in movies

What went wrong at the 2017 Oscars ceremony (and other thoughts on the winners)

Tonight’s Oscars ceremony brought, without a doubt, the craziest Oscars moment I’ve ever witnessed in all my life: During the evening’s climax, Warren Beatty opened up the Best Picture winner envelope and handed it to Faye Dunaway, who read off the winner as La La Land. Shortly afterward, it became clear that Moonlight, not La La Land, had actually won Best Picture. What went wrong?

To understand how this happened, it is helpful to understand how the envelope system works. In an article on Medium, the folks from PricewaterhouseCoopers explain:

The producers decide what the order of the awards will be. We each have a full set. I have all 24 envelopes in my briefcase; Martha has all 24 in hers. We stand on opposite sides of the stage, right off-screen, for the entire evening, and we each hand the respective envelope to the presenter. It doesn’t sound very complicated, but you have to make sure you’re giving the presenter the right envelope.

It seems clear that the wrong envelope was handed to Warren Beatty — a duplicate of the Best Actress envelope, which had just been awarded to Emma Stone for La La Land.

Thus, the sequence of events was as follows:

  1. Beatty was handed the wrong envelope — the Best Actress envelope.
  2. He opens it and reads the envelope to himself. He seems to think something is wrong.
  3. Faye Dunaway thinks he’s hamming it up. Beatty hands the envelope to Faye Dunaway and tries to explain what’s going on.
  4. Dunaway just wants to move on with the show so she hastily reads what the card says: La La Land is the winner! (It really says “Emma Stone from La La Land — Best Actress”)
  5. La La Land producers take to the stage, but the group is slowly informed that a mistake has been made.

You can watch a video of the entire incident here. Rebecca Keegan at Vanity Fair has more color around what happened. Matthew Jacobs at HuffPo wrote a fortuitous piece about how Oscar producers handle a mixup like this. Also: Mahershala Ali’s response to this is all class.

Here are a few things I take away from this:

  • Regardless of how big of a mess up this is, we now live in a world where Moonlight, a $1.5MM budgeted film about a gay black man’s struggle to adjust to life in Miami won Best Picture. This is remarkable, and a win for films that have diverse perspectives, not to mention diverse casts/filmmakers behind them.
  • Jordan Horowitz was the producer of La La Land who recognized what happened and immediately took the situation into his own hands. He grabbed the envelope, showed it to the camera, and declared Moonlight the winner. It was the right thing to do. It was the classy thing to do. It’s something that must’ve been challenging to do given the circumstances. Props to him for handling this so well in what must have been a fairly crushing moment for him.
  • There was a bizarre moment when one of the producers of La La Land seemed to know that Moonlight had won but still got in front of the mic to say a few words. “We lost, by the way.” Never heard someone say that at an Oscar thank you speech before.
  • I hope Beatty isn’t remembered negatively for this (even though it seemed to me initially that he was at fault). Now that more facts have come to light, it is clear that he tried to prevent this from happening as best as he could.
  • The design of the cards in the envelopes could use an overhaul. If the hierarchy had been more clear, it’s likely this disaster could’ve been averted.

And some other thoughts on the rest of the ceremony:

  • Overall these awards were…pretty good? I was disappointed in a few categories, like Moana not winning Best Animated Feature, or Kubo or Doctor Strange not winning for Best Visual Effects. But I thought, on the whole, the Academy gave out a bunch of awards to a bunch of deserving films.
  • Damien Chazelle is now the youngest person to win Best Director, at the age of 32. An incredible achievement.
  • Kimmel did a decent job, but the moment where he trolled Matt Damon with the We Bought a Zoo tribute was genius.
  • I thought Kimmel’s attempts to bring his usual bits into the show were very mixed. Having tourists be surprised by the Oscars was cute — it’s easy to forget how mindblowing it is to have all these stars in one place, and seeing “normal people” react to them was a delight. But like many things in the evening, the segment seemed to go on forever. And the “Mean Tweets” video just didn’t seem to really fit with anything else in the night.
  • Emma Stone is an extremely talented individual, but Isabelle Huppert was magnificent in Elle, delivering a performance that was challenging and unique. It was far more interesting than what Stone did in La La Land and I’m bummed the award didn’t go to someone more deserving (this year).
  • “City of Stars” winning Best Original Song is the only award that actively irritated me. Not only was it not the best song among the nominees – it’s not even the best song from La La Land! (I would’ve gone with “Audition” at least. C’mon Academy!)
  • Can we please stop with “the host gives the audience food” bits? They never cease to be painful and take up so much time in a ceremony that already has great difficulty being punctual.

I recorded more detailed thoughts on a Periscope video reacting to the event. What did you think of this year’s Oscars ceremony?

Update: PricewaterhouseCopers has now apologized for the mix-up.