Oscars: How the Wrong Envelope Triggered a Best Picture Fiasco

'La La Land' producer Jordan Horowitz: "Something was wrong. I had to fix the situation."

It was all about the envelope. Please!

A moment before he walked out onstage with his Bonnie and Clyde co-star Faye Dunaway to present the best picture award at the 89th Oscars, Warren Beatty was handed the wrong envelope, one containing the name of best actress winner Emma Stone for La La Land.

As seen by millions of viewers, when Beatty opened the envelope, he paused, as if not quite sure what he was seeing, but then passed it to Dunaway, who announced “La La Land!”

One studio publicist, who was standing next to someone backstage who had a headset on, heard a stage manager say, "That's the wrong envelope. It's Moonlight!" What followed was unprecedented in Oscar history.

Almost as soon as the La La Land crew took to the stage, and its producers began issuing their thank-yous, it was clear from a bustle of sudden activity that something was wrong.

As La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz recounted it, “Guys in headsets starting buzzing around. They took the envelope I had. It said 'Emma Stone, La La Land' on it. It was clear there was something wrong. They started looking for the best picture envelope. Nobody knew where it was. Then it appeared. They opened it next to me and it said 'Moonlight.' And so I grabbed it. I had to fix the situation.”

Right in front of the television audience, Horowitz stepped to the mic and said, “There’s been a mistake. Moonlight, you won best picture. This is not a joke."

In the normal course of events, the accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers create two complete sets of actual winners' envelopes. During the ceremony, two accountants stand on opposite sides of the stage throughout the ceremony, alternating between each other in the handing out of envelopes, depending on which side of the stage the presenters enter from.

There was no immediate explanation as to why Beatty was handed the wrong envelope. Several hours after the ceremony, the Academy issued an apology from PricewaterhouseCoopers that said, "We sincerely apologize to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for best picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred. We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation."

As La La Land’s name was first read out, the Moonlight gang seemed to take it in stride. Backstage after the ceremony, best supporting actor winner Mahershala Ali explained, “La La Land has done so well and has resonated with so many people — especially in this time when people need a sense of buoyancy in their life and need some hope and light. So that film has really impacted people in a very different way than Moonlight. When their name was read I wasn’t surprised, and I was really happy for them. It’s a group of extraordinary people.”

Jenkins later offered his perspective: "We were sitting on the wing, I had a direct beat on the screen and I saw the feed went out. I knew something was a little bit off, but I didn't know what. I could see Jordan's face and that's when I realized something was happening. I could see in his face that it wasn't a joke."

Ali added, “When I did see security people coming onstage and their moment was being disrupted in some way, I got really worried, and then when they said, 'Moonlight, you guys have won,' it just threw me, more than a bit. I didn’t want to go up there and take anything from somebody. It’s very hard to feel joy in a moment like that,” though he added, “I feel very fortunate for all of us to have walked away with the best picture award. It’s pretty remarkable.”

Said Jenkins, "I felt a million different things, but I did realize that whatever Jordan was going to say was going to be the truth because he looked over and I just wanted to hug him.”

Horowitz drew praise for moving so quickly and graciously to help resolve the situation. "They handled it with so much poise and class," Manchester by the Sea producer Kevin J. Walsh said of the way the La La Land group passed the award on to the Moonlight folks.

Horowitz himself was philosophical, saying, “Look, we won six Oscars. The picture’s been a critical success, a financial success,” he said. “It’s been a wild ride and it ended in spectacular fashion.”

But, in the view of others, the situation should never have happened. Observed CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, “I felt bad for all of the participants. La La Land is a great movie, and Moonlight is a great movie. They both deserved to be best picture. I wouldn’t have been unhappy either way. But it’s a self-inflicted wound. The accountant has one job, to hand the guy the envelope. I don’t understand how something like that happens.” 

CBS Films president Terry Press commented, "I felt sad for both movies. Moonlight did not get the moment it should have gotten, and La La Land did not get the moment it should have gotten."

The snafu was the talk of the Governors Ball that immediately followed the awards, but when asked for her take, Dunaway simply told THR, "I'm not going to speak about it."

A similar gaffe previously occurred in 1964, when presenter Sammy Davis Jr. was handed the wrong envelope and announced that the award for music (scoring of music -- adaptation or treatment) was won by John Addison for Tom Jones, who was not among the nominees. The winner was actually Andre Previn for Irma La Douce, and the mistake was immediately corrected.

Feb. 27, 12:20 a.m.: Updated to include statement from PricewaterhouseCoopers.