MOONLIGHT WINS BEST PICTURE

The 89th Academy Awards took place on Feb. 26, or Sunday.

Moonlight wins Best Picture
In an end-of-the-night twist, Moonlight took home last night’s Academy Award for Best Picture. This was shocking for two reasons: it was not predicted to win and, as you may have heard, Faye Dunaway gave the award to La La Land first.

La La Land racked up awards throughout the season. It emerged as a favorite coming out of Telluride and maintained momentum until Oscar night. The film picked up the PGA and DGA awards, the BAFTA and all the Golden Globes. Moonlight was always La La Land‘s foil, but it emerged largely empty-handed save for a Golden Globe presented in a category for which La La Land was ineligible. (La La Land missed a nomination for the SAG award, but it’s not like Moonlight won that won either — that award went to Hidden Figures.) In retrospect, the backlash kicked into gear when La La Land picked up a record-tying 14 nominations, setting up the film as the overwhelming Oscars favorite and spurring critics to pen articles hoping to bring it down.

The order of awards was seemingly designed to play up a La La Land victory. La La Land‘s weakest prospects (Costume Design and Sound Editing) were planted early on in the ceremony, while its strongest (Score and Song) were placed near the end. Conceivably, La La Land could have walked away with six or seven of the last nine awards of the night. But La La Land failed to achieve its expected dominance. Yes, it lost Costume Design and Sound Editing (though neither to the expected alternative), but it also lost Sound Mixing and Film Editing, which everyone assumed were locks. Still, by the time Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway stepped up on stage to present the Academy Award for Best Picture, La La Land had picked up six awards, including Best Actress (Emma Stone) and Best Director (Damien Chazelle). (Moonlight had won two, for adapted screenplay and Mahershala Ali’s supporting performance.) Victory was expected.

Beatty opened the envelope and stalled. The audience and Dunaway thought he was kidding, albeit in poor taste. He showed the card to Dunaway who announced that La La Land won. The La La Land producers headed up to the stage and began their “dreamers” speeches. I started to zone out. I was distracted by this annoying man in the background who kept on grabbing people’s envelopes. I assumed the winners were not supposed to be holding on to them and he was there to collect them and take them offstage. Then the La La Land producers announced that Moonlight had won.

The Moonlight cast and crew walk up onto the stage, dazed. Beatty and Jimmy Kimmel try to save the situation and fail. No one knows exactly what’s going on, only that this is easily the biggest fuck-up in Oscar history. La La Land producers see the Oscars they were holding taken from their hands, and Moonlight, the little movie that could, loses the moment in the spotlight it deserves.

Later on, it emerged that Beatty and Dunaway were handed the wrong envelope. The card read “Emma Stone, La La Land,” and it was for Best Actress rather than Best Picture. True, Beatty and Dunaway could have announced that there was a mistake, but ultimately, the blame lies on PwC, the accountants in charge of making sure this doesn’t happen. PwC was horrified and soon released a statement apologizing for the situation:

“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.”

The morning after the Oscars, articles emerged trying to make sense of what happened. Vox published an explainer. Vulture published a recap of the moment in gifs. Buzzfeed published a listicle of celebrity reactions. The Hollywood Reporter published statements from those involved, including Mahershala Ali (“It’s very hard to feel joy in a moment like that … I feel very fortunate for all of us to have walked away with the best picture award. It’s pretty remarkable.”) and Emma Stone (“I f—ing love Moonlight. Of course it was an amazing thing to hear them say La La Land — we would have loved best picture, but we’re so happy for Moonlight.”). La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz emerged as a hero of the moment, and everyone (including Barry Jenkins) praised him for his cool head and graciousness. There were also some great takes online, including from Denny’s (“we promise if we give you pancakes they are your pancakes and we will not take them away”) and Reductress (“‘La La Land’ Spotted on Brisk Morning Hike in Chappaqua”). Rather than dwell on the mix-up, I’d rather talk about how Moonlight won and what it means.

First of all, it is clear that this was an upset. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Moonlight was made for just $1.5 million, less than any other best picture winner since 1976’s Rocky, which cost a reported $1.1 million in its day, and which has grossed the least of this year’s nine best picture Oscar nominees (just $22.3 million domestically), and less than every other best picture Oscar winner since 2009’s The Hurt Locker (which had taken in just $14.7 million at the time of its win).” It won no major precursors; only one other time in the history of PGA, DGA and SAG (21 years ago with Braveheart) has a film lost all three but still managed to nab Best Picture. The explanation largely lies with the use of the preferential ballot. AwardsDaily explains further:

Moonlight’s win does reflect the the thing we’ve discussed for a while now; namely, that on a preferential ballot, a movie that is almost impossible to dislike has a better chance than a film that divides audiences. A movie like La La Land, or The Revenant has no problem winning on a plurality ballot: you just count the most votes and that’s that. But a preferential is strange. You have to be not just a number 1 but you have to rank high on ballots where you didn’t land the number one spot. When I did a poll and when Rob did his we discovered that Moonlight collected votes from a lot of the down ballot films. In other words, Hidden Figures, Fences, Hell or High Water, Hacksaw Ridge – those redistributed votes tended to go to Moonlight over La La Land. That put Moonlight well ahead on all of the polls that were taken – and it wasn’t even close.

