Somehow the confused, perplexing and chaotic ending of the 89th annual Academy Awards seems a fitting coda to an Oscar show in the Donald Trump era.
I have covered a lot of Oscar shows in my time, but never have I seen one go down like this one did Sunday night, when La La Land was announced for Best Picture, and speeches were made … only to have it taken away. Due to a mistake in handing the correct envelope to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, Moonlight was then declared the actual winner in a bizarre moment when La La producer Jordan Horowitz had to stop everything in its tracks and tell the audience his movie was not the winner after all.
It was definitely a say what? moment for the ages. Sadly, it marred an otherwise flawless Oscarcast produced by Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd and hosted supremely by Jimmy Kimmel in top form — the best and most consistent host I have seen do this almost impossible show since Johnny Carson. After the La La/Moonlight disaster, he sheepishly said, “I knew I would screw this up.” The fact is that couldn’t be further from the truth. The whole production was Emmy-worthy itself from start to finish. I don’t know how it played on television, but I can assure you it was a smash from inside the Dolby Theatre where I was sitting, near numerous Academy members who seemed absolutely delighted. Former President Sid Ganis was raving about it, as was Hawk Koch when I saw them afterwards the Governors Ball.
That makes it doubly sad that it seemed all anyone could talk about at that ball, and likely every other party, was the incredible gaffe the Academy’s accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers created in screwing up the Best Picture presentation at the end of the night. For two hours-plus at the Govs Ball, I tried in vain to get an official Academy response as to what happened. President Cheryl Boone Isaacs seemed shell-shocked and was searching for her phone to check in with CEO Dawn Hudson as she told me she had no clue what might have happened. Several members of the Academy’s Board Of Governors also seemed at a loss to explain the trainwreck of an ending to the otherwise great Oscar show.
Many didn’t even seem to understand that PwC always provides two sets of identical envelopes with winners names in them. To create a further fail safe policy it also memorizes the winners’ names just in case. In a statement the accounting firm finally put out around midnight PT, they fell on the sword and apologized to everyone involved including the Academy, La La Land, Moonlight, Beatty, Dunaway, ABC, Kimmel, the viewers, and anyone else they could think of, saying it was conducting an “investigation” in order to figure out what happened.
The fact is, even before I got out of my seat in the first mezzanine of the Dolby, I pretty much knew what happened. They handed Beatty the other Best Actress envelope from the previously presented award that declared Emma Stone the winner instead of either Best Picture envelopes which one of the two PwC accountants (who actually know all the results) hands to the presenter just before they go onstage. They profoundly “apologized” for the mistake — they should.
Stone, not having a clue about two sets of envelopes, showed hers to the press backstage — perhaps suggesting Beatty couldn’t possibly have had it. She is one of the nicest stars I have ever seen play this Oscar game, so it was especially irksome to see her own big Oscar moment become collateral damage in Accountantgate. When I caught up with her just as she was about to leave the Lionsgate celebration at Soho House, she seemed particularly peeved that she wasn’t made aware there was a second envelope with her name in it before talking to the press.
The bigger question is why did the PwC accountants let the three La La producers go on with their heartfelt speeches for about two minutes before throwing water on the whole thing and anointing Moonlight? What an all-time embarrassment for the Academy, which prides itself on its airtight system of secrecy and inpenetrable voting procedures. Pricewaterhouse has been the Academy’s accountants since the 1930s, near the start of the Oscars themselves. It is a storied Hollywood relationship that, if I had to bet, is about to come to a screeching halt and probably should. There’s no excuse for this — none. The fact that the Academy didn’t put out its own statement, but rather facilitated it for their longtime numbers-crunchers, indicates some heads may have to roll, and that AMPAS isn’t about to take the fall for this nightmare.
It is not the first time for an envelope mixup at the Oscars. Sammy Davis Jr. famously said, “Wait until the NAACP hears about this” when he was handed the wrong envelope while presenting a pair of music Oscars in 1964. Presenter Jack Palance was also suspected of reading the wrong name in 1993 when he declared Marisa Tomei the Supporting Actress winner for My Cousin Vinny. Conspiracy theories have lived on the web since then that he read the wrong name. Of course as these events prove, PwC accountants would have quickly corrected that if true. “The only person happy tonight is Marisa Tomei, who is finally vindicated,” one Lionsgate party-goer laughed tonight.
The jokes are already in high gear, with one person suspecting the Russians got into the envelopes, and at least two nominees who didn’t win suggesting to me (humorously) that they are going to ask for a recount.
