The story of the Oscars this year won’t be written in terms of the Best Picture winner — Moonlight — or the biggest trophy gatherer, La La Land. It won’t be written in terms of host Jimmy Kimmel or memorable speeches. (Honestly, for a year when many were expecting a nonstop assault on the Donald Trump administration, à la the SAG Awards, the speeches were mostly tepid, Viola Davis notwithstanding.)
No, the story of the Oscars this year came in the final moments, when the biggest award of the night, Best Picture, briefly went to the wrong movie, before everybody involved realized the mistake and had to correct it in occasionally embarrassing fashion.
But you know what? That moment made for riveting television, and it capped off a mostly entertaining, if staid, Oscar ceremony.
The 2016 movie year was a constant unfolding of delights, and that kept going right up until the final envelope at the final awards show was opened.
Here’s how it all went down.
Loser: La La Land
The film was nominated for 14 Oscars and heavily favored to win Best Picture. And at first, it looked like it had. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the award, and the producers, cast, and crew of La La Land were onstage, accepting the prize.
La La Land didn’t go home empty-handed, of course. The film won six Oscars: Directing (Damien Chazelle), Actress (Emma Stone), Original Score (Justin Hurwitz), Song (“City of Stars”), Cinematography (Linus Sandgren), and Production Design (David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco).
But the film was so heavily favored that several of its losses — not just Best Picture but also Original Screenplay, which it lost to Manchester By the Sea — seem to dwarf the wins a bit. Though the team has a lot to celebrate, the deflation of losing the coveted award after a minute of being on top of the world can’t feel great.
To his credit, Horowitz — and the rest of the La La Land crowd — handled the whole thing with grace. And they seem to be making the best of it at the afterparties:
Moment of kinda inspiring unity: Barry Jenkins and La La's Jordan Horowitz recapping the craziness--and smiling pic.twitter.com/TfKneJ7ijm— Steven Zeitchik (@ZeitchikLAT) February 27, 2017
Moonlight is the little movie that could, and the fact that it made it to the Oscars at all is shocking.
Shot for a minuscule budget by most standards (about $1.6 million), Moonlight is an art film about the coming-of-age of a gay black man in Miami, as he attempts to overcome both the extreme poverty he lives in and his own complicated feelings about his sexuality. It’s told in three different timelines, following the main character as a little boy, a teenager, and an adult, and its unusual triptych structure helped make it one of the biggest critical hits of the year. But needless to say, this is not what you might term “Oscar bait.”
Based on In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Oscar-winning screenplay by McCraney and director Barry Jenkins is startling and poetic, as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does. Just check this out, for instance.
This MOONLIGHT screenplay excerpt tho pic.twitter.com/HremtVeVY4— Chris Evangelista (@cevangelista413) February 19, 2017
It’s hard to think of a recent Best Picture winner as deserving or unexpected as Moonlight. This is not to say that La La Land wouldn’t have been deserving, just to say that an Oscar for a hyperstylized musical that’s unabashedly in love with Hollywood’s past is a slightly easier pitch to Oscar voters than something like Moonlight.
This is also a victory for Moonlight’s studio, the upstart A24, already a darling of film fans for its commitment both to great films and to getting them seen. It’s hard to imagine any other studio making Moonlight, much less pushing it to Best Picture and a $22 million (and counting) box office take. Yeah, that’s small potatoes compared with, say, Rogue One, but it’s remarkable for such a small, artistic drama. And A24 made it happen.
All of which is to say that after the fervor has died down, after this moment is a bit of Oscar trivia that people discuss and laugh about, the movies will endure, and Moonlight is a worthy choice to join the Oscar pantheon.
And La La Land might be helped by this too, honestly — it’s easier to sympathize with a movie that almost won and had its win taken away in embarrassing fashion than an Oscar behemoth that won big prize after big prize.
Winner: Ranked-choice, instant-runoff voting
While ranked-choice, instant-runoff voting isn’t a bad system for actual human elections — where you’re trying to elect a leader who will represent the will of the most voters possible — it’s been kind of a lousy system for the Oscars, where it’s mostly just resulted in a bunch of winners about show business and/or show-business-adjacent topics. (Read more about how this balloting system works here.)
Indeed, since switching to the system in 2010, the Academy has honored three movies about movies and the people who make them — The Artist, Argo, and Birdman — and one movie that might as well be about learning how to be an actor for how much it focuses on elocution and the like (The King’s Speech). The other pre-Moonlight winners were more unusual, at least — The Hurt Locker, 12 Years a Slave, and Spotlight — but the first was a war movie, the second was a historic docudrama, and the third was a workplace ensemble drama. They’re all good movies, but they’re not exactly outside the Oscar wheelhouse.
