Everything had been humming along like a well-oiled machine. For over three hours on Sunday night during the Oscars, a steady stream of Hollywood’s biggest stars navigated the cramped backstage quarters at the Dolby Theatre, gamely snaking around show producers, photographers, crew and moving equipment to get to and from the stage.
The mood in the wings was upbeat all night — host Jimmy Kimmel’s jokes were landing, Oscar presenters were hitting marks and there was plenty of coffee and Twizzlers to go around.
Before walking onstage to present the final award of the night, Faye Dunaway had a last-minute hair touch-up and Warren Beatty was in great spirits.
The atmosphere backstage was electric, and everything was going so well.
Until it wasn’t.
Within moments of Dunaway announcing La La Land as the Best Picture winner, it was clear something was awry.
“Oh my god, it’s Moonlight!” a stage manager said aloud, and into a headset, while starting to pace. “Oh my god! Oh my god!” As the seconds passed and the La La Land producers, Oscars aloft, were well into their acceptance speeches, the low-level confusion backstage turned into jaw-dropping disbelief.
“Oh my f‑‑‑ing God, it’s not La La Land, it’s Moonlight! He’s got the wrong envelope!” said someone from the production crew, hands on head in shock. “They read the wrong envelope!”
(While both Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, representatives from PricewaterhouseCooper, the accounting firm responsible for tallying the Oscar votes and delivering each envelope to the respective presenters, were backstage throughout the show, I did not witness the envelope hand-off.)
After the mistake was corrected from the stage, and #envelopegate left 33 million viewers reeling in their living rooms, the stunned, but visibly elated Moonlight cast and filmmakers made their way off the stage.
With tears in their eyes, the actors walked towards the backstage hallway. “Uh, that was awkward,” Moonlight star Mahershala Ali said to no one in particular, before running into Ryan Gosling. In one of the night’s sweetest moments amid the chaos, the two stars, and fellow nominated performers, gave each other a long hug.
As for Beatty, who came offstage clutching two envelopes, he was resolute: He would not hand over the envelopes, at least not until he showed Moonlight director Barry Jenkins their contents.
“Warren Beatty won’t give up the envelope!” said one frantic member of the production crew. “Security is coming!” said another. One show source was sympathetic to Beatty, insisting, “I know it was not Warren’s fault.”
As it turns out, Beatty was not to blame for the blunder. Later Sunday night, PricewaterhouseCooper issued an apology and acknowledged Beatty was handed the wrong envelope.
Beatty himself elaborated to reporters, including PEOPLE, shortly after the snafu: “I read the card that was in the envelope …. I thought this is very strange because it says Best Actress on the card. I felt that maybe there was some sort of misprint. And as planned, I gave to it Faye. I don’t know anything. I don’t think anyone knows. I’ve asked and I haven’t got an answer. You can talk to Faye and she can verify that she read the card.”
In fact, Dunaway, in contrast to most people milling about in the wings, appeared fairly unfazed by what had unfolded, calmly telling someone backstage that she indeed saw Emma Stone’s name on the card.
Also taking things in relative stride? Kimmel, who emerged after the show and said to those still gathered and still somewhat stunned, “I don’t know what just happened! I should probably find out. For the rest of my life people are going to ask me about this!”
As his writers and friends, including Adam Corolla, gathered in the hallway outside what had been Kimmel’s makeshift Oscar office, the host summed up what the world was thinking: “I can’t wait to find out what happened!”