Personally, I am very conflicted about how I feel. I am thrilled for Moonlight. It was a small, quiet movie telling a story unlike any that has ever won Best Picture. Its win reflects changes in the Academy’s membership and hopefully signals to the industry that “non-traditional” movies can be rewarded. I am also disappointed that Moonlight won. It was among my least favorite of the Best Picture nominees, largely due to the third act, which I found inconsistent, slow and unfulfilling. (I recognize I’m in the minority here; every year there are some movies, like The Revenant, Mad Max, Selma or The Grand Budapest Hotel, that I don’t enjoy as much as I’m supposed to. Happy to talk about this more.) My favorite film rarely wins Best Picture, with the exception of last year’s Spotlight, but La La Land was higher on my list than Moonlight. I feel bad for La La Land, a movie that I think was unfairly maligned by some frankly silly criticisms. In any other year, the original, relatively low budget, original musical from an up-and-coming director would be celebrated, but somehow this year it grew to be despised. Finally, I think the mix up with the envelopes was unfair to both films. The Hollywood Reporter maybe puts it best:

The bottom line is that La La Land and Moonlight — both of which had their North American unveiling over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, to the great credit of Julie Huntsinger and her colleagues in the Rockies — are films for the ages that deserved better than what they got at the end of Sunday’s ceremony. Even if Moonlight’s best picture win had been announced cleanly, it still would have provoked massive gasps in the room, as it represents one of the biggest upsets in Oscars history — probably the biggest upset apart from Crash toppling Brokeback Mountain 11 years ago. But because of the way it was presented, Team La La Land was made to feel like losers, with nobody much interested in talking about its field-leading six wins. And Team Moonlight ended up feeling like it got sloppy-seconds, never really getting to experience its Cinderella moment in the way it deserved to.

Wrapping this up, there are a few silver linings on this Oscars mix up. The memorability of this night should increase interest in Moonlight and make sure it is not forgotten. For La La Land, losing may improve its reputation in the long run; fewer people will claim that it is overrated, people will feel bad for what happened and people will remember how gracious its producers were in handing over the award. Also, taking a step back, “the directors of three of the most respected best picture Oscar nominees — Moonlight‘s Jenkins, La La Land‘s Damien Chazelle and Manchester by the Sea‘s Kenneth Lonergan — each got to take home an Oscar.” That’s a pretty exciting end to a season with a lot of strong films.

What else happened?

  • Casey Affleck won Best Actor for his role in Manchester by the Sea. The general take is that he gave the best performance of the year but also is the most sexual harasser of any of the Best Actor nominees and has a stupid beard.
  • Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Fences and gave a speech that Jimmy Kimmel joked should win an Emmy.
  • Amazon won three Oscars (it distributed Manchester by the Sea and The Salesman) and Netflix won one (The White Helmets), meaning that streaming services should be taken seriously, as if you didn’t know that already.
  • Kevin O’Connell won an Oscar for sound mixing for Hacksaw Ridge. Victory was sweet because it was unexpected (La La Land was seen to have this one in the bag) and that this is O’Connell’s first win over a career of 21 nominations.
  • The Salesman, the foreign language film from Iran, won an Oscar, and though its director did not attend the awards in protest, he penned a speech seen by many as the most political moment of the night.
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, marking the first Oscar won for a Harry Potter movie.
  • Jimmy Kimmel hosted and delivered a reasonably strong opening monologue. Highlights included jokes about Damien Chazelle’s age (“Tonight is very important for Damien. If he wins he’ll be able to go to any college he wants”), Donald Trump (“Maybe this is not a popular thing to say, but I want to say thank you to President Trump. Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”) and Meryl Streep (“May I say, from her mediocre early work in The Deer Hunter and Out of Africa to her underwhelming performances in Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep has phoned it in for more than 50 films over the course of her lackluster career.”).
  • The ceremony was long and full of somewhat more history than those of previous years. Before the four acting awards were handed out, montages played showing previous winners in the category. There was also a segment in which today’s stars gave tribute to the movies and actors that inspired them. Charlize Theron introduced Shirley MacLaine, Seth Rogen introduced the Delorian (and sang, amazingly, “The Schuyler Sisters”), Javier Bardem introduced Meryl Streep and (in homage to his comedic feud with Matt Damon), Jimmy Kimmel talked about how much he liked the movie We Bought a Zoo. Kimmel also had a series of bits that worked (mean tweets), bits that worked the first time but then happened three times (candy cascading from the ceiling) and bits that worked for 30 seconds  but then lasted for 10 minutes (tour bus prank).
  • Fashion happened. People fashioned. I know a lot about fashion. (I will say, though, that Emma Stone looked like she knew she was winning an Oscar, and Janelle Monae looked like it was difficult for her to fit through narrow doorways.) People did wear blue ribbons though.
  • Musical performances from Moana star Auli’l Cravahlo (“How Far I’ll Go”), La La Land star John Legend (a mashup of “City of Stars,” which won the Oscar, and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” which is better in every way) and Sara Bareilles (who sang “Both Sides Now” in the In Memoriam segment) were pretty spectacular. Note: The answer to which “City of Stars” seems to be BOTH “City of Stars” songs, as Legend sings bits from the pier (“Or one more dream that I cannot make true?”) and from the piano duet (“City of stars, you never shined so brightly”).
  • There was another mix-up in the In Memoriam segment, when they used a photo of a woman who is not dead.
  • Leslie Mann and John Cho were hilarious. (I can’t find a clip, so you’ll just have to believe me.)
  • Donald Trump criticized the Oscars, to the surprise of literally no one, calling them “sad” and noting that the mix up happened because everyone was too busy talking about him.
  • Nicole Kidman does not know how to clap.
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