly producer Jordan Horowitz, who calmly and graciously revealed the mistake to the world. (The way he took control of the situation in the middle of pandemonium — as good producers tend to do — will be taught in schools.)

Because of all this chaos, few have taken the time to discuss and dissect the significance of the best picture result itself, so let's do that.

It is nothing short of incredible that the top Oscar went to Moonlight, a film which was made for just $1.5 million, less than any other best picture winner since 1976's Rocky, which cost a reported $1.1 million in its day, and which has grossed the least of this year's nine best picture Oscar nominees (just $22.3 million domestically), and less than every other best picture Oscar winner since 2009's The Hurt Locker (which had taken in just $14.7 million at the time of its win).

Moonlight's win renders moot many of the stats to which pundits long have turned when trying to make informed predictions. La La Land had won best picture Golden Globe (musical/comedy), Critics' Choice and BAFTA awards (after leading each field in noms, as well), plus the top Directors Guild, Producers Guild and New York Film Critics Circle honors, among others, en route to the Oscars, collectively suggesting massive strength. Moonlight, meanwhile, had won the best picture Golden Globe (drama), the top Spirit Award and several high-profile critics groups' awards — none of which have much of a track record at predicting the Oscars — and had not won the top prize of any of the three major guilds. In the 22 years in which the PGA, DGA and SAG awards have coexisted, only one other film, 21 years ago, lost the top prizes of all three but still managed to win the best picture Oscar: Braveheart.

The one big prize for which Moonlight was nominated but La La Land was not was the best ensemble SAG Award, which went to Hidden Figures. Was that the warning-sign that we didn't take seriously enough? We all knew that in the 22 years in which both the best ensemble SAG Award and best picture Oscar have coexisted, only one film was not even nominated for the former but still won the latter: Braveheart, 21 years ago. Still, almost everyone, including me, assumed that La La Land's exclusion was attributable to the fact that — with all due respect to John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons and others — it essentially is a two-hander (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling), which doesn't exactly scream "ensemble."

Maybe the acting community — which also accounts for one-sixth of Academy voters — actually wasn't all that behind La La Land, after all. We'll never know. But the fact that La La Land lost half of the Oscars for which it was nominated, including in categories like best sound mixing (which nominated musicals almost always win), indicated early in the evening that the film hadn't, in fact, resonated with the Academy as much as everyone had assumed based of its huge number of noms.

Additionally, one can only assume that the Academy's use of a "preferential ballot" — which is intended to reward widespread consensus over limited passion, and which is employed at only one other awards ceremony, the Producers Guild Awards, where La La Land did win the top prize this year — played a role in Moonlight's win. Rather than soliciting a single choice for best picture, as with other categories, this section of the ballot invites up to five choices, ranked in order of preference. PwC then works backwards to determine which film appeared the highest — not just at number one — on the greatest number of ballots. The Academy began employing this approach seven years ago for the first Oscars in 66 years at which more than five films could compete for best picture — and in four of those years, including this one, voters awarded best director to a filmmaker other than the one who made the film to which they awarded best picture. This suggests to me that, for better or worse, the preferential ballot is having a substantial impact on the results in the best picture category.

The bottom line is that La La Land and Moonlight — both of which had their North American unveiling over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, to the great credit of Julie Huntsinger and her colleagues in the Rockies — are films for the ages that deserved better than what they got at the end of Sunday's ceremony. Even if Moonlight's best picture win had been announced cleanly, it still would have provoked massive gasps in the room, as it represents one of the biggest upsets in Oscars history — probably the biggest upset apart from Crash toppling Brokeback Mountain 11 years ago. But because of the way it was presented, Team La La Land was made to feel like losers, with nobody much interested in talking about its field-leading six wins. And Team Moonlight never really got to celebrate its Cinderella moment in the uninhibited way it deserved to.

If I were handling public relations for the Academy (a job I do not envy right now), I would try my best to deflect attention to the many "nice things" that happened on Sunday. The directors of three of the most respected best picture Oscar nominees — Moonlight's Jenkins, La La Land's Damien Chazelle and Manchester by the Sea's Kenneth Lonergan — each got to take home an Oscar. Stone, Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis, three performers beloved and respected within the Hollywood community for their work on and offscreen, all took home Oscars, while voters, to their credit, apparently were not swayed by the past controversy that had surrounded Casey Affleck. Justin Hurwitz, the soft-spoken phenom who composed La La Land's scores and wrote the music to its two nominated songs, took home two Oscars. And last but not least, Kevin O'Connell, a brilliant sound mixer who has accumulated 21 nominations over the last 33 years, finally was recognized with his first win, meaning someone else now becomes the most nominated man in history without an Oscar to his or her name. (He or she still had a better day than the Academy, Beatty and Dunaway and PwC.)

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