But Moonlight, as explained above, is outside the Oscars’ wheelhouse. And not only did it win, but there’s convincing evidence that the Best Picture balloting system delivered it the win. (Namely, in every category where La La Land and Moonlight went head to head but Picture — all of which are decided by a simple “most votes wins” system — Moonlight lost, three times to La La Land and once to Hacksaw Ridge.)
The new balloting system has also created a welcome diversity in the top prizes, not only in terms of the types of films that win (12 Years a Slave and Moonlight are the first two winners primarily about the lives of black Americans) but also in terms of how the prizes are spread around. The biggest Oscar haul by a Best Picture winner under the new system is six awards for The Hurt Locker, followed by five for The Artist. And every other winner under the new system has pulled in four or fewer.
You only have to go back one year to find a Best Picture winner that dominated under the old system — with Slumdog Millionaire winning eight awards in 2009. Whatever the faults of the new system, it at least makes the final prize far more interesting.
Losers: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers
The final trophy was supposed to be a celebration of Bonnie and Clyde, the iconic 1967 American film that kicked off the New Hollywood revolution and rocketed Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to stardom. Instead, Beatty and Dunaway are now associated with the craziest moment in Oscar history, with host Jimmy Kimmel mock-crying, “Warren, what did you do?!”
But the real blame lies with the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, which stations two accountants at each side of the stage to hand out the envelopes for upcoming categories. The wrong envelope was handed to Beatty and Dunaway, as this tweet mostly makes clear. (There are two full sets of envelopes, and Beatty was handed the envelope for Best Actress, the award handed out before Best Picture. The “Leo” referred to in the tweet is Actress presenter Leonardo DiCaprio.)
Still, this can’t be fun for Beatty and Dunaway, who had their big celebration of their film’s 50th anniversary turn into a series of jokes about how old and doddering they are. And, yeah, they could have said something, like, “Wait, why does this envelope say Emma Stone?” but heat of the moment, etc., etc.
Winners: Manchester by the Sea and Hacksaw Ridge
Controversy swirled around both of these nominees thanks to the behavior of those involved in them. Manchester by the Sea’s issues stemmed from star Casey Affleck, who was sued in 2010 for sexual harassment. (The suit was settled out of court.)
In a year when Nate Parker, the black director and star of deflated Oscar hopeful Birth of a Nation, had his hopes punctured by past accusations of serious sexual crimes against women, why was a white movie star seemingly able to avoid similar issues? (There are reasons, nicely explained in this New Yorker article, but on the surface, the two situations are similar.)
Soon, the accusations against Affleck were the primary conversation surrounding a very good movie, and when Denzel Washington won the Screen Actors Guild award for Fences and Moonlight defeated Manchester at the Writers Guild Awards, it seemed Manchester might be over.
Meanwhile, Hacksaw Ridge was directed by Mel Gibson, a man who’s been involved in more controversies than we can succinctly list here, but let’s just start with the anti-Semitic remarks he made in the 2006 and allegations of abuse against his ex-wife and call it a day.
Anyway, neither of these controversies hurt the films, which each won two awards. Hacksaw’s were for technical categories where war films often win — Editing and Sound Mixing (giving 21-time nominee and first-time winner Kevin O’Connell a trophy). But Manchester won both Original Screenplay (presaging La La Land’s ultimate defeat) and, more notably, Best Actor for Affleck.
Some things can still be forgiven in Hollywood, it would seem.
Winner/loser: Jimmy Kimmel
Honestly, his monologue was pretty devoid of laughs, filled with the sorts of very basic jokes just about any host could make (and, indeed, has made).
But the comedy bits throughout the rest of the ceremony were often funny, especially a visit from a bunch of sightseeing tourists who didn’t know they were going to wander into the Oscar audience and see their favorite movie stars. (Kimmel was smart enough to mostly get out of the way of his starstruck visitors.)
Okay, yes, there was a kinda racist moment with Sunny Pawar, the young Indian star of Lion, and Kimmel was too eager to go to the “nobody has seen these movies” well throughout the show, to say nothing of his endless, not particularly funny feud with Matt Damon.
But he stepped in and kept things rolling along during the Best Picture chaos, and he mostly didn’t embarrass himself utterly.
So: Not a hosting job for the ages, but also not a total disaster. As first gigs hosting the Oscars go (a notoriously difficult job), there have been far worse over the years.
Winner: This animatronic horse puppet
Not just anybody can win one of the Academy’s scientific and technical Oscars, honorary awards given to breakthroughs in filmmaking technology at a special ceremony held earlier in February.
But you know who won an award this year?