I’ve been watching the Oscars all my life, and I can truly say last night’s telecast was the most insane I’ve ever seen. Things were odd enough with surprising wins here and there (more on that in a moment), but not only was the wrong Best Picture winner’s name called, two La La Land producers got through their speech before the error was rectified and Moonlight was unceremoniously named the real Best Picture. So what exactly happened? What were the other big surprises? And what was the cause of the shakeup in this year’s winners? Let’s break it down.
We’ll start with the biggest surprise of the night, the wrong Best Picture winner being called. Seriously. That is a massive screw-up on the part of the Oscars that resulted in embarrassment for the La La Land team and a bittersweet win for Moonlight. While we all thought Warren Beatty was simply being cute with his long announcement of the Best Picture winner after opening the envelope, he took to the microphone to explain that the card inside said “Emma Stone, La La Land,” which was the cause of his prolonged introduction. Stone, meanwhile, told reporters backstage that she had her Best Actress card and envelope in hand. So what was Beatty talking about? Is there a big La La Land-gate conspiracy afoot?
Not at all. It turns out, there are two envelopes for each category, one held in each briefcase by the two PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants on either side of the stage. So while Stone was given the envelope that Leonardo DiCaprio read, the other unopened envelope somehow ended up in Beatty’s hands on the other side of the stage (PricewaterhouseCoopers is investigating the situation to see how this happened).
This is, again, probably the biggest misstep in Oscar history. Not only was the La La Land team faced with a very public disappointment, but the correction onstage led to a muddled response to the Moonlight win as the audience was still trying to figure out A. What was going on and B. If this was an elaborate (and very inappropriate) gag by Jimmy Kimmel. The win for Moonlight alone would’ve given us a show-stopping upset moment and no doubt an emotional speech from writer/director Barry Jenkins, but instead we had a staged mixed with stunned/angry/devastated La La Land folks and shocked/bewildered/elated Moonlight people. What should have been a towering win for the biggest prize of the night was, frankly, a disaster.
But setting aside the circus surrounding the Best Picture win, the actual win for Moonlight is a huge deal. Going into the awards, La La Land had a record-tying number of nominations and was the heavy favorite to take home the Best Picture prize; I was so certain of its inevitability that I now have a hat to eat. How did this happen? What caused one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history?
The simple answer is Moonlight won more votes, but the interesting part about this year’s Oscars is that, in the wake of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs took serious steps to diversify the membership. Not only did the Academy instill new rules meant to phase out older and inactive members, but of the record 683 new members invited to join the voting ranks, 41% were people of color and 46% were female. This large block of younger and more diverse voters makes up about 10% of the Academy voting body as a whole, and I think it had a serious effect on the outcome of this year’s awards.
The preferential ballot—which is used only in the Best Picture category—no doubt helped Moonlight, as the film likely scored a lot of #2 and #3 mentions. Whereas La La Land, a film that seemed to grow more divisive with each passing week, may have landed more than a few #8 and #9 slots. Some were expecting La La Land to sail to a Best Picture win on a first ballot alone thanks to a slew of #1 votes as we shrugged off angry La La Land editorials as simply the silly backlash that materializes for every Best Picture frontrunner, but it appears the race was much closer than we thought.
Moonlight’s win is also meaningful. This is a tiny budget film from A24 (the studio’s first Best Picture win) about a young gay black man in America. Conventional wisdom will tell you it’s movies like The Artist or Argo that win Best Picture—agreeable movies that don’t really ruffle too many feathers—but Moonlight marks the latest in a run of winners like 12 Years a Slave and Spotlight that seem almost too good to win Best Picture. Is this an outlier or a sign of things to come?
The shakeup wasn’t just seen in Best Picture. Best Sound Mixing is a category that almost always goes to a musical if nominated (see: Les Miserables, Dreamgirls), so La La Land was the heavy favorite to win. But in a pretty surprising twist, Hacksaw Ridge took it. The BAFTA-approved Hacksaw Ridge also won Best Film Editing over La La Land (a sign the musical maybe wasn’t destined for Best Picture glory after all), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them won Costume Design over favorites Jackie and La La Land, and even Best Makeup and Hairstyling threw a wrench into Oscar prognosticators’ ballots by going with the critically pummeled Suicide Squad over Star Trek Beyond.