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Monday, February 27, 2017

The 89th Oscars: The (Correct) Envelope, Please

To get to the elephant in the room, let's talk about the flub first. It will overshadow anything else from this Oscar ceremony, the 89th, and is right up there with Sacheen Littlefeather and Robert Opel, the streaker, in terms of Oscar moments of sheer nuttiness.

To recap, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde (both looking fresh from the plastic surgeon's office), presented Best Picture. To that point, La La Land looked like the film to beat, picking up six awards (though it did not win near as many as some people thought it would). Beatty opened the envelope, and appeared to be vamping, checking to see if there was something else in the envelope, and looking like he was just teasing the nominees. Dunaway, taken aback, chided him, so Beatty handed her the envelope and she said, "La La Land." General pandemonium, and two of the producers managed to give acceptance speeches. Beatty hung around, though, and the third producer said, "We lost." The producer at the mic, Justin Horowitz, announced there had been a mistake, and that Moonlight had won Best Picture. To prove he was not joking, he held up the right card. Gasps, and the La La Land crowd exited the stage and was replaced by the Moonlight contingent.

Host Jimmy Kimmel, at first blaming Steve Harvey (who famously mixed up the name of Miss Universe) found Beatty there to take his lumps. The star realized something was wrong, as he had the Best Actress envelope and card, but instead of pointing it out to someone who could so something about it, he simply handed the envelope to Dunaway, who read out the name of the film on the card.

PricewaterhouseCooper, the accounting firm that has had the Oscar account for 83 years, will now have some explaining to do, and there will doubtless be tense meetings between them and the Academy in the coming days. The best guess as to what happened: there are two envelopes for every award, one at each end of the stage, locked in cases. Each of the holders of those cases know every winner. In error, Beatty and Dunaway were handed the extra Best Actress envelope (as Emma Stone pointed out, she still had the original envelope in her hand while she was addressing the press). Beatty did not notice that the envelope said "Best Actress" on it (a close-up verifies this), and the confusion resulted.

So, why didn't Beatty ask for help, and after Dunaway, really quite innocent in all this, read the wrong name, why didn't the PwC person immediately come out? Two minutes went by, and it was a stagehand that pointed out to the La La Land producers that a mistake had been made. Methinks a head or two will roll at PwC, and the Academy may seriously question the continued connection.

There have been mix-ups before, but nothing on this scale. In 1933, Will Rogers presented Best Director and upon opening the envelope said, "Come on up and get it, Frank." Frank Capra started for the stage, but unfortunately for him it was Frank Lloyd who won. In 1964, Sammy Davis Jr. was given the wrong envelope, but it was caught in time. Davis quipped, "Wait until the NAACP hears about this."

This brouhaha overshadows what I consider the biggest upset in the Best Picture race since 1982, when Chariots of Fire bested Reds. So how did Moonlight do it? It was, adjusted for inflation, the lowest-budgeted film ever to take the top prize. It is the first film solely about black America (I don't recall any white faces, maybe some teachers in the school), and it's the first film with a gay protagonist to win (when Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash, it was thought the older voters couldn't tolerate a gay-themed film. Finally times have changed). It is also a critic's darling--it was second on both the Sight & Sound and Film Comment polls for best film of 2016 (La La Land was 16th on Sight & Sound's poll, and didn't even make Film Comment's). To put it simply--it is the most indie-ish, to create a word, film to ever win Best Picture.

It has become almost routine for Best Picture and Best Director to be split. While it usually happened about once a decade from the mid-'20s to the mid-'90s, it has happened eight times in the last nineteen years, close to a fifty-percent rate (that's even considering a stretch from 2006-2011 when they matched). Clearly, the younger voters have no problem splitting their ticket, as is usual at festivals like Cannes, when they never match. La La Land won some technical awards, some musical awards, Best Actress and Best Director, but was not judged Best Picture. Why?

Certainly there may have been some that simply thought Moonlight was better, and may have voted for director Barry Jenkins as well. But what about those who voted for Best Director winner Damien Chazelle (now the youngest director ever to win, breaking an 85-year-old record) but did not vote for La La Land? I am not in the industry and know zero Academy voters, but I can surmise that it was a market correction--after last year's bad press over #Oscarssowhite, some voters were determined to make sure this Oscar ceremony showed diversity. There was a Black person nominated in each acting category (two of them won, for only the second time) and perhaps voters figured they'd honor La La Land's artistry but show they aren't prejudiced by voting for Moonlight. There may be also a bit of anti-Trump backlash, as well. The first Best Picture of his presidency is about gay black men.

I began to sense an upset early on, when La La Land lost both sound awards and then editing. But it began to pick up steam, and though it lost Original Screenplay, that was expected. Once Chazelle won I thought it was in the bag. I was wrong.

Other than that, the show was the usual bloated affair, clocking in as the longest in about ten years. Jimmy Kimmel was an affable host--he was not to blame for the snafu in any way, so I hope he is invited back. His only cringe-worthy moment was bringing in a bus-load of tourists into the theater. In what I'm sure was meant to be charming, the stunt came off as "Look, watch the great unwashed interact with their betters," and went on too long. The parachuted candy worked much better. The Matt Damon trolling was brutal but, I admit, funny. He must be a damn good sport.

Some Oscar tidbits: Casey and Ben Affleck now become the 16th pair of siblings to win Oscars. Affleck had ceded favorite status when he lost SAG and his sexual assault charges hovered over him. But the SAG win was over-rated for Denzel Washington; he had never won one, but had won two Oscars.

Kevin O'Connell, a sound mixer, received his 21st nomination this year. Sounds great, and it is, but he had never won. He did this year, for Hacksaw Ridge. In his acceptance speech he looked like he would explode with relief. Greg P. Russell, who has 17 nominations without a win, was nominated for 13 Hours, but was removed when he got caught campaigning. It would have been a delicious irony if the film had won but he didn't get a statuette.

Mahershala Ali is the first Muslim to win an Oscar. All told, I count five Black people who won Oscars, which I think must be a record. Coupling that with Moonlight's win (although the three producers of that film are white) is really the story of the night--the Academy has tried to be more diverse, and it seems to have worked.

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