The upside of the Academy Awards' embarrassing Best Picture blunder
By helping each other through a public relations disaster, Moonlight and La La Land vanquished the rivalry into which they'd been forced
The most interesting thing about a blunder is not what, exactly, went wrong, but how things went right in spite (or because) of it. The 89th Academy Awards ended with a huge mistake — the kind of mistake that twists everyone concerned out of their frozen smiles into something more, well, raw:
Is anything gained in moments like these?
Yes: The artificial rivalries the Academy Awards sometimes foment collapse under their own — suddenly very embarrassing — weight. I argued last week that the category of Best Picture needs to go because it needlessly pits films from different genres against one another. The pointlessness of that trumped-up competition has never been clearer than it was last night, when La La Land and Moonlight were accidentally pitted against one another in one of the ugliest incidents in the history of the Oscars. And as a result — echoing the paeans to unity and dissolving walls that peppered last night's Oscars — both films won.
First, the facts: In addition to winning Best Adapted Screenplay and Mahershala Ali's award for Best Supporting Actor, Moonlight — Barry Jenkins' beautifully worked triptych about coming of age as a young black man in Miami — won Best Picture. The victory elicited a standing ovation that doubled as a much-needed dose of recognition and certainty after a giant blunder meant La La Land was announced as the winner by mistake. What should have been the biggest award of the evening devolved into an ungainly spectacle that meant removing trophies from the hands of the team onstage and giving them to the real winners.
What went wrong? It appears Best Picture announcers Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were mistakenly handed the wrong red envelope — a replica of the one announcing Emma Stone's win for Best Actress in a Leading Role for La La Land. As the La La Land team began their speeches, some accountants came out to correct the mistake. "By the way, we lost," one La La Land speaker said, turning away from the mic. The scene got so chaotic that La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, once he grasped the situation, took charge. He announced Moonlight's win and — realizing Kimmel's prankster schtick could confuse things — took the card from Beatty and showed it to the camera. "This is not a joke," he said. Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel made a bad situation worse, suggesting (inappropriately) that Horowitz, who was still holding a trophy, "should keep it anyway." "Why can't we just give out a whole bunch of them?" he riffed, trying to smooth over the utterly awful moment. Horowitz redirected the attention to the rightful winners: "I'm going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight," he said.
If La La Land was humiliated, the Moonlight team, robbed of a clean win, reacted with grateful but stunned disbelief: "Um, thank you? To the Academy? I don't know what to say. I'm still not sure this is real," said producer Adele Romanski, clearly shaken. "Very clearly, even in my dreams this could not be true," director Barry Jenkins said, echoing that sentiment. "But to hell with dreams! I'm done with it, because this is true. Oh, my goodness." He ended by announcing "my love to La La Land, my love to everybody."
For all that the Oscars sometimes seem too polished, these naked chaotic moments are even harder to watch. No one from Moonlight was in a position to deliver the speeches they'd prepared or enjoy their time onstage; Naomie Harris said later she'd thought the invitation onstage was some kind of tasteless joke. "I'm not gonna say I think it's a great thing we won this way," Harris said. "I think it would have been great to have a [typical] moment. But let's not forget what happened: This tiny, $1.5 million movie won Best Picture. And the night turned out to be incredibly varied with the winners. That's all a good thing."
Mahershala Ali also felt conflicted: "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," he said. He went on:
And then when Jordan Horowitz said, "Moonlight, you guys have won," it just threw me a bit. It threw me more than a bit. I just didn't want to go up there and take anything from somebody, you know? And that's very hard to feel joy in a moment like that, because somebody else … just, in front of them. But I feel very fortunate for all of us to have walked away with the Best Picture award. It's pretty remarkable."
But one takeaway from all this is that people involved in both films stood by each other despite the competitive paradigm into which they'd been forced. (The Academy, by contrast, is likely getting an earful from the concerned parties). Shortly after his win, Jenkins praised the La La Land team for their handling of an impossible situation. "I can't imagine being in their position and having to do that. I wasn't speechless because we won. I was speechless because it was so gracious of them to do that," he said. He would revisit that sentiment later on Twitter, having had some time to process what happened.
The same was true for the La La Land team (which had plenty of reasons to feel good about the evening, having won several other awards including Best Director, Best Soundtrack, Best Actress, Best Original Song, and Best Production Design). Emma Stone — whose win for Best Actress was overshadowed in interviews by the incident — said she "f--king loved" Moonlight. "I think it's one of the best films of all time." Ever the good sport, La La Land's Jordan Horowitz said: "I got to thank my wife and kids … to accept an Oscar and … to present an Oscar, all within 10 minutes."
It is truly unfortunate that the two frontrunners for Best Picture ended up together onstage this painfully. Catharsis could have been achieved much more happily by taking advantage of the recent increase in Best Picture nominations from five to 10 films to split them into genres. La La Land would have won Best Comedy, and Moonlight would have undoubtedly won Best Drama.
But the upside is that both films — by helping each other through a public relations disaster — vanquished the rivalry into which they'd been forced. Thanks to the Academy's blunder, they became unwilling partners in one of the greatest television plot twists of all time. That garners them enough good will to pretty thoroughly disarm the brewing battles between La La Land and Moonlight defenders, which were sure to escalate no matter who won. It means two good movies that produce pleasure in totally distinct ways are freed from the burden of comparison. And you could go further still: As Calum Marsh put it on Twitter, the Oscars became a peculiar homage to the wistful ending La La Land didn't give:
Congratulations to Moonlight for winning Best Picture.