So that happened.
Ultimately, the message to take away from this year’s ceremony was unity and togetherness. And in all honesty, there was no greater force to bring us all together, rapt and riveted in total unison, than the closing moments of the 89th Academy Awards, featuring a screw-up of such spectacular proportions that, for those few surreal moments, we were truly all as one – eyes transfixed, jaws dropped, heads spinning in perfect sync.
To be clear, this particular disaster required the perfect combination of confusion from multiple different people. The PricewaterhouseCoopers representative had to hand the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty before he walked on stage. Beatty, then, had to keep his confusion a secret upon opening the envelope without announcing it aloud, presumably for fear of breaking the flow of the program. He then had to refer his confusion to Faye Dunaway but not ask her to confirm his question, but rather just silently show her what he was looking at. And, finally, Dunaway had to see the title of the front-running film, the film that had already won the most Oscars throughout the evening, and make the mental leap that that film was, indeed, the Best Picture winner.
So many disparate elements had to break down for this to have occurred. They all did.
Of course this is how we close out the 2016 film year. A surprise winner read from the Best Picture envelope would have been a standalone shocker like none ever before, an exultation of diversity, a busting of a wall. There may well have been disappointment in the La La Land camp, but the team would’ve nevertheless celebrated the work of their peers – these teams have basically been traversing the awards circuit side-by-side over the past six months – and known they went home with plenty of industry recognition. But no – this is not how we close out the 2016 film year. We should’ve all learned by now that 2016 was never content with a standard surprise, always opting for the cruelest possible twist of the knife. 2016 liked to place the rug, make sure everyone was securely positioned, and then yank it while laughing at the ensuing bruises.
To be sure, there are bruises, and they will linger – and not just for the film on the losing side.
One common post-show analysis was, “to have La La Land ‘win’ and then be presented with the crushing reality was such a La La Land way to end the night.” Another snap reaction: “of course this first-ever Best Picture winner to tell an LGBT story and to feature an all-black cast would have its moment overshadowed and therefore blunted.”
Both were precisely, tragically accurate.
Sure, I’m aware that describing the results of something as upper-class and ultimately “shallow” as the Oscars as “tragic” seems like an overreach. But this was the moment of moments, the culmination of six months of rigorous campaigning, and beyond that, the culmination of two-plus years of dedicated work from start to finish on these wonderful projects (even longer than that for Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle, who had been toiling at these films for years)…and it was marred for both sides.
La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz was a legit hero, having to quickly process disappointing news in the midst of what was absolute euphoria and then stepping up to the mic, literally grabbing the correct card, and announcing Moonlight as the Best Picture winner without wavering.
Barry Jenkins was a legit hero, at first stunned silent, hand over mouth, walking to the stage as unsure of what just happened as the rest of us. But then he met the moment, accepting the prize he earned, collecting himself enough to deliver a speech that was likely a mix of remarks he had prepared and off-the-cuff magic of such a disarming circumstance. He never wavered, either.
Jenkins and Horowitz no doubt talked and embraced in the aftermath. And we all saw their subsequent interaction on Twitter, the kind of open-hearted collegial respect that is downright inspiring in this period in our history. But that should never have been a surprise coming from the teams behind these two films, who were sort of paired together on the circuit by virtue of being the presumed “top two contenders,” and who never turned away an opportunity to the praise each other’s work. What a model they displayed throughout season, and during that most astonishing of surreal situations that ultimately closed the season.
Moonlight was so deserving. La La Land was so deserving. Both films were aptly awarded – though frankly, I don’t think either film took home as many Oscars as they deserved. And together, they shared in one of the most historic moments that will ever occur at the Oscars. It was terrible…but it will never be forgotten. And I pray to whatever lord you want to pick that, for all future filmmakers fortunate enough to be in contention for a Best Picture Oscar, this will never happen again.
Oh yeah – there was a three-and-a-half-hour ceremony that preceded that hysteria. And truth be told, it was pretty solid overall, a combination of solid political jabs, outspoken statements of unity in the face of oppression, some clever bits that involved and engaged the audience, and some well-deserved wins. Jimmy Kimmel hosted, and really solidified himself as having taken the next step as a host and a socially-conscious comedian. His Trump-centered jokes ran circles around Golden Globes host Jimmy Fallon’s. He didn’t merely offer a monologue and then hide away for the remainder of the evening, but was a constant presence, always maintaining the framework of the show but never overshadowing it. Sure, we can discuss the appropriateness of his uneasy jokes about “different-sounding names,” and we can question his attempt to diffuse the Best Picture debacle at the end, but his outing was more-than-solid.
