It was the craziest ending in the 89-year history of the Academy Awards: frontrunner La La Land won Best Picture for about 30 seconds, until someone realized that the award actually belonged to underdog Moonlight. What the heck happened? Was Leonardo DiCaprio, who announced the penultimate award of the evening, involved? Can we blame jazz? Unfortunately, the answer to the last two is “no,” but as for the first question, the Academy is still figuring things out, but they have a good idea of how it all went wrong.
Handing out Oscars, like picking a president, is more complex than it needs to be. There’s no electoral college involved, but there are twin briefcases carried by two accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers. One of this year’s number-crunchers, Brian Cullinan, told Market Watch that he and his partner Martha L. Ruiz “select the cards for the winners and put those into the respective envelopes [on] Friday and Saturday, and then bring the briefcase carrying those envelopes to the red carpet and to the show on Sunday, where both of us stand back stage, one on each side of the stage and we hand the envelopes to the presenters right before they walk out.” A total of two-dozen trophies were handed out during the televised ceremony — Cullinan possessed 24 cards with 24 winners, and Ruiz had the same 24 cards.
Warren Beatty, who presented Best Picture with his Bonnie and Clyde co-star Faye Dunaway, was apparently given the wrong envelope — he was reading from one of the two Best Actress cards. The other belonged to Emma Stone, who later explained, “I also was holding my Best Actress in a Leading Role card the whole time. I’m not sure what happened. I think everyone’s in a state of confusion still. Excitement, but confusion. I think everyone is just so excited for Moonlight. It’s such an incredible film. The investigation continues.” (Meanwhile, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, who, like Stone, handled the mistake with class and grace, explained, “Guys in headsets starting buzzing around. They took the envelope I had. It said ‘Emma Stone, La La Land‘ on it. It was clear there was something wrong. They started looking for the best picture envelope. Nobody knew where it was. Then it appeared. They opened it next to me and it said ‘Moonlight.’ And so I grabbed it.”)
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins was naturally confused, telling the press, “I wanted to see the card, to see the card, and Warren refused to show the card to anybody before he showed it to me.”
A statement/apology from PricewaterhouseCoopers didn’t do much to clear things up: “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,” a statement reads. “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.”
The exact details are still a little fuzzy — where did the Best Picture envelope hand-off go wrong? — but it’s obvious someone screwed up and, worst of all, made a fool out of Warren Beatty. At least he’s in good company:
Sammy Davis Jr… announced the nominees for the first of two musical scoring Oscars at the 36th Academy Awards on April 13, 1964, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. He read the nominees for the first award — scoring of music, adaptation or treatment — opened the envelope and proudly announced that John Addison had won the Oscar for Tom Jones. The problem was Addison actually had won the Oscar in the music score, substantially original category.