89th Oscars: Confusion in the “Moonlight”
Across nations, many recognize the Academy Awards as the most prestigious award given for excellence in cinematic achievements, handing out golden Oscar statues to winners in 24 categories each year. Broadcast in over 225 countries around the world, people will remember this past Sunday’s ceremony as the most bizarre, but also groundbreaking in its 89-year history. Jimmy Kimmel best summed up the 2016 Cinema when he stated, “Black people saved NASA and white people saved jazz—that’s what you call progress.” However, despite honoring progressive films, the show itself turned the Oscars into a joke. It was like watching the Hindenburg disaster and it was at the hands of one man who would not stop tweeting to do his actual job.
As first-time Oscar host, Kimmel forwent the usual pre-taped cold open, instead starting the telecast with Justin Timberlake dancing through the Dolby Theater singing his Best Original Song nominee “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” Despite the fact that even Timberlake is tired of his song from “Trolls,” his performance was energetic and had everyone up on their feet. When Kimmel finally began his monologue, he addressed the need for unity saying, “If every one of you took a minute to reach out to one person you disagree with, someone you like, and have a positive, considerate conversation — not as liberals or conservatives, as Americans — if we could all do that, we can make America great again.” Despite this, he then went to harass his fake arch nemesis, Matt Damon, a running gag throughout the night. After requesting a standing ovation for Meryl Streep in honor of her 20th acting nomination, Kimmel, in what would be the first in a series of jokes aimed at the POTUS, thanked President Trump for making the Oscars seem less racist.
The #oscarssowhite scandal of the past few years was trumped (no pun intended) this year when six African American actors and one Indian actor were nominated. This is the first time all four acting categories have had diversity among its nominees. The night’s Best Supporting Actor winner, Mahershala Ali, is not only African American but also the first Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar. Although Ali is only in the first vignette of “Moonlight,” his presence is beautifully felt throughout the other two. This was an exceptionally wonderful week for Ali since his daughter was born a few days before the awards. Best Supporting Actress went to the multi-talented Viola Davis, who is now the first African American to win an Emmy, Oscar and Tony for acting. There was controversy that Davis’ powerful performance in “Fences” was category fraud since she won a Tony for leading actress in the same role on Broadway. Nonetheless, Davis was the overwhelming favorite to win, many feeling she was robbed when her performance in “The Help” lost the Oscar for Lead Actress in 2012 in an upset by Streep.
The Best Actor prize was a heated race between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington. Some, however, thought Viggo Mortensen of “Captain Fantastic” would pull off a win a la Adrien Brody in 2003. In the end, Affleck won for his heartbreaking and nuanced performance in “Manchester By the Sea.” After receiving a bearhug from his equally famous, Oscar-winning brother Ben, he took to the stage and credited Washington as an inspiration in his speech. When the camera cut to the two-time Oscar winner Washington, he looked unamused, ungrateful for the tribute and all around pissed. Moretensen, on the other hand, was all smiles with his son. Emma Stone from “La La Land,” triumphed as Best Actress over giants such as Streep and French actress Isabelle Hubert. Stone’s speech showcased the charm, wit, class, and maturity that she also brought to her Oscar winning performance.
In the non-acting categories, frontrunner “La La Land” and its 14 nominations majorly underperformed. One of its wins, though, was Best Director Damien Chazelle. And after 21 nominations, sound mixer Kevin O’Connell finally won for his work on Hacksaw Ridge, beating out the musical that seem like a shoe-in to win. “La La Land” also lost Best Original Screenplay to Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright Kenneth Lonergan whose “Manchester By the Sea” script was praised for its incredibly realistic dialogue and fusion of literal laugh out loud moments into a heartbreaking story of loss. “Moonlight,” which breaks itself into three vignettes, tells the story of an African American boy learning to accept and understand society and his sexuality, was awarded Best Adapted Screenplay. Its director, Barry Jenkins, wrote the script with Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the source material for a play called “In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” Best Animated Feature went to Disney’s “Zootopia,” beating out Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings.”
In one of the most politically charged moments of the evening, Best Foreign Film went to “The Salesman” of Iran. According to a letter read by Anousheh Ansari, his stand-in, on stage, “Salesman” director, Asghar Farhadi, did not attend the ceremony due to the previous Muslim ban. The letter warned that, “Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘the enemy’ categories creates fear. A deceitful justification for regression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries in which have themselves have been victims of aggression. Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions.”
