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The Oscars’ unprecedented Moonlight/La La Land Best Picture mix-up, explained

An envelope screw-up made Oscar history — and vindicated Marisa Tomei. (Seriously.)

89th Annual Academy Awards - Show
The right card in the right envelope — except the presenters were handed the wrong envelope.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

What happened at the Oscars is unprecedented.

The night’s biggest award — Best Picture — was handed to the wrong film, presumed frontrunner La La Land, because presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were given the wrong envelope. It bore the name of La La Land’s Emma Stone, who had won Best Actress moments before.

The three credited producers for La La Land were almost through their triumphant speeches — indeed, the third, Fred Berger, was in the middle of speaking — when producer Jordan Horowitz was forced to take the microphone and say the film had lost to Moonlight.

Essentially everybody involved appeared to believe, initially, that it was a joke, from the moment that Beatty — clearly flummoxed by having an envelope that read “Emma Stone” — tried to make sense of what had happened, only to have the crowd (and his co-presenter Dunaway) think he was unnecessarily prolonging the announcement, to the moment when Berger said, “By the way, we lost.”

PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that counts the Oscar ballots, issued a statement taking the blame for the mix-up:

We sincerely apologize to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for Best Picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.

We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.

On Monday, it further clarified the situation in another statement:

PwC takes full responsibility for the series of mistakes and breaches of established protocols during last night’s Oscars. PwC Partner Brian Cullinan mistakenly handed the back-up envelope for Actress in a Leading Role instead of the envelope for Best Picture to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Once the error occurred, protocols for correcting it were not followed through quickly enough by Mr. Cullinan or his partner.

Variety has much more on the mix-up.

In the moment, though, it was chaos. It’s never happened in the 89-year history of the Oscars (much less in the biggest category), and it seemingly disproved one of the longest-running Oscar urban legends.

The Oscars have a procedure for what happens if the wrong name is read — but it apparently doesn’t work that well

Only two people know the names of the Oscar winners before the envelopes are opened and read. They’re always two accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm that tabulates Oscar votes, and they carry the results in the famed briefcases that make their way down the red carpet every year.

PWC’s methods for tabulation are said to be quite rigorous, with lots of double checks and redundancies built into their system, which is designed to make sure the right winner is placed into every envelope. But the firm’s method for correcting the situation if the wrong envelope is handed to the presenters — as apparently happened with Beatty and Dunaway — is clearly not as foolproof.

As one of those two PWC accountants explains:

Essentially, the PWC accountants say that in the event of a mix-up, they would signal to a stage manager that the wrong name had been read, and the stage manager would then find a way to halt the proceedings on stage. Indeed, this bit of Oscar trivia is so popular as a “what if” that stories are written about it in the press every year — what would happen if the wrong envelope were opened, or a presenter just decided to take matters into their own hands?

89th Annual Academy Awards - Show
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway read from the wrong envelope.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

“We would make sure that the correct person was known very quickly. Whether that entails stopping the show, us walking onstage, us signaling to the stage manager — that’s really a game-time decision, if something like that were to happen. Again, it’s so unlikely,” Brian Cullinan, one of the two accountants (the other is Martha Ruiz) who knew the winners for this year’s awards, told the Huffington Post mere days ago.

And, granted, the process for announcing the correct winner makes much more sense for, say, Best Actor, where only one person is taking the stage, than it does for Best Picture, where everybody involved in a film swarms to the microphone. But it’s still remarkable that La La Land had all but completed its speeches, and host Jimmy Kimmel was onstage to wrap up the evening before the announcement was made.

Think of everything that had to go wrong here: Not only did the wrong envelope have to be handed to Beatty and Dunaway, but it had to include the name of the one nominee in the Best Actress category who appeared in a film nominated for Best Picture. (Had, say, Natalie Portman won for Jackie, Beatty and Dunaway would have known immediately what had happened.)

And that Best Picture nominee was the season-long frontrunner — with 14 nominations and six other Oscars to its name from earlier in the evening. So when Beatty and Dunaway announced that it had won, no one batted an eye.

But this has never happened in the history of the Oscars. The only time that comes close was in 1964, when Sammy Davis Jr. presented the award for Adaptation or Treatment Score but was handed the envelope for Original Score. And that’s a completely different situation, because the two categories had completely different sets of nominees.

Moonlight won because it smartly ran all season long as the alternative to La La Land

With La La Land’s loss, one thing becomes clear: You don’t want to be the early Oscar frontrunner. For three years in a row, the frontrunner — Boyhood in 2015, The Revenant in 2016, and La La Land in 2017 — has lost on Oscar night. And they’ve lost in three different ways, too: Boyhood faded in the stretch. The Revenant lost in a tight three-way race (to another early frontrunner, Spotlight). And La La Land lost despite being such a big Oscar frontrunner that I said if it lost, it would be the biggest Oscar upset ever. (And it is, only made more so by the ultra-bizarre circumstances around what happened.)

