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La La Moonlight, an Unexpected Finale to Oscar Night

My head is still spinning. As I cleaned up after the Oscar party, I imagined an Oliver Stone like JFK treatment of the 89th Academy Awards finale. We need evidence and diagrams, I thought to myself while filling up the recycling bag with empty bottles.  People might argue and theorize about this forever and make themseleves conspiracy theorists in the process. What was it, exactly, that happened?

First there was Warren Beatty's excruciating pause when he opened the envelope, a look of disbelief or was it confusion or 'how about that?' smirking. Inscrutable really... At first I'd assumed he was just trying to create suspense where none existed or maybe he was actually having his own Crash moment like his friend Jack Nicholson's surprise on that awful Black Sunday 11 years ago when Brokeback Mountain unexpectedly lost its rightful Oscar and Jack didn't disguise his surprise.

As I wiped the kitchen counter I though of Beatty handing the envelope over to his Bonnie, Faye Dunaway... for help or just to give her the honor? She seemed less confused and said "La La Land". Cue the usual anti-climax to the Oscar party each year when the expected happens and the show is running way over time, anyway. My guests were already tuning out the producer's speech.

But then the unthinkable. My head is still spinning.

La La Land has left the building

There'd been a mistake and La La Land hadn't won after all. The winner was Moonlight, and for a brief moment the stage was a jumble of people and more confusion with two teams as one key Oscar changed hands and suddenly the Moonlight team was there, bewildered but then happy -- a direct reversal of the trajectory of La La Land emotions. One team robbed of their triumph, the other unable to celebrate theirs in the traditional way. So much confusion. Warren Beatty tried to explain -- something about having the Best Actress envelope.

My party guests and I argued back and forth. How did they get the Best Actress envelope? Didn't Leo have it? Was there a duplicate? Nothing made any sense except that Moonlight will look great in the history books as an Oscar winner. One of my guests, a black gay man, said he needed a moment. He couldn't believe he was seeing a movie like that on the screen and definitely didn't expect to ever see it win Best Picture at the Oscars. When he left I thought about my own heart breaking when Brokeback lost and now a gay picture actually did win the big prize. 

As I put the mixers back in the fridge I thought back to the commotion behind the La La Land team during their speeches. I didn't think much of while it was happening other than a passing thought "why are people moving around so much -- was that someone running across the stage?" More thank yous followed. And then suddenly the chaos, and holding the envelope up to the camera. Moonlight was the winner. 

My head is still spinning but it's all too fresh to watch the recording again to verify. Tomorrow. As I took out the garbage my mood changed. Empathy for both teams experiencing their wins and loss in such a strange way. But didn't this make a kind of poetic sense? Moonlight's arc is a slow road of self-actualization, and always, always a struggle, melancholy even in its happiest moment.  La La Land's enormous success, on the other hand comes with significant loss. In the musical's last act we leave the current moment for a rewind and a 'dream ballet' like segment wherein we envision a different reality that might have been. The 89th Academy Awards finale was messy and chaotic rather than elegant and inspired but in its own way it was a dream ballet; a sliding door, an alternate reality, which suddenly closes off. This new reality is fine but the 'what if' may never quite subside. 


PICTURE Moonlight
DIRECTOR Damien Chazelle, La La Land
ACTRESS Emma Stone, La La Land
ACTOR Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
SUPPORTING ACTOR Mahershala Ali, Moonlight 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY Manchester by the Sea
COSTUME DESIGN Fantastic Beast and How To Find Them
FILM EDITING Hacksaw Ridge
SOUND MIXING Hacksaw Ridge
MAKEUP Suicide Squad
ORIGINAL SONG "City of Stars," La La Land


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Reader Comments (87)

The win for Moonlight is incredible. When I think of those little queer kids out there who will benefit from a BP winner that reflects their lives, in so many ways, large and small, I could just cry with joy. I too felt enormous empathy for both the Moonlight & La La Land crews - but both camps handled the mess with class and mutual empathy.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRob

It was awful.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

No offence, but as frustrating as this screw-up must have been for both sets of producers (La La Land and Moonlight), it's not the end of the world, and I hope no one suffers any major punishment over this. There should simply be an investigation and a plan to ensure this type of mistake doesn't occur again.

But honestly, there are bigger screw-ups and failures occurring all the time, in the health service, criminal justice, politics, news reporting, security, and child care, that really do have serious, and potentially fatal, consequences, in comparison to the wrong film being announced as a winner during an awards show. Please keep things in perspective people.

That said, I do hope Moonlight's win, a significant victory for a rare Best Picture winner that addresses the lives of both the black and LGBT community, is not overshadowed by the announcement mix-up. It's vitally important that a wider audience is made aware of, and encouraged to see this powerful, vital, and pertinent film.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarco

Well put, Marco. In the end it was a technical problem, resulting in a huge tv/cultural moment, but everyone will move on before too long. Let's not get too overly dramatic about this admittedly dramatic moment!

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I was disappointed by the Oscars' screenplay presentations featuring no dialogue clips at all. Also thought the title cards and presentations weren't as excited as previously. Remember those gorgeous production design screens in 2015 or the ace sound packages last year? Where was that visual panache this year?

