‘This Is Not A Joke’: Warren Beatty And The Academy Awards’ Biggest Screw-Up Saved Last Night’s Oscars

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HOLY SHIT. I don’t think I’ve ever finished an Oscars telecast feeling so exhilarated. The La La Land producers were giving their speeches and I was mid-groan, already dreading another day of shitty La La Land hot takes when I noticed men in headsets rush the stage and begin hurriedly checking the envelopes. And that’s when something magical happened.

“This is not a joke, Moonlight has won best picture!”

It seems Warren Beatty somehow had the previous envelope, for Best Actress, which Emma Stone won, instead of the one he was supposed to be presenting, for Best Picture. So when he opened it and it said “Emma Stone, La La Land,” he froze, his hands shaking, and then co-presenter Faye Dunaway just read the only movie listed on the envelope — La La Land. And so we all got a glimpse of an alternate reality where La La Land had won Best Picture, followed by the most surreal moment of any Oscars I can remember.

Was that Warren Beatty’s fault? Faye Dunaway’s? Whoever handed them the envelope? I’m guessing the third — (It was) — but why bother assigning blame for the best thing that happened all night? It saved the entire evening. There would’ve been nothing worse than having to spend all day fighting over La La Land vs. Moonlight again. Guess what?: They’re both great! I would’ve been happy with either of them winning. And thanks to Warren Beatty (it’s fun to blame poor, confused-looking Warren Beatty even if this wasn’t his fault at all), they both kind of did.

I just couldn’t take another day of pieces about La La Land being a “white savior movie.” I know I shouldn’t say this because I’m white and all (or at least some kind of Mediterranean mutt who’d get in on the second or third caucasity ballot), but, like, La La Land isn’t a white savior movie. Ryan Gosling’s character is an asshole everyone hates, until halfway through the movie, John Legend shows up in a mustard colored turtleneck to tell him to stop being an obnoxious pedant. Gosling takes this obviously good advice and his only success in the entire story comes from hitching his star to John Legend’s mustard-colored wagon. He doesn’t “save jazz,” he’s a pompous dick who’s far too precious about the black art form he loves until an actual black artist gets him too loosen up a little. How is that a white savior narrative? Why is it always works making fun of obnoxious hipsters that get branded obnoxious and hipster?

I mean, I get it. Superficially, La La Land is easy to hate. It’s about L.A. It’s a movie about filmmaking (sort of). It’s a musical. It stars two of the world’s wholesomest, mayo-fed white people, and the poster looks like a Gap ad. Superficially, I hate it. But then I saw it.

Did I like it better than Moonlight? A little, but not nearly so much more that I’d care which movie won. (Notice how both filmmaking teams have been nothing but supportive of each other throughout all this? Let’s be more like them.) Moonlight was fantastic. I don’t know how they even chose which Moonlight performance to nominate when everyone in it crushed it so hard. Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor going away, and then during his acceptance speech he did that wonderful slow-building laugh thing he does, that sounds like a bass drum rolling down a hill. Can I get that as a ring tone? That guy has a laugh like a warm blanket.

For his part, Jimmy Kimmel beat everyone to the Steve Harvey joke, seconds after the Warren Beatty envelope debacle, saving Twitter the trouble (don’t worry, there’s still lots of “Moonlight won the electoral college“/”La La Land should’ve campaigned harder in Wisconsin” jokes to be made). All in all, I thought he was pretty great host. Yes, he probably shouldn’t have made fun of that Asian girl’s name. I guess because it didn’t sound like an Asian name? Either way, saying, “Patrick, now that’s a real name” right afterwards was probably a bad call. I cut him some slack because he was improvising, it’s not like it was a planned joke. But that, and holding the Indian kid up like Lion King, and having a running “Mahershala” joke would’ve been easier to swallow individually.

Which is a shame, because otherwise I’m firmly in the Bus People Was A Great Bit camp. Kimmel brought a bus full of tourists into the auditorium, letting some agog normies take selfies and kiss celebrity hands. It was the perfect culture clash and element of unpredictability. The possibility that something weird might happen is exactly what this show needed. Also, real people reacting to celebrities is a thousand times more interesting that celebrities lip synching/bantering/karaoke-ing/selfie-ing etc. Hollywood people are up their own asses? Great, make them play nice with the weird tourists! It was a solid concept.