Only 12 Years a Slave, which won in 2014, managed to hold on to its frontrunner status from its September 2013 debut through the February 2014 awards. And it was bolstered by the sense that both Gravity and American Hustle were nipping at its heels. (Indeed, Gravity ended up winning seven awards, including Director, but not Picture, while 12 Years a Slave won a supporting acting prize and the Adapted Screenplay award along with Picture — with the situations for both eerily mirroring the La La Land vs. Moonlight split.)

86th Annual Academy Awards - Show
The team behind 12 Years a Slave accepts Best Picture in 2014.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

You have to go all the way back to The Artist in the Oscar season of 2011 and 2012 to find an early frontrunner that essentially cruised through the whole season with nary a speed bump or major competitor.

And the Oscars’ ranked-choice voting system means that even if you’re not the number one choice of a plurality, you can still be the number two or three choice of a lot of people and pull off the win as those voters’ number one choices drop out. (Read more about this here.) And, indeed, in every other category where Moonlight and La La Land faced off — where a simple plurality carries the day — Moonlight lost. (It lost three of those categories — Cinematography, Score, and Director — to La La Land, and both films lost Editing to Hacksaw Ridge.)

In the past, the ranked-choice system has tilted toward movies about show business, consensus choices that appealed to the entertainment industry, but in 2017 it clearly worked in Moonlight’s favor. Why?

Part of this is thanks to a very smart campaign run by the movie’s studio, A24, which essentially spent the entire awards season hanging out in the runner-up slot, never accruing enough momentum to overtake La La Land, but never fading so much that it was out of the running either. And the Academy’s moves toward developing a more diverse membership, bolstered by a large influx of nominees who don’t fit the typical “older, straight white man” Oscar voter mold, could have also worked in Moonlight’s favor. But that outreach didn’t change the makeup over the Oscar voting body overnight. Something else happened.

Talk to Oscar voters and those connected to them in the weeks leading up to the Oscars, and you heard much more passion for La La Land, but Moonlight was the only other film mentioned at all consistently as everything else faded. (Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan has also talked about this phenomenon.) It certainly didn’t hurt that Moonlight had Plan B Productions — better known as Brad Pitt’s production company — in its corner, either. (Indeed, one of Moonlight’s winners is Pitt’s producing partner Dede Gardner, also an Oscar winner for 12 Years a Slave.)

Moonlight also reflects the Academy’s acceptance of both racially diverse and LGBTQ themes — notable in the wake of two straight years without acting nominees of color and the previous most famous Oscar upset of them all, which saw the historic gay romance Brokeback Mountain bested by a largely unpredicted victory by Crash. In a way, Moonlight winning is a symbolic exemplar of the Academy tossing off both of those albatrosses, if only for a single year.

But that’s not the only explanation for Moonlight’s win. Another contributing factor, among many, may be the fact that Donald Trump is president, Hollywood hates that he’s president, and Academy members may have been looking for ways to symbolically push back against his agenda with their votes. Throughout the night, categories kept going to movies that humanized the targets of Trump’s tweets, proposed laws, and vitriol, whether it was the documentary short winner The White Helmets or the Iranian foreign film winner The Salesman.

And what better film to embrace if you want to send a message to the president — symbolically — than a beautiful, aching, artistic drama about a poor, gay black man coming of age?

Oh, right, this also vindicates Marisa Tomei

Marisa Tomei
Marisa Tomei and Gene Hackman celebrate their 1993 wins for supporting acting.
Scott Flynn/Getty Images

One of those weirdo bits of Oscar lore — which was even hinted at in Entertainment Weekly and the Hollywood Reporter — is that when announcing the winner of Best Supporting Actress in 1993, Jack Palance read the wrong name.

He read Marisa Tomei of My Cousin Vinny, when it should have been any of the other nominees. The best explanation — Tomei was the only American in a category full of Brits, so her upset was a victory for patriotism and country — paled in comparison to the idea of an old man just making up a winner.

PWC has always insisted this was not the case, that they would have rushed the stage if Palance had actually read the wrong name. But the urban legend persisted because, well, nothing had ever happened to disprove it.

Until now, when the biggest award of the night was announced to go to the wrong film, and everybody still watching the Oscars thought there was a different Best Picture winner for more than a minute, when the procedure asserted itself for the first time in Oscars history.

It was a hell of a way to end the evening, only made more so by the fact that it accidentally vindicates Marisa Tomei after 24 years of whispers about the invalidity of her Oscar. Good for you, Marisa! You, too, are a winner!

Update: Some wording in this piece has been changed to better reflect the confluence of events that led to Moonlight’s Best Picture win.

Update 2: We’ve added a later statement from PricewaterhouseCoopers.