The reaction in the theater all around me was simply pure, dumbstruck shock, and it dominated the nicely accentuated Governors Ball as well. I caught up with La La music winners Justin Hurwitz, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek were obviously thrilled with their wins, but it was awkward glory considering the way it ended for the movie. Best Director winner Damien Chazelle was certainly thrilled about his Oscar as well when I caught up with him, but he left the Ball fairly early and headed home (he had a bad cold for the whole weekend to make matters worse). Horowitz won high praise and hugs all around from Moonlight’s Jeremy Kleiner and Barry Jenkins when they managed to converge at the Guvs Ball. Lionsgate executive Erik Feig told me he was just trying to figure out what possibly could have happened.
Still, a leading six Oscars ain’t bad for this wonderfully original musical (add another two for Hacksaw Ridge and the studio leads with eight overall), though it will go down as one of the bigger Best Picture upsets in Academy history, a bittersweet and disappointing end to an incredible ride this season. As another La La producer, Fred Berger, told me, though, it is ironically fitting for the movie’s theme: You get to achieve your big dream only to see it come back and hit you in the face. One wag wondered if PricewaterhouseCoopers might have been involved in counting results from November’s presidential election. Someone was overheard in an elevator asking former senator and now MPAA head Chris Dodd if he wished this might have happened instead in the Clinton/Trump election.
You can probably chalk up the finish with underdog Moonlight overtaking the heavy favorite as the result of the Academy using the preferential balloting system, but only in the Best Picture category. That is where you list your choices numerically with No. 1 before first choice and so on down the line. It is entirely possible Moonlight could have gotten fewer first-place votes than La La but still heavily outscored the musical as voters’ second choice, thus creating a consensus favorite. La La’s front-runner status and seeming invincibility probably hurt it a bit in the end. It seems to be happening a lot lately: Last year, Mad Max: Fury Road was sweeping along with six technical Oscars, only to be thwarted by Spotlight, which won Best Picture with just one other Oscar.
This year’s results are remarkably similar to 2014, when Moonlight producers Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner won Best Picture for 12 Years A Slave along with just a screenplay and supporting acting award against Gravity, which like La La took Best Director and six other Oscars. A similar situation occurred in 1972, when another musical, Cabaret, swept with eight Oscars including Director, only to lose Best Picture to The Godfather, which only won three. It’s also interesting to note the trend away from the traditional Picture/Director correlation in recent years, where Best Pictures Argo, 12 Years A Slave, Spotlight and now Moonlight have pulled off that feat without bringing their directors along for the ride.
You have to feel badly for the La La Land producers Marc Platt, Berger and particularly Horowitz, who delivered the devastating news in front of a billion people with great style and poise in an untenable situation no one at the Oscars has ever been placed. It is reminiscent of that Miss Universe gaffe when Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner, but hey, we can’t really compare the Oscars to a beauty pageant can we? Can you imagine a viewer on the East Coast going to bed once La La Land was announced as the Best Picture, only to wake up in the morning to see it was actually Moonlight? Wow, just WOW.
I hope as the shock and sadness all around for this mix-up wears off, people can appreciate what really was the best Oscar show in years, perhaps since 2009, when Bill Condon and Larry Mark produced their groundbreaking Oscars. The sets were stunning, the jokes — particularly a prank involving a tour bus — brilliant, the politics tastefully kept to a minimum, and the musical performances right from Justin Timberlake’s high-energy opening number with his nominated smash “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” to the stunningly choreographed John Legend medley from La La Land’s two nominated tunes were just simply superb. The tasteful In Memoriam segment was beautifully accompanied by a gorgeous version of “Both Sides Now” sung by Sara Bareilles.
The winners were spread out, with controversy triumphing in wins for Documentary Feature O.J.: Made In America (there are those who believe the 7 1/2-hour, multi-episode ESPN series might be more at home at the Emmys) and the political choice of Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (as what some see as a way of protesting President Trump’s travel ban attempts). With the notable exception of Moonlight’s Best Picture win, I called the eight major categories including the hotly contested Best Actor race between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington with the former probably never in as much danger as many pundits thought.
And on a very good note we can put the whole #OscarsSoWhite thing on the back burner for now, especially with the Moonlight and Viola Davis victories. The presenter pairings were also often inspired, with Charlize Theron professing the inspiration Shirley MacLaine gave her in The Apartment, and Seth Rogen doing the same thing for Michael J. Fox in Back To The Future. Kimmel’s “feud” with Manchester By The Sea Best Picture nominee Matt Damon was funny stuff too.
But what I will remember most after the dust settles is the pure grace under fire shown by everyone when an accountant let them down in a way that now will become a part of Oscar folklore, comparable to the 1974 streaker and the Indian princess who came to turn down Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Oscar in 1973.