The 89th Academy Awards: Talk About Upsets

The evening went from excruciating to unforgettable when La La Land won best picture – and lost it to Moonlight minutes later

Well, that was unprecedented.

After about three hours and 40 minutes of hacky jokes and endless clips, broken up by the occasional surprise win or heartening speech, the 89th Academy Awards suddenly became riveting television when the producers of best picture winner La La Land were interrupted in the middle of their acceptance speech – and told that, in fact, the real winner of the top Oscar was Moonlight.

For a split-second it felt like one last stab at a wacky, viral-ready moment from host Jimmy Kimmel, who’d spent the night repeating the same three bits – taunting Donald Trump, beefing with Matt Damon, bringing a busload of tourists to the Dolby Theater – in the hopes of getting one to go viral. If this was a prank, it was in terrible taste – but if it was a genuine error, that would actually be worse.

And then it landed: Warren Beatty had mistakenly been handed the wrong envelope – apparently one containing a reprint of Emma Stone’s best actress award – and rather than say anything, he handed the card to his Bonnie & Clyde co-star Faye Dunaway, who read it and declared La La Land the winner. Which triggered the Price Waterhouse Cooper panic button, sending representatives to the stage to halt the proceedings and crown Moonlight the real winner.

It was electric. It was thrilling. It will never, ever be allowed to happen again. But it instantly made this the most memorable Oscar ceremony in decades – and possibly ever.

Seriously, does anything else matter? Moonlight won best picture – and best adapted screenplay (shared by director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney) and best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali, all richly deserved awards – in a year where a movie about the power of movies seemed like a lock since September. And Jenkins’s overwhelmed speech was an emotional high point that at least equaled Viola Davis’s magnificent acceptance of her best supporting actress award for Fences hours earlier.

La La Land took six awards, including best actress for Stone and best director for Damien Chazelle, who is now the youngest person ever to win that prize, but all anyone’s going to remember next month is the best picture debacle.

Manchester By The Sea, which also did not win best picture, took two major awards, with Casey Affleck named best actor and director Kenneth Lonergan honoured for best original screenplay. Oscar-watchers who argued that the Academy would refuse to vote for Affleck because of the troubling allegations of sexual harassment had clearly failed to notice that verified garbage monster Mel Gibson was up for best director for Hacksaw Ridge, which also did not win best picture. (It did, however, take best film editing and best sound mixing.)

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which also did not win best picture, won just one Oscar – best sound editing – out of eight possible awards. And despite a cumulative 13 nominations, remaining best picture contenders Hell Or High Water, Hidden Figures and Lion went home empty handed.

Walt Disney Animation’s Zootopia took best animated feature, while Disney*Pixar’s Piper won best animated short. Ezra Edelman’s ESPN miniseries O.J.: Made In America was named best documentary feature, but whatever: it’s a magnificent documentary, and it deserves to be showered with awards even if it was produced for television.

Before the best picture debacle, I would have called Asghar Farhadi’s acceptance speech for The Salesman’s foreign-language feature win the high point of the evening: a thoughtful plea for a common ground of art, empathy and tolerance that had to be relayed by Iranian-American astronaut Anousheh Ansari in Farhadi’s absence. Farhadi, an Iranian, refused to attend the ceremony in protest of the Trump Administration’s Muslim ban.

But then, well, the Beatty-Dunaway mixup happened, and that’s all anyone’s going to be talking about tomorrow. (Beatty’s flustered attempt to explain their error also served to derail Kimmel’s ill-advised idea that maybe La La Land and Moonlight could share the prize, which, thank Christ.)

Hey, if nothing else, Oscar watchers can finally put the Marisa Tomei question to rest. At long last, we know what happens when the wrong name is called.

All hell breaks loose.

Psst! Read NOW’s 2010 TIFF cover interview with Emma Stone.

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