A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.
Some FINAL notes on the season.
I think we have all had enough of reliving what is now known as #Envelopegate and the last moments of the 89th annual Academy Awards. Pundits who previously were just trying to figure out how many Oscars La La Land was going to win suddenly turned into rabid investigative reporters chasing any juicy detail they could about the private lives and behind-the-scenes intrigue involving PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz (one trade headline yesterday blasted an “exclusive” revealing — OMG — how Cullinan wanted to be in a skit on the show).
Can we just relax and stop the witch-hunt for this year? Let’s move on from this fascination with these numbers-crunchers. Donald Trump is President of the United States. Celebrity Apprentice may be cancelled. The ice caps are melting. There are other things to worry about than which envelope Cullinan was holding when he started taking selfies.
Here’s my take: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were great together in Bonnie And Clyde and great presenters. I mean, look at all the publicity they got for the Oscar show. By the way, here is the big what if that no one has been talking about. What If Emma Stone had not won the Oscar and there was another winner’s name in that duplicate Best Actress envelope handed accidentally to Beatty? La La Land was the heavy favorite to take the Best Pic prize, so seeing its name in the envelope was probably all Dunaway noticed when Beatty turned it over to her. The other four actress nominees were, unlike Stone, not in movies nominated for Best Picture. If, say, Isabelle Huppert had won (and she had a very good chance), would Dunaway have blurted out Elle as the winner for Best Picture when presented with that wrongo Best Actress envelope? Or if Meryl Streep pulled off a win, would Dunaway have named Florence Foster Jenkins the winner of the Academy’s top honor this year? Now that would have been worth writing about for a week — not what star Brian Cullinan was tweeting photos of.
I feel bad, still do, for everyone involved in this mess that will live on in Oscar infamy. But this is what makes covering this beat year in and year out so damned interesting. The Oscars and its storied history are unlike anything else. It was amusing to watch the YouTube clips of the 1964 Oscar show presentation of the two music scoring awards by Sammy Davis Jr., the only other envelope mixup in Academy history. I knew that and immediately after Sunday’s show — which I saw from my seat at the Dolby — called my editors at Deadline to tell them this year was not the first time this has happened.
In the ’64 show, Davis matter-of-factly read the names of the nominees for Best Adapted Music Score and then, clulessly, read off the name of John Addison for Tom Jones as the winner — obviously oblivious to the fact that Addison’s wasn’t one of the nominee names he had just announced, but rather the winner of the Original Score category he was to present next. The camera cut to the orchestra leader, who was at a complete loss trying to figure out what music cue to play, before finally Davis realized he had the wrong envelope. “Wait until the NAACP hears about this!” he laughed.
These are actors. They are used to having a script, especially when appearing in front of a billion people on live TV. Beatty and Dunaway, like Davis before them, simply trusted what was in their script, in this case the envelope handed to them. Not their fault. I hope they will be invited back next year to do it again, but I doubt the Academy will want to re-live any of this Best Picture debacle. It would be great though. And I hope Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd are invited back as producers for the 90th. De Luca told me weeks ago he already had some great ideas for that one. They produced a terrific Oscars. Not their fault, either.
TIME TO DUMP THE PREFERENTIAL BALLOT
Beyond the controversy about PwC and whether its stays or goes as the Academy’s accounting firm, there is one other area for which it is responsible that I think should be retired: the preferential balloting process they devised for Best Picture. This confusing method of calculating a Best Picture winner based on the “consensus” of voters is past its prime. Other than Best Picture, all Oscar winners are determined by a straight up-and-down vote. But not Best Picture, which is determined by a weighted ballot where your second or third choice could ultimately be more important than your first-place pick. All categories should be done the same way.
Preferential voting is sort of like the Electoral College, the one that made Trump the President even though Hillary Clinton had 3 million more popular votes. The Electoral College should go as well. Maybe Pricewaterhouse was also in charge of counting on Election Night.
In the case of Oscar balloting, voters must list their preference for each Best Picture nominee with 1 being their first choice and — this year at least because there were nine nominees — their least favorite being 9. Over the years this method has been used I have tried to explain it endlessly to many Oscar voters (and even myself) who still don’t get it. Some think if they just put their first-place choice down and nothing else it will give that movie a better chance. Not true at all. In fact, as has been proven recently with movies like this year’s upset winner Moonlight, last year’s Spotlight, and 2014’s 12 Years A Slave, it was likely the second- and third-place votes that put them over the top to upset a more likely winner that just didn’t have enough first-place votes to win outright.
Unusually, none of those three winners won Best Director, but still pulled off Best Picture, which rarely happened in the age before this kind of balloting was instituted. They all did win Screenplay, however, which may be the new, better harbinger of a Best Picture triumph. In Slave’s case, it had won only two Oscars before Best Picture came up, while Gravity had won seven including Director — almost the exact same scenario that happened between La La Land and Moonlight this year. In 2015, Spotlight upset bigger winners The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road for Best Picture despite having won just one other award the entire night, the first time a Best Pic victor had done it with just one other Oscar since 1952. Although the Academy won’t allow PwC to give us raw numbers, it is pretty clear these films prevailed in the end thanks to the different accounting standard in place for Best Picture.
But does that standard really work? It is certainly great these smaller films have a fighting chance for the big prize, but can this system be manipulated? One producer who is very close to the Oscar show and its process told me this week he thought La La Land probably beat Moonlight in terms of No. 1 votes, but that many who were determined not to see lighter fare like La La (widely publicized as the overwhelming favorite to win) take the top honor purposely placed it No. 9 on their ballot in order to drag down its chances on a preferential ballot. He said he thinks that was possibly what happened, even if these voters felt La La was a good movie they normally would have placed higher.
I understand this kind of psychology. Until this year, the preferential method was used heavily by the Television Academy where I am an Emmy voter. I loved American Idol, but it never won, while The Amazing Race, another good show, always won in the Reality Series category. Because of that I would place Amazing Race dead last in order to bring it down, even though I thought it was definitely not the runt of the litter. It still won anyway, but that was my thinking. This kind of manipulation couldn’t happen with a straight vote, and that is the reality the TV Academy finally came to embrace this past year when they dumped the idea of ranking nominees and had voters choose just one. Period. If the TV Academy can do it, so can Oscar.
I love Moonlight, Spotlight and 12 Years A Slave, but I would like to think they won straight up, not because of some complicated math or a successful attempt to bring another film down. Something to think about as one season finally ends, and before another starts in earnest. By the way, with that in mind I already have my pass for Telluride on Labor Day weekend. Can’t wait to do it all again.