In the most shocking mix-up in Oscars history, Moonlight won best picture at the Academy Awards — but only after presenter Faye Dunaway announced La La Land as the winner, setting off mass confusion inside the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
“I want to tell you what happened,” co-presenter Warren Beatty explained after the mistake was revealed. “I opened the envelope, and it said ‘Emma Stone, La La Land.’ That’s why I took such a long look at Faye and at you. I wasn’t trying to be funny.”
“Well, I don’t know what happened. I blame myself for this,” host Jimmy Kimmel joked after the moment. “Let’s remember, it’s just an awards show. I mean, we hate to see people disappointed, but the good news is we got to see some extra speeches. We have some great movies. I knew I would screw this show up, I really did. Thank you for watching. I’m back to work tomorrow night on my regular show. I promise I’ll never come back. Good night!”
Speaking after the error had been rectified, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins said, “Very clearly, very clearly in my dreams this could not be true. But to hell with my dreams. I’m done with it because this is true. Oh my goodness.”
He added a note of praise to his La La Land opponents: “And I have to say it is true. It’s not fake. We’ve been on the road with these guys for so long. My love to La La Land. My love to everybody. Man.”
After the Oscars, PricewaterhouseCoopers — which tabulates the Oscar votes — released a statement apologizing for the flub: “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.”
Accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers keep two sets of envelopes during the ceremony. “From a security perspective, we double up everything. That’s why there’s two of us. We have two briefcases, that are identical, and we have two entire sets of winning envelopes,” accountant Brian Cullinan said before the show to Wall Street Journal’s Marketwatch.
In the chaos of the moment, a number of conspiracy theories flooded the internet to explain what happened — including that Beatty had picked up the best actress envelope, which had listed La La Land star Emma Stone as the winner after prior presenter Leonardo DiCaprio placed it down backstage. After the show, however, Stone told reporters backstage that she hadn’t lost track of her envelope.
“I f—ing loved Moonlight. God, I love Moonlight so much! I’m so excited for Moonlight! And of course, it was an amazing thing to hear La La Land. I think we all would have loved to win best picture. But we are so excited for Moonlight,” she said. “I think it’s one of the best films of all time. So I was pretty beside myself. I also was holding my Best Actress in a Leading Role card that entire time. So whatever story… I don’t mean to start stuff, but whatever story that was, I had that card. So I’m not sure that happened. And I really wanted to talk to you guys first.”
La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz told E! that he took the winner card after La La Land was announced and was holding it during his acceptance speech. Meanwhile, a stagehand was “buzzing around, looking for the envelope,” Horowitz said. When it was found, and the discrepancy discovered, Horowitz revealed the shocking error on stage. “No, there’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture. This is not a joke.”
Backstage after the win, Moonlight actor Mahershala Ali addressed the unbelievable moment, saying it “threw him a bit” to have Moonlight receive the award after the La La Land producers had made their speeches.
“La La Land has done so well and has resonated with so many people, especially in this time when people need a sense of buoyancy in their life, and need some hope and light,” he told reporters. “So that film has really impacted people, sort of in a very different way than Moonlight. So when their name was read, I wasn’t surprised. I was really happy for them. It’s a group of some extraordinary people in front of the camera and behind the camera. So I was really happy for them. And then when I did see security or people coming out on stage, and their moment was being disrupted in some way, I got really worried, and then when Jordan Horowitz said, ‘Moonlight, you guys have won,’ it just threw me a bit. It threw me more than a bit. I just didn’t want to go up there and take anything from somebody, you know? And that’s very hard to feel joy in a moment like that. But I feel very fortunate for all of us to have walked away with the best picture award. It’s pretty remarkable.”
In addition to providing the Oscars with its most surprising moment in history, the Moonlight win represented a huge upset as well. Heading into the night, La La Land had been expected to win best picture — and paced the field with 14 nominations, tied for the most ever. Damien Chazelle’s musical enjoyed success throughout the night, winning six total awards, including best director for Chazelle and best actress for Emma Stone.
But Moonlight ultimately walked away with the top prize, along with two other honors: best supporting actor for Ali and best adapted screenplay for Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.
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Based on McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and adapted for the screen by him and Jenkins, Moonlight unfolds over three chapters in the life of a young, gay black man growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood.
That character, Chiron, is played by three different actors over the course of the film (Alex R. Hibbert as a young boy, Ashton Sanders as a teen, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult), while the supporting cast includes Oscar nominee Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother — who descends into drug addiction as the film progresses — and Ali as a local dealer who becomes a father figure to the young Chiron.
“There was a time when I thought this movie was impossible because I couldn’t bring it to fruition. I couldn’t bring myself to tell another story, so everybody behind me on this stage said no, that’s not acceptable,” Jenkins said while accepting the Oscar on Sunday night. “So I just wanna thank everybody up here behind me, everybody out there in that room, because we didn’t do this. You guys chose us. Thank you.”
After the show, Jenkins tweeted a photo of the envelope.
Moonlight was nominated in the best picture category alongside Arrival, Fences, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, La La Land, Lion, and Manchester by the Sea.