In Defense of Warren Beatty at the Oscars

Warren Beatty on Stage 89th Oscars - Getty - H 2017
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Beatty was not the culprit in Sunday's best picture fiasco, though many were quick to jump on him in an ageist rush to judgment.

Unlikely as it is, I find myself rising to defend Warren Beatty.

It’s unlikely because the truth is that, while Beatty can be very charming, I have found him to be rather challenging in some of our past interactions. He is more or less incapable of uttering a simple declarative sentence. Ask him a question and he has a tendency to launch into a meandering response, often without ever getting to an answer.

I used to have a rule: Never get on the phone with Beatty unless you’ve gone to the bathroom first. Once, in the middle of a four-hour conversation while I was researching my book, Hit & Run, I developed a blinding headache and fought the urge to say, “Whatever I learn in the course of this conversation will not have been worth it!” Another time, I told a studio chief that I had just had a five-hour lunch with Beatty, and without missing a beat he said, “Oh — you only had hors d’oeuvres?”

Some of that exasperating quality may have played into the Oscar debacle. But let’s be fair: It should by now be clear that Beatty, 79, was not the culprit, though many were ever so quick to jump on him. The Steve Harvey jokes started instantly. “Beatty blows it,” the Drudge Report proclaimed. The tape tells a different story.

If you watch it, the actor-filmmaker clearly knows there’s a problem as soon as he half-way pulls the card out of the red envelope. He checks to see if there is perhaps —“Please, God” — another card inside. He pauses — admit it, all you ageists, many of you assumed he was having a senior moment. (OK, I kind of thought so, too.) “And the Academy Award for best picture —” Beatty begins, then hesitates as Dunaway, who must have been feeling the pressure of the moment, nudges him. “You’re impossible,” she says. “Come on.” He shows her the card. And instantly, she announces, “La La Land.” He never says the movie’s name.

“You could say this was the ineluctable, the destined outcome, the result of the dual histories of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty,” says Beatty biographer Peter Biskind. “Both of their personalities played into it. I have no idea what the relationship is like now but they did not get along during Bonnie and Clyde. And the fact that she kind of lost patience with him and basically grabbed the card and announced it is very much in keeping with their relationship.”

Beatty’s usual elliptical manner might have something to do with it. “You can see why she’s irritated,” says Biskind. “You can see he’s flummoxed, but she thought it was Warren being Warren, which it wasn’t.”

Some of you ageists think Beatty should simply have said, “There seems to be a problem.” But improvisation is not his strong suit and he is not one to blurt out anything publicly, especially this publicly. In the best of circumstances, Biskind says, “Warren is not exactly Demosthenes when it comes to public speaking.” He thinks if Dunaway hadn’t been so quick on the draw, Beatty might have had a moment to collect himself and take the better route.

I say that none of you gets to judge if you’ve never been on television, especially never on live television and maybe not unless you’ve been on one of the biggest telecasts in existence. It’s not so easy to think fast under those lights in front of that crowd with the cameras rolling, even if you’re decades younger than Beatty. And the task of preventing the La La Land group from beginning their speeches should not have fallen to him.

By now it’s becoming clear that Beatty really was a victim of this epic fail. PricewaterhouseCoopers has apologized to him, to Dunaway and everyone else. Yet, somehow, I suspect this will follow Beatty, and it’s not fair. He held on to that wrong envelope, I assume, to prove that he had been dealt a bad hand. Once the error was cleared up, he stepped up to the microphone and explained — with, for him, uncommon clarity and fluency — what had gone awry.

The shame of it is that the whole fiasco was deeply unfair to all involved with La La Land and Moonlight. I would have loved to see the pure moment of a Moonlight victory. Instead, there was confusion and embarrassment all around.

“It’s hard to feel joy in a moment like that,” said Mahershala Ali, who won for best supporting actor. And that is really a pity. We can only hope that those involved with both films ultimately can take the full measure of joy in their achievements which were, despite the chaos, recognized by their peers.