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Oscars review: Final moments include major best picture mix-up

Writer/director Barry Jenkins, left, and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney

Writer/director Barry Jenkins, left, and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney accept teh Oscar for best adapted screenplay for "Moonlight" at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. They later went on to win the award for best picture, after some confusion.  Credit: Getty Images / Kevin Winter

You had to be there. At least you still had to be awake.

Though blear of eye, and numb of brain -- the usual state of mind when any long, long Oscars ceremony blessedly nears the end -- you knew something titanic had happened, which is to say something catastrophic. The speeches had all been made, the rounds of applause received. A general air of satisfaction seemed to pervade the Dolby Theatre, also a general air of relief for the few million viewers still around for the closing seconds of Oscar 89.

Closing credits were seconds away, parties on the West Coast and sleep on the East Coast a few seconds after that.

Then, the Oscars turned upside down.

To read about this, or watch it on this morning’s news, or see another YouTube replay, or to hear the countless jokes/commentary throughout the rest of the day (and night), can’t begin to do justice to the actual experience of watching in real time. The best picture screw up is now part of Oscars history, but also part of television history. And because television history is best experienced in real time, well, you had to be there.

The first indication that a figurative earthquake had just occurred was an audible one -- someone in the crowd on stage saying, “too bad we didn’t win.”

Who said that? Why? The bleary brain sought answers. The crowd of winners on stage didn’t initially offer any. Then “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz told everyone to wait – wait! – “there’s been a mistake. ‘Moonlight’ won.”

It was too late for jokes, about 12:14, far too late for Jimmy Kimmel to spring one of his notorious practical jokes. Besides, no one jokes about the best picture winner. This is the most solemn moment of the entire night and for the motion picture industry, of the entire year. The apotheosis of all that is or ever will be or at least ever has been the last 12 months has been reached in that one moment, when the best picture Oscar says what an entire industry has or wants to say about itself.

So this couldn’t be a joke. It wasn’t.

To be there out in the viewing audience in this moment, when whiplash occurred, was to experience an inversion of reality, image, emotion, expectation. To many pundits, “La La Land” seemed to be assured the big award this year because it had seemed to represent those age-old movie verities, that hard work, dreaming, and true love would win the day. “La La Land” represented a Hollywood atavistic impulse to celebrate itself and its past. You could almost even hear the distant footsteps of that past in this expected win, with every MGM musical smiling down benevolently from movie Valhalla. “La La Land” is not only a great movie, but a reassuring one.

Then, there’s “Moonlight:” The new, raw Hollywood, and visceral reaction to an industry that just last year had to endure an “Oscarsowhite” campaign which suggested that the sclerotic impulses of an entire industry may also be possibly racist, too. “Moonlight” was the answer to all that, and by being a movie about tolerance, and about the rights of LGBTQ Americans, specifically African-American ones, “Moonlight” was also an entire political statement, made at a moment when politics are more than front of mind, but back of mind, too. Other pundits had expected “Moonlight” to score the upset of the night, if only as a repudiation of what the Academy had sought to repudiate this past year.

For that reason, when “La La Land” seemed to have prevailed, that in itself seemed like an upset. There was the inescapable notion that perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences had rebuked the politics of “Moonlight” in favor of the apolitical, old Hollywood flavor of “La La Land.” Old beat out new. Conservative showbiz values prevailed over progressive showbiz ones.

Then came the rip heard around the world -- and we’re not talking here the ripping of the right envelop, but the ripping of reality itself. Because Hollywood is all image, image is reality. In the space of a second, reality was inverted. “Moonlight” won.

New beat old. Conservative, showbiz values lost to progressive showbiz ones.

Let the conspiracy theories roll. In point of fact, there’s no conspiracy at all, just a plain old-fashioned mistake.

At 3:30 in the morning, PricewaterhouseCoopers finally fell on the sword, releasing this apology/statement:

“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.”

On this morning’s “Good Morning America,” Michael Strahan generously and erroneously said “nobody got hurt” in this screw up.

In fact, everyone got hurt. Cameras panned on the production team of “La La Land” huddled in an emptying theater early Monday morning. They were recovering from a profound and emotional shock. They had also just delivered a series of speeches that had to be junked. That’s never happened before.

Producers of “Moonlight” were robbed their moment on stage, too. Instead of ascending the stage as triumphant winners, they had to crawl on top of the rubble. After working their way through a crowd -- a confused, angry, shocked crowd -- their speeches were rushed, breathless, and shocked, too.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were hurt, bad. The jokes are still rolling in. Has anyone made a tweet yet about Warren having clouds in his coffee Sunday morning? Was he just too vain to get it right?

The ageist jokes were – are – inevitable:

“Don’t y’all go blaming the old people for that one,” tweeted Wanda Sykes. “They gave Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. It was probably Putin.”

Former host Seth MacFarlane quickly drew a picture of Stewie Griffin, holding up two envelops, saying, “Aren’t I a devilish bastard?”

Or this from Patton Oswald: “Warren Beatty just became the new host of FAMILY FEUD.”

Of course, that was the basis of the first reaction of the night, when Jimmy Kimmel said, “Warren just did a Steve Harvey.” Harvey, as everyone knows, mistakenly announced the wrong winner of the Miss Universe contest in December, 2015. Harvey has had to live that down for more than a year. He doesn’t have to worry anymore. The punchline has passed on to someone else: From now on, the line will be, “He just did a Warren Beatty.”

How long will Beatty and Faye Dunaway be forced to live this down? Is there a statute of limitations on this kind of screw up?

There is not.

Meanwhile -- to paraphrase the old, bad joke about Lincoln’s assassination -- how was the show?

The show was good, or good as can be expected for something so long, so occasionally numbing. There were a few electric moments, a few electric speeches -- Viola Davis, who won her best supporting Oscar for “Fences” takes home the Oscar for that. Produced by Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd, directed by Glenn Weiss, this Oscars telecast did represent an embrace of something that is so often overlooked during Oscars telecasts, most notably this: Entertainment is supposed to be entertaining, so why shouldn’t the awards show that celebrates entertainment also be?

As host, Kimmel ensured himself another invite back to this stage, too. He wanted to bring an immediacy to hosting that had been lost in prior telecasts, when hosts disappeared for vast chunks of time, either for a costume change or simply to save time by staying out of the way. Instead, he was always there, just offstage, ready with a quip or Trump-related remarks.

Speaking of which -- or whom -- the president was essentially a no-show at the 89th. What had been expected to be a deluge of Trump jokes or speeches or diatribes, turned into a trickle, if that. Instead, that job was appropriated by Kimmel, who delivered blow after blow. Too many? Probably for supporters or the president. Not enough for that crowd.

But does any of this really matter? When the 89th is recalled years from now, only one memory will endure. You really had to be there.

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