The finale to the 89th annual Academy Awards was jaw-dropping, but it must have felt a little familiar to fans of La La Land. Just like that film’s bittersweet conclusion, where the magic of true love is pierced by the realities of life, the best picture Oscar was literally within the grasp of the filmmakers when it all slipped away like a dream that was not to be.
After best pic presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were given the wrong envelope and then Dunaway accidentally announced La La Land as the winner — an incident that had never happened to this degree in Academy Awards history — La La producer Jordan Horowitz learned that Moonlight, not his film, had won instead. In a moment of impressive grace, he passed the torch (and the golden statuettes) to his competitors.
“I got to give my Oscar acceptance speech and I got to be a presenter,” Horowitz joked at the Governors Ball after the show. “It was a real crazy thing that happened, but if it had to happen, I’m glad I got to be the one to give it to them.”
Moonlight is the first LGBT-themed film and the first without a single white cast member to win best picture, and that has come at a crucial time for Hollywood. Last year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences added 683 new members to its ranks — many of them women and people of color — in the first phase of a push to increase diversity. Those new inductees represent just about 10 percent of the Academy’s total membership, but they may be having an impact.
“If I took myself out of my body and looked at what happened, I would be inspired,” said Moonlight writer-director Barry Jenkins on Monday morning, still bleary-eyed from Sunday night’s emotional roller coaster. “For a long time, certain narratives, certain people just weren’t considered. For the Academy to make this considerable gesture — to see through these perceived barriers — and just see the film, that’s something.”
Early in the evening, there were clues that La La Land — one of only three films to ever land 14 Oscar nominations — wasn’t going to be the night’s de facto juggernaut after all. It lost costume design to Colleen Atwood for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the first Oscar ever for a movie in the Harry Potter universe), followed by two more: Arrival took home sound editing and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge won sound mixing for Kevin O’Connell, a 21-time(!) nominee who finally scored his first statue. “This is the happiest day of my entire life,” beamed O’Connell, moments after his long-awaited win. “I still think I’m dreaming.”
Mahershala Ali won best supporting Actor for Moonlight, becoming the first Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar. And Viola Davis, best supporting actress winner for her role in Fences, capped off a season of stirring speeches with a moving tribute to playwright August Wilson and her parents. “Late one night I thought about what August Wilson means to me as an artist and I thought about my mom and dad,” Davis told EW, moments after her nameplate was affixed to her statue. “My dad died in 2006 and my mom is still alive. I wanted to honor them and honor August.”
Until its climax, the ceremony unfolded smoothly, even with host Jimmy Kimmel’s signature mischief. He brought a busload of stunned tourists into the Dolby Theatre, dropped candy and doughnuts from the rafters via parachutes, and spent quite a bit of time humiliating Matt Damon — with whom he has a long-running comedic “feud.”
La La director Damien Chazelle, felled by Oscar-campaign exhaustion, had missed show rehearsals all week, but he recovered in time to become the youngest directing winner ever, at 32. He brushed off Kimmel’s jokes about his youth. “Let’s keep that illusion going,” he said, in the Dolby’s lobby during a break from the telecast. On the surface, his win seemed to presage a La La best picture triumph — but a cloud lurked behind that silver lining. In the previous four years, the Academy had given the directing and picture Oscars to the same film only once (2014’s Birdman).
Casey Affleck’s best actor win for Manchester by the Sea came as a bit of a surprise. He had been an early front-runner, but his momentum had been slowed by reminders of sexual-harassment charges filed against him seven years ago in two civil suits, which he settled out of court. He had lost the Screen Actors Guild award to Denzel Washington for Fences, and in the past decade, no actor had won the Oscar in this category without getting the SAG award first. But according to Affleck’s costar Michelle Williams, he was always going to win. “I felt like his mother tonight,” said Williams at the Governor’s Ball. “I couldn’t be happier.”
After Emma Stone landed the best actress prize, the audience settled in for the climactic award. Beatty wrestled with the best picture envelope and paused awkwardly after opening it, causing co-presenter Dunaway to accuse him of teasing out the suspense. Ever the gentleman, he handed the envelope to her, and she announced the “winner”: La La Land.
We know now that Beatty’s hesitation had not been for dramatic effect but because he had been handed the wrong envelope. The PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants realized the mistake, but only after two La La Land producers had given their speeches. As the Moonlight cast and filmmakers took the stage, director Jenkins was pushed to the microphone. In a blur, he talked about dreams being fulfilled and thanked La La Land, but he was too stunned to deliver the kind of speech he had hoped he would. “It was an imperfect situation, and it was an imperfect statement that didn’t come out the right way,” he said the next day. “But it is what it is.”
The 89th Academy Awards will now live in infamy for Envelopegate, but it should be remembered for a far more important reason. The same organization that had suffered through two years of #OscarsSoWhite protests, that had overlooked Brokeback Mountain 11 years ago, had just rewarded a film that shattered every stereotype about what an Oscar movie looks like. “I just hope the weird pandemonium doesn’t overshadow the fact that a $1.5 million independent film by a black director about black, gay, poor people was named Best Picture,” says Selma director Ava DuVernay. “The process to get there was very weird, but it’s an amazing thing.”
—Additional reporting by Devan Coggan, Lynette Rice, and Marc Snetiker