We probably could’ve done without the Mean Tweets segment, but otherwise Kimmel’s jokes were mostly on point. Not sure why people groaned at the “If you wanted a happy ending you had to watch the middle of Moonlight” joke (good joke!) or when he made a crack about O.J. getting “an extra slice of bologna tonight” when O.J.: Made In America won Best Documentary. Maybe they thought bologna was a euphemism? Jessica Chastain definitely seemed to think her mean tweet was a euphemism — “I’m going to white balance my TV on Jessica Chastain’s chest.”

“I don’t even get that,” she said, frowning.

Psst, hey, Jess, it’s not a sex thing, it’s joke about you being pale. Going to have to give you a C- for self-deprecation.

(Incidentally, O.J.: Made In America is wonderful, but it’s still a miniseries. And thus not really fair to compare to actual, one-sitting documentaries like I Am Not Your Negro, which is wonderful. Yes, I will continue to die on this hill.)

For weirdest acceptance speech it was a tie between Viola Davis’ strange graveyard metaphor — I think she was trying to say stories keep the dead alive, but she made it sound like she was walking through graveyards digging up corpses, she actually used the word “exhume” — and costume design winner Colleen Atwood (her 12th nomination, by the way) saying “Sting told me I was going to win tonight.” Yep, Sting has powers of prognostication. I think it’s a tantric thing. If you hold your cum long enough you can see the future.

Kimmel continuing his running Matt Damon feud was expected, but the execution was mostly pretty strong, I thought. Particularly funny: Having the band play him off while he was trying to present and ripping on him for letting Casey Affleck have the lead in Manchester By The Sea so he could do “that Chinese ponytail movie, which to date, has lost $80 million. Smooth move, dumbass.”

Oh yeah, about Casey Affleck. He name-checked Denzel Washington in his acceptance speech (which definitely falls under “The Adele Rule” in my Oscars Drinking Game, R.I.P. to anyone who played that) and when the camera cut to Denzel, he had tears in his eyes:


So, was Denzel crying because he didn’t win, crying because he was happy that Casey Affleck won, or crying because he was disgusted that Casey Affleck won (as plenty of people were)? We still don’t know. As for Casey Affleck, the old judging the art vs. the artist debate rages on, as does the “did Casey Affleck’s sex scandal hurt him as much as Nate Parker’s” debate. Strap in, those are never going to end.

Oh, speaking of problematicness, Mel Gibson was there! Sitting in the front row, too, logging a good five minutes of screen time and smiling as hard as he could every time someone mentioned him. I guess Mel is forgiven now? Remember when he wasn’t even allowed in a Hangover sequel, let alone front row at the Oscars, sitting next to the world’s youngest date? I’m still not sure how to feel about him based on some crazy shit he screamed in secretly-recorded tapes. All I know is that the only award Hacksaw Ridge should’ve been nominated for was “most laughably terrible first 30 minutes.” Hacksaw won an Oscar for editing — I’d like to see what those first 30 looked like before the editor got ahold of them. In a year with this many good movies, how was Hacksaw Ridge even in the conversation? That being said, Mel was fantastic in Blood Father.

One thing we could maybe do without next year: Vague paeans to the magic of cinema. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the stage to give a long and halting speech about how the awards are proof that “art has no borders,” and there were a few montages that were dedicated to… all movies, I guess? They kind of seemed like commercials for your cable service. Trying to find the universal through the specific is always a good storytelling tip, and it also applies to awards shows. Honor the artists, and explain the specifics of what they do. That works. Trying to convince people that “art is powerful” feels kind of needy, and more importantly, it’s super dull.

Of course, the beauty of the Warren Beatty debacle is that everything about this year’s awards fades into the background in comparison. Was this the most perfect f*ck up in history? Imagine if it had been underdog Moonlight mistakenly being handed the award, only to have it snatched away mid-acceptance speech by La La Land, which had just finished winning Best Actress for Emma Stone and Best Director for Damian Chazelle. Even worse, what if it had been an acting award, and some poor actor had to feign good sportsmanship while giving away an award they’d just tearfully thanked the world for?

No, what actually happened feels like the best possible outcome. La La Land‘s already-well-awarded producers handled the situation with class, Moonlight went home with the highest award, Warren Beatty had a plausible-sounding excuse, and Jimmy Kimmel was Johnny-on-the-spot with the perfect joke reference. Talk about going out on a high note. Can we f*ck up this badly again next year, please?