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

The show was way too long. Too many stupid bits (releasing candy from the rafters got old before they even started). And my only thought about the sightseeing tour is, how stupid are they that they didn't know they were in front of where the Oscar ceremony is held ON THE NIGHT OF THE OSCARS? They did NOT deserve to be paraded in front of Denzel, Mahershala, et all.
I promised to go insane if Kevin O'Connell won, and I made good on my promise. After the shameful way that Jimmy Kimmel treated Mel Gibson, it was nice to see his film win a couple of awards.
But yeah, all we'll ever remember is that moment. (Remember how Morgan Freeman took forever to say "Spotlight" last year? Yeah, now we know why.) I quite like "La La Land" and, even though I liked "12 Years" better than "Gravity" and "Spotlight" more than "The Revenant" or "Mad Max", I can't help but think that Best Picture is turning into a "what-can-we-vote-for-that-makes-us-look-good" rather than a "what-is-the-best-movie" award. That being said, "Moonlight" is certainly well made, and when the dust settles, will be remembered as a good movie.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGuestguestguest

Now that we know what actually happens when the wrong winner is named can we finally put to rest that urban legend that Marisa Tomei did not win for My Cousin Vinnie and Jack Palance just said her name as a joke?

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

Beautiful write-up, Nathaniel.

Just wanted to add: I wasn't too happy with Kimmel's performance (the tourist bus bit was especially awkward), but if you take away some gimmicks that were clearly his and the envelope snafu which was probably beyond the scope of the producers, I thought it was an excellently produced show. The montages of prior acting speeches, the Oscar clips, the beautiful In Memoriam segment, the staging of the Best Song nominees... it was pretty gorgeous, no?

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Ha Ha Ha Ha.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDONUK

I don't think that I'll ever understand why Warren Beatty didn't simply ask for the correct envelope when he saw that the one given to him clearly did not have the right card. There never was going to be an elegant, un-awkward way to rectify the situation. I suppose that hindsight is always 20/20.

At any rate, Moonlights's win was much deserved

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

It was not Faye and Wsrren's fault. They were given the wrong envelope. The LA LA Land producers handled a terrible situation with the utmost grace. What an ending!

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

It could have been worse. Imagine if the person who'd give the first award had the card with best picture. Now that would have been a real desaster!

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNadir

The best thing to come from the La La Land-Moonlight gaffe: Marisa Tomei now knows her Oscar was awarded correctly.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Someone asked if anything similar had ever happened. Being ancient, I remember the 1963 awards (held in 1964) when Sammy Davis Jr read the winner of one of the music scores. He had been given the wrong envelope and read the winner of the original score when he should have announced the winner of adapted score. He next presented the original score and quipped, "Guess who won!"

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRJL

I've been so back and forth on this. I had already turned off the TV (listened to the first 2 1/2 acceptance speeches, must have turned off about 3 seconds or less before it all blew up). I think splitting director and film this year was perfect, awarding two incredibly different films, and Moonlight really was Best Picture.

I read an explanation this morning that makes sense.

There are duplicates of every award envelope. There's a person on either end of the stage, each with a full set, giving the correct envelope to the correct presenter.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

What an incredible Best Picture in Moonlight. Though I am sad for it not getting the proper speech it deserved.

Also very sad for the team behind La La Land, who handled the situation gracefully but had to endure one of the most humiliating moments in Oscar history. Here's hoping that will ease the backlash from the naysayers a bit.

What a bizarre ending to the show. Can't ask for more as a viewer.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterguest

It was incredibly awkward and I felt terribly for both the La La and Moonlight teams as well as for Warren and Faye, whose nice reunion (how great was it to have someone beside the expected people hand out the big prize!) was ruined by the error. But mistakes happen and it did end the blah telecast on a frenzied and memorable note.

As for the entirety of the show. It was a yawn. I like Jimmy Kimmel-and he did his best to break the pressure of those last few minutes-but the show was not memorable save that ending.

They couldn't find the time to bring the Honoraries ON STAGE! but could squeeze in a bunch of tourists paraded through the audience. Ugh! And mean tweets? This is what the show is devolving to? Very disappointing.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I'm glad that Winona Ryder wasn't in the cast of La La Land...

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

Yes! Great write-up of this - thank you for it. It's the heartfelt coverage like this that makes this easily the best film site on the internet. Excellent work again this season. Get some sleep Nathaniel!

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterT-Bone

So, after seeing how this has gone the past few years with preferential balloting to determine the winner, I'm changing the way I'm gonna predict Best Pic from here on out.

The film that gets the most number one votes is not going to win the Best Picture. Why? Because frontrunners get torn down over a period of weeks. They acquire more haters. They will get the most first place ordinals, AND the most last place ordinals.

The film that gets the most number 2 ordinals - the one no one has anything bad to say about - that's your winner.

