Coming-of-age drama “Moonlight” won the coveted best picture Oscar, but not before a historic mix-up that saw “La La Land” mistakenly handed the award — eclipsing what should have been a night of triumph for black cinema.
An inquiry was underway Monday to determine the cause of a jaw-dropping error which saw presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announce the wrong winner, sparking painful scenes as Hollywood’s annual awards season came to a chaotic close.
Tens of millions of viewers witnessed the most shocking incident in the Oscars’ 88-year history with the commotion largely overshadowing the significance of the achievement of “Moonlight” on a night of a record number of wins by black stars.
Not only did the underdog pull off a stunning upset against an awards juggernaut experts had seen as a lock for best picture, it was also the first winner in history made by an African-American directing an entirely black cast.
“It was a heartbreaking fiasco. You felt embarrassed for Dunaway and Beatty, who clearly knew something was amiss when he opened the envelope but didn’t know how to proceed,” wrote Entertainment Weekly critic Jeff Jenson.
“Moonlight,” the story of a young African-American struggling to find his place as he grows up poor in Miami, was seen as the ultimate antidote to the #OscarsSoWhite diversity controversy which engulfed the last two ceremonies.
It won plaudits as a vital portrait of contemporary African-American life and a moving meditation on identity, family, friendship and love.
One of its stars, African-American Mahershala Ali, became the first Muslim acting winner in history while director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell McCraney took their place among just four black recipients of a best screenplay Oscar.
The film ended up with three prizes on the night — best picture, best supporting actor for Ali and best adapted screenplay.
– Chaos –
Until the final minute of the film industry’s biggest night it had been business as usual, with plenty of political statements — mainly jabs at President Donald Trump — and light-hearted jokes from host Jimmy Kimmel.
Critics had noted approvingly that seven of the hopefuls in the running for acting awards were non-white, and multiple acting prizes went to African American nominees for the first time in a decade, as well as a handful of other major awards.
In another win for diversity, Viola Davis picked up best supporting actress for “Fences,” becoming the first black person to receive an Oscar, Emmy and Tony award all for acting.
Host Kimmel, 49, opened the night with a series of jokes at the expense of Trump and his controversial anti-immigration policies and the show continued for more than three hours without major incident.
But the stunning final stumble was a nightmare of a Hollywood ending that no one wanted to see.
It fell to “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz — already onstage and delivering a speech after receiving his best picture statuette — to announce the error to a sea of confused faces amid scenes of chaos onstage at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre.
“I noticed the commotion and thought something was strange. And then I was speechless by the result,” the director of “Moonlight” said backstage.
“I’ve watched the Academy Awards before and have never seen that happen,” Jenkins said.
Beatty, the 79-year-old veteran actor and director, said he’d been given an envelope containing the card announcing “La La Land” star Emma Stone’s best actress win, which playbacks from the ceremony later confirmed.
Eventually PricewaterhouseCoopers, the British accounting firm responsible for tabulating Oscar ballots and safeguarding the results, apologized and admitted Beatty’s version of events was correct.
– Deep regret –
“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,” it said.
Ahead of Sunday’s event PwC partner Martha Ruiz and US board chairman Brian Cullinan, who have personally handled the Oscars in recent years, explained in an interview that two sets of envelopes are on site during the event.
“We stand on opposite sides of the stage, right off-screen, for the entire evening, and we each hand the respective envelope to the presenter,” Cullinan said in the interview published on medium.com.
“It doesn’t sound very complicated, but you have to make sure you’re giving the presenter the right envelope.”
It was still unclear as the dust settled Monday which of them had handed out the wrong envelope, or if there was some other explanation.
Damien Chazelle’s runaway favorite “La La Land” — a modern take on the all-singing, all-dancing Golden Age of Tinseltown’s studio system — had taken six prizes for best director, actress, score, song, production design and cinematography.
Starring Stone and Ryan Gosling as an aspiring actress and a struggling jazz musician who fall in love in Los Angeles, the musical charmed critics and soared at the box office.
“This was a movie about love and I was lucky enough to fall in love while making it,” said Chazelle, 32, the youngest filmmaker by several months ever to win a best directing Oscar.
“Manchester by the Sea” star Casey Affleck fended off competition from “Fences” lead Denzel Washington to take best actor while Stone beat Isabelle Huppert, star of edgy rape-revenge thriller “Elle,” for the best actress statuette.
“Manchester” went into the evening with six nominations but came away with only Affleck’s win and a best original screenplay statuette for Kenneth Lonergan, who also directed the film.