If the 89th Academy Awards broadcast had itself been a film, its sequence of false climax, denouement, eleventh-hour plot reversal, and actual climax would have been written off by critics not just as unlikely, but as wildly unbelievable. And yet there was Fred Berger—a producer of La La Land, which had been announced as the 2016 Best Picture, and for which he and two other producers had just given acceptance speeches—suddenly telling the star-studded audience at the Dolby Theatre and tens of millions of viewers around the world, “We lost, by the way, but, you know...” He offered a shrug, at which point another La La Land producer, Jordan Horowitz, returned to the microphone to inform everybody watching, “Guys, guys, I'm sorry. No. There’s a mistake.” Then, pointing out from the stage toward writer-director Barry Jenkins and his colleagues, he said, “Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture”—which, as it turns out, they had.
So what happened? My brilliant wife, Karen, immediately believed that award presenter Warren Beatty had opened the wrong envelope. I suggested that perhaps he had unsealed the proper envelope, but that it had been loaded with incorrect information. As so often occurs, Karen was right. Three hours after the Oscars had concluded, PricewaterhouseCoopers—the accounting firm responsible for tabulating the award voting—issued a statement. “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.”
As a cinephile and a long-time Academy Awards viewer, I found the incident initially unsettling, and then tremendously awkward. The error didn’t occur when handing out a Best Sound Mixing trophy, but the one for Best Picture. (And I mean no disrespect to sound mixers. Kevin O’Connell did a marvelous job on Hacksaw Ridge, for which he earned his 21st Oscar nomination and his first, obviously overdue award.) Mistakes happen all the time—I make plenty of them—but I felt sympathy for the producers and casts of both films. The team of one movie discovered during their moment of elation that they had not actually won the most coveted of Oscars, while the team of another had been deprived of that joyous instant when they learned of their own victory. The producers of Moonlight did discover that their film had won Best Picture, of course, but in a period of confusion, rather than by way of a powerful announcement. No, it’s not the end of the world, and nobody lost a limb or had to be admitted to the hospital, but I felt bad for the people involved—including the presenters, the stage managers, and the accountants. At the end of the night, the creative forces behind La La Land still managed to take home six golden statues, while those driving Moonlight garnered three, included Best Pic. Still, the ceremony, which had hummed along to that point under the robust stewardship of first-time host Jimmy Kimmel, could have had a smoother finish. (Or perhaps M. Night Shyamalan wrote the ending...)
Unfortunately, the broadcast featured another blunder. During the In Memoriam segment, when the Academy recognized contributors to the film industry who passed away in the previous year, they paid tribute to Janet Patterson. A costume designer, Ms. Patterson died in October. Unfortunately, the image shown along with her name was that of still-living producer Jan Chapman. Again, mistakes happen, but it must have been particularly saddening for Ms. Patterson’s family and friends—not to mention unnerving for the people who know Ms. Chapman.
Nevertheless, despite those two missteps—the latter of which I only learned about after the show had ended—I enjoyed the ceremony. The set designers did a wonderful job with their glittering proscenium and their oft-changing backdrops. Justin Timberlake opened the festivities on an optimistic note, with a traveling, dancing, and overall rousing performance of his Best Song entry, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” from Trolls. The singers of the other nominated original songs also delivered beautiful renditions, always accompanied by entertaining dancers. And despite the stumble with the incorrect image of Janet Patterson, the In Memoriam segment provided lovely remembrances of those in the film industry lost last year, with pictures and clips accompanied by Sara Bareilles’s moving version of Joni Mitchell's “Both Sides Now.” Jimmy Kimmel proved a very good host, demonstrating an ease onstage and an affable delivery that helped him land almost all of his jokes. He occasionally delved into political territory, always with the facts on his side and usually with a solidly funny punchline. Throughout the night, many of the award winners and presenters made reference to the governmental troubles currently facing the United States, but often with an understated dignity and an eye toward the positive—focusing on the principles of inclusiveness and diversity, and championing the value of both truth and creativity. If we could all embrace those virtues, we’d all be winners—the casts and crews of Moonlight and La La Land, along with the rest of us.
©2017 David R. George III