I liked both La La Land and Moonlight, but I gotta say - this preferential balloting system is not sitting well with me. Some of my favorite films of the past several years have been deeply polarizing films. It's kind of sad to think that preferential ballot provides the means for those films' detractors to sabotage their chances. Basically, the winner of the popular vote can lose to the winner of the electoral vote - it is fair to assume that La La Land, with its six Oscar wins, won the popular.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJosh R

The Sammy Davis Jr mix-up is on youtube for your viewing pleasure. Great to see how it was handled back then. Not quite as bad a mix-up as this year's, but the wrong envelope has been read before.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRJL

If only Huppert had rightfully won. Then they'd know it was a mistake from the start. "Best Picture goes to.......Elle??"

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEric

I had the feeling in the end Moolight might upset BP.... not THAT way though.
I do feel sorry for the La La Land team though. I mean they started their accepttance speeches already when they cleared the mistake.... Can't be worse than that.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

How can we know with certainty that any of the results ladt night were accurate? Maybe Denzel really was the winner. We have to exhume all the dead bodies.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterViola Davis

Josh R --

Yeah, can't agree with that. The 2010s have consistently produced good to stellar Best Picture winners. In fact, it is quickly becoming one the best Best Picture decades ever. The preferential ballot is working and working well.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I m not sure i completely understand folks who say Moonlight's moment was stolen. They still had a big moment, a deserved win and a historic announcement. It's simply the La La land crew that had a horrible end for their night. To come back from such a high. The funnest thing for me what to see genuine awe and shock on the faces of the Hollywood elite. Affleck, Kidman, Damon.... i was scrutinizing their reactions with glee.

I also think it was very interesting how emotional casey Affleck got when he won for someone who is "all about the artistry". He literally had no words to say and had been awkwardly hugging people all night.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTony T

Spotlight and Moonlight would have lost under first-past-the-post. Possibly also The Hurt Locker and 12 Years a Slave. These are the four best BP winners since they reinstated preferential ballot, so I'm all in favor of that change.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPercy

After watching this telecast, I learned nothing about the honorary Oscar recipients. Even if they hold a different ceremony for them, they should do more for them in the big Oscar telecast than just show Tom Hanks/Chris Tucker shouting their names. Tell us, show us what they actually did! The producers here missed a huge opportunity to let us know whose lives Lynn Stalmaster, the casting director, changed forever when he cast a now-legendary actor actor in a juicy role before they were famous. And how cool would it have been to see a montage of Jackie Chan's best stunts? Come on, Academy. You can do more!

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCash

I think this is Faye's greatest role in years.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDONUK

I loved both La La Land and Moonlight. Wanted a tie!

Moving to other parts of Oscar night, I was SORELY disappointed that "13th" did not win for Best Documentary. Ava DuVernay accepting the award with the Hidden Figures ladies and NASA's Katherine Johnson beside her on the stage would have been sublime. I screamed at the TV when the winner was announced.

You may have already discussed this here, but as good as OJ Made in America is, it's a fucking miniseries, no matter what ESPN wants to call it. That win has opened the door for all kinds of future Oscar nonsense and category fraud. IT'S NOT A MOVIE.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I'm still shook.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBD

Also - "Academy Award Winner Suicide Squad" *shiver*

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBD

I've been watching awards shows for years and I have never seen this happen, so to have it happen at the most "prestigious" awards and with the most coveted award, is truly shocking. If it had happened in Shorts or Editing or something "lesser," only us die-hards would care about it, but not this time.

When it happened I just thought, as did everyone, the old "you only have ONE job" and it's pretty easy to hand out the correct envelopes.

Next year I'm guessing the accountants sit on the stage and everyone looks to them after the winner is announced for confirmation. Plus a shredder is prominently displayed and the second set of envelopes is destroyed as soon as the winner is announced correctly.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

Superbly written piece, Nathaniel.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTabb

A preferential/alternative voting system is precisely the type of system that should be employed in political elections, so that our society can mitigate against electing highly divisive/polarising political candidates.

But when it comes to artistic contests, like the Oscars, which result in no significant consequences as such, other than various parties leaving a ceremony empty-handed, I think first-past-the-post is a superior system. Like Josh R suggests, art should often be polarising and the most interesting winners of a given contest are usually the ones that prompt the most debate.

That said, in this particular instance I am delighted with Moonlight's win. Not only was it relatively unexpected after all the attention lavished on La La Land, it is also a marginally superior, and certainly more challenging, film than La La Land. It's certainly not a generic or 'safe' Best Picture winner. Irrespective of its subject matter, it is a powerful, visceral film that doesn't pander to a mainstream audience, and it's fortunate that after last year's @OscarSoWhite debacle, Moonlight arrived at the perfect moment, being a truly worthy work of art that incidentally addresses subject matters and people hitherto ignored by AMPAS.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarco

Awkward ending for sure. I really don't know how something like this could happen. As Dave in Hollywood stated 'you only have ONE job' and they screwed it up. I am happy that Moonlight won, however. I can't help but make comparisons to our recent November election when we all knew Hillary was going to win, only to be shock by the final outcome, only shocked in the wrong way.

FWIW, I am elated that Casey Affleck won. His performance was sublime.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Kimmel was great-

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

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