Overall, the show was less politically charged than I would’ve liked. It’s as though the myriad of precursor ceremonies was enough for a lot of celebrities to “get it out of their system,” so to speak. And, I suppose for the bulk of these contenders, many of whom have given multiple speeches over the past couple months, it might seem redundant to keep playing on the same theme. But when the theme is “We Oppose Tyranny,” it should be repeated over and over again, on a loop. Not to mention that, of all the stages in the awards season, the Oscar stage is the biggest. If ever the time was not just right, but essential to speak out, it’s at the Oscars. Compare Casey Affleck’s acceptance speech one night earlier, at the Spirit Awards, where he stated flatly “the policies of this administration are a disgrace,” with his Oscars speech, which was centered on “thank you for including me in this community.” No less genuine sentiments, obviously, but in general, it seemed like everyone was reserved when they should’ve been more outspoken. But there were glimmers. Both Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis offered statements of love and inclusion. Asghar Farhadi’s written statement was potent. Props to Gael Garcia Bernal for going off-prompter to talk about migrant workers. The Moonlight team certainly put an important cap on the evening, but the hysteria of the moment distracted both the audience and the recipients themselves from the strong message they wanted to communicate.
Surveying the final slate of winners, I’m not unhappy for anyone, even if not every choice was, in my estimation, “correct.” Hacksaw Ridge’s wins, for Film Editing and Sound Mixing, were too on-the-nose. Arrival or Moonlight would’ve been transcendent choices in the former category, and La La Land was head-and-shoulders the best choice in the latter. But I am happy Arrival didn’t go home empty-handed – the Sound Editing win was well-deserved. Happy for all the acting winners – great performances, all – though it was a little crushing to watch Denzel Washington’s intensity as Brie Larson opened the Best Actor envelope. He wanted this win…not even necessarily out of sheer desire or competition, but I think he wanted to speak. I can only imagine what he had prepared, but that speech would’ve been remarkable. The nerdy charm of these passionate La La Land creators, Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz, was lovely. They are really still relative newbies, though their genius seems fully formed. Kenny Lonergan winning a Screenplay Oscar should be edifying for any screenwriting enthusiast. And for a film as thinly budgeted and boldly specific as Moonlight to win the night’s biggest award is inspiring.
Some will claim the Moonlight win is the result of the mounting La La Land backlash that’s been brewing. Others will say that it’s merely a statement win, something directly politically motivated at the onset of the Trump Era. Both arguments are entirely dismissive of Moonlight’s enormous merits, but the extent to which they are actually proven true will be exposed in the years immediately following this historic win. Yes, this was an unprecedented year in terms of diversity. But it’s only one year removed from the peak of #OscarsSoWhite. Lest we forget, the Oscars are STILL dominantly white (and male), so following both the future voting patterns and internal AMPAS efforts to continue the diversity push will be revelatory.
Let’s oh-so-briefly discuss the elephant in the room: the predictions. My sheet was a disaster by the end of the night, its carnage unconscionable. This was easily my worst performance in the six years since I assumed this role for Next Projection – I must own that. Admittedly, the pill is easier to swallow when virtually every pundit in the known world did just as bad, give or take maybe one or two. If anything, this season proved that the notion of an Oscar “expert” does not necessarily translate to brilliant predictions every year. In fact, this season really underlines a common adage that’s usually applied to March Madness brackets: the more you know, the more pitfalls you encounter when making picks; being acutely aware of so many disparate stats and scenarios makes even the simple act of placing a checkmark on an Oscar ballot intensely complicated.
And so, another Oscar season in the books, one flanked by peripheral tragedy and concluded in a head-on collision with profound awkwardness. In recent years, the immediate aftermath of Oscar Night left a void within me…like, “aren’t I supposed to be updating predictions today? Oh, no…it’s actually over.” However, this year I’m ready for a breather. Maybe it’s just because this was the final signpost of Our Hellfire Year 2016, but I welcome the end of this season with relief. It will be good to take a step back, if only for a moment, and then dive back into the films 2017 has to offer. After all, it’s literally only six months until the next Oscar season kicks off at Venice, Telluride, and TIFF – it doesn’t even seem that far off, yet the time will still pass even quicker than it seems.
As ever, thank you for reading, for following along, for providing me an outlet to cover the Oscar race. In spite of this season’s particular grind, I love doing this more than just about anything, and I appreciate anyone crazy enough to take a rowboat ride through my stream of consciousness.
I’m definitely not someone who likes to jump straight into blind discussion about the next Oscar season, but before I sign off, I have two very reasonable asks of the Academy: 1) consider letting Justin Timberlake host next year’s 90th Academy Awards, and 2) book Barry Jenkins and Jordan Horowitz to present Best Picture.
I offer these suggestions for free, AMPAS, as I go into that good night.