On the 2017 Academy Awards
They gave speeches for a movie that didn’t win.
It seems fitting in a way that the thing everyone is going to remember about Moonlight winning Best Picture is the titanic fuck up that preceded it, with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway reading out the wrong name, and Beatty explaining that they were given what appears to be the Best Actress envelope, and read out La La Land’s name after some serious confusion on the Beatty side of the aisle. And as the producers for the film thanked their friends and family and coworkers, it seemed more than a little odd that some guy with a headset on was hurriedly rushing around the stage behind them. Maybe he was trying to get them to speed up and get this ceremony over?
Then a kerfuffle ensues, and Jordan Horowitz (if a movie is ever made of this night, he would be played by Corey Stoll) comes to the mic to tell the folks from Moonlight that they won, but it almost sounds like one of those “this movie is the real winner” moments, but no it’s not, and no one knows what the hell is going on until someone hands him the right envelope and we see the card and it’s actually true. Moonlight won Best Picture. Jordan looks a little pissed (and, honestly, it’s totally within his right to be), but he handles it with class and respect. And then, a sea of white faces magically became a sea of black ones, with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins at its center.
Hard to say whether that was a canned line or a brilliant piece of improvisation, but it’s quite the moment to pass the torch, even if it didn’t look like it would be passed and no one expected it to be passed. La La Land was going to win and nothing we could do would stop it. And as the backlash grew in voice, it kept winning, setting a record at the Globes and taking home a ton of BAFTAs and the like. The narrative was set. We would have to sit through 3.5 to 4 hours of telecast to confirm it, but the narrative was set. The only question was whether it would surpass the gaggle of 11 statue winners and set a new mark.
But then, early on in the evening, it started losing. It lost costumes and both sound categories and (perhaps most shockingly of all) editing. And sure, it won a bunch too, for the musical categories and for directing and for Emma Stone and the ship was righting, and then its name was read aloud by Dunaway and a thousand contrarians on Twitter screamed out in anger and were silenced, but then they were vindicated.
It’s a little extra twist of the knife to have the La La Land producers and cast come up on stage only to be denied, but it’s also kind of a twist of the knife that people are going to remember Moonlight not winning and then winning more than the fact that, you know, Moonlight won. It’s a Dewey defeats Truman sort of moment that didn’t get its moment, everything subsumed by the chaos surrounding the mistake. The audience tried to rally to the cause once it became clear that Moonlight did in fact win Best Picture, but there was still a weird energy in the air, one that wasn’t particularly helped by Beatty taking the mic before Jenkins and co. could to try to explain what the hell happened in an embarrassed ramble. We were still living in a weird limbo world, unsure of who the hell had just won the single most important award of the night, a clusterfuck to end all clusterfucks.
It’s nice that, at the end of it all, the right decision was made. Moonlight is the best of the bunch, and while I would have been fine with a La La Land win following the continuum of Argo and The Artist and all the other movies about how Hollywood is amazing and LA is totally the best you guys and so on. And I like La La Land. Quite a bit. But there’s something transformative about Moonlight. When the first award of the night went to Mahershala Ali, and he walked up to the stage to just a piece of that unbelievable score, it started to sink in. Moonlight was the Best Picture. It should win. It deserved to win. It wasn’t going to win. But then it won.
It speaks to the shifting nature of how these awards are handed out, how we assume narratives that may not be there, how we perceive momentum through the night that just doesn’t jive with how people actually vote for these awards. It’s been happening more and more often recently. It’s Life of Pit winning a bunch of technical awards and Director before Argo won Best Picture. It’s 12 Years a Slave after a night of statues going to Gravity. It’s Spotlight winning only one other award before pulling the big prize out from under The Revenant. Oscar prognostication is getting harder and harder because it seems like the awards are getting cagier and cagier. No longer can we assume the front runner will glide gracefully through awards season to collect its prize. Sure, it happened for Birdman (grumble), but even then conventional wisdom was on the side of Boyhood for a long time before it wasn’t. More and more, we’re seeing surprises, and no surprise embodies that more than whatever the hell it was we saw after midnight (on the East Coast, at least) on the stage of the Dolby Theater.
I wonder what things would be like if Beatty just stopped and said “Hey, you gave me the wrong envelope, idiots.” He totally could have done that. He’s Warren goddamned Beatty. He panicked (sure), and Faye thought he was being dramatic (sure), and she saw the words La La Land and said La La Land (sure, sorta) and then all hell broke loose. And this is it. No one’s going to remember anything else about this ceremony, not really. No one’s going to remember Kimmel’s bottomless well of Matt Damon jokes (a highlight) or bringing a bunch of normal people into the theater to be gawked at by the ultra-famous and tens of millions of people at home (a not-as-highlight). No one’s going to remember a 7.5 hour ESPN miniseries winning Best Documentary Feature (but what a miniseries). We might remember Viola Davis (how could you not?) or the slam dunk political statement of giving Best Foreign Language Film to Iranian Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, with him not at the ceremony after choosing to stay home in reaction to Donald Trump’s travel ban. These are moments that will be remembered to various extents, but not really. Not now. It’s all kind of meaningless now, caught in the shadow of the most public fuck up in the history of the Oscars, on a night where they cut the part about PriceWaterhouseCoopers confirming the vote and their security and the like (apparently, they have two copies of every envelope, one on each side of the stage, so you have to wonder how this didn’t happen sooner - https://medium.com/art-science/what-it-feels-like-to-count-oscar-votes-f89a38efdf1c#.hw10iodnk). I was about to go to bed, still kinda stewing over the one true injustice of the night (that would be Zootopia - a fine film - beating Kubo and the Two Strings - a masterpiece - for Best Animated Feature), but content that another Oscars had come and gone in mostly the way we all expected it to.
The Oscars are supposed to be regal and staid and self-important. It’s interesting to see how they react when they get caught with their pants down. But, putting all of it aside, we live in a world where Moonlight, a film made by a bunch of people the majority of the world had never known existed at the onset of 2016, the Best Picture winner with the smallest budget (adjusted for inflation) in history, a movie about the experience of a gay black man in Miami, Florida, a man marginalized within his own marginalization, a film that somehow managed to catch the cultural eye even a little bit, nurtured by A24, The Little Distributor That Could, can somehow, even if it takes a bit of a circuitous route to get there, claim the biggest prize in Hollywood.
This almost makes up for The King's Speech beating The Social Network and Black Swan.
Not really, though.