Moments not dedicated to handing out Oscars ranged from enjoyable to disastrous. The theme for the night was inspiration. Throughout the evening there were segments of actors honoring performances that inspired them. After each vignette, both actors would present an award together. Charlize Theron honored Shirley MacLaine in “The Apartment,” Seth Rogen recognized Michael J. Fox’s work in “Back to the Future” and they came on stage in the infamous DeLorean, and Javier Bardem shared how Streep moved him with her performance in “The Bridges of Madison County.” These tributes were thoughtful and a nice break between trophies. Lastly, Kimmel participated by slamming Damon’s “effortful” performance in “We Bought a Zoo.” Instead of Kimmel presenting with his foe, Damon and Ben Affleck came out together in honor of the 20th anniversary of their Best Original Screenplay win for “Good Will Hunting.” Kimmel was in the orchestra conducting the musicians to play off Damon each time he spoke. Damon could not control his laughter. Another pre-taped segment that was a nice addition asked moviegoers from around the world to discuss film international language that unites us all.
Some of the bits throughout the night did not work due to their poor execution. At one point Kimmel checked to see if President Trump had tweeted about the show only to find his Twitter bare. He then sent two tweets to the POTUS, which went unanswered. That time could have been better used for another performance tribute. On three different occasions, Kimmel attempted to one-up previous hosts Ellen DeGeneres’s pizza and Chris Rock’s Girl Scout Cookies by having candy delivered through tiny parachutes from above the crowd. Apparently, the Oscars are required to have food now. The bit got old fast. The internet lost its mind seeing Best Supporting Actor nominee Dev Patel’s joy seeing his 8-year-old “Lion” costar Sunny Pawar command Lemonhead and Mike & Ike candies to fall from the ceiling as he reenacted the infamous “Circle of Life” scene from Disney’s “The Lion King” with Kimmel, although some felt this pun was more racist than funny.
One bit that went too long was the appearance of a tour group Kimmel paraded through the front row, claiming they did not know they were going to the Oscars. While some of the unsuspecting tourists seemed surprised, it was odd that most walked into the theater phone first, some even on a selfie stick. Many feel it was staged. The host attempted to save it with improv but it dragged out so long, becoming stranger by the second. Like a surreal trip to a zoo on another planet, it was not clear whether the tourists or the Oscar nominees were the ones on display. A highlight was when Denzel Washington “married” two of the guests, Gary Alan Coe and Vickie Vines. Many news outlets reveal that Coe, who Kimmel interacted with the most, is a former drug addict and a registered sex offender, who served since 1978 jailed sentences for crimes such as attempted rape by force and fear, and a “three strikes you’re out” laws for theft. On Feb. 14, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled to resentence Coe, having been serving 25 years to life. After ruling he was as no longer considered a threat to society, Coe was released from the Corcoran Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison the Thursday before the Oscars.
Another blunder came in the “In Memoriam” tribute where they featured a picture of someone who is still alive with the name of someone who passed away. Even Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted about it. Instead of including a photo of the four-time-Oscar-nominated-costume-designer Janet Patterson, they placed a picture of her colleague and dear friend, producer Jan Chapman with her name. And although he died only the night before, many felt that the they should have added late Bill Paxton to the reel. Presenter Jennifer Aniston, however, was visibly emotional as she verbally included him at the beginning of the presentation.
But the ultimate gaffe in the telecast—the moment when the Hindenburg went up in flames completely—was when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who had been feuding backstage, announced Best Picture. As Beatty opened the envelope, he looked inside. It seemed like he was trying to be funny by announcing the winner slowly, but then he flashed the card at Dunaway who, without hesitation, blurted out “La La Land” as the winner. While the producers gave victory speeches, chaos erupted behind them on stage. Producer Jordan Horowitz came back to the mic again and graciously informed the world that the biggest award of the night was to go to “Moonlight,” not his own film. In a moment that can only be described as the most epic of Oscar fails, the “Bonnie and Clyde” stars had announced the wrong film as Best Picture. Many are baffled as to why Beatty did not just say he had the wrong card. The whole mess could have been avoided. Everyone watching at home could see that the front of the envelope in his hands clearly stated “Actress in a Leading Role.”
Since Stone was also holding her “Actress in a Leading Role” envelope that Leonardo DiCaprio had given her when she won, many were confused as to where the one Beatty had came from. This is because there are always two identical copies of the winners’ envelopes backstage that are protected by the accountants of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), who have done the job for the past 83 years. This year Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz represented PwC. Originally, Beatty and Dunaway were to enter the stage on a staircase but during the show’s final commercial break the actors abandoned the plan even though the stage crew was still frantically trying to build it. Cullinan was unprepared when the presenters suddenly approached him for the envelope because he was tweeting pictures of Emma Stone, despite having been told explicitly not to tweet during the show. Cullinan, who ironically looks like Damon, failed again when he did not immediately stop the “La La Land” cast and crew from accepting the award. The PwC team are supposed to have the winners memorized. Yet, it was not until the speeches started that it was noticed that he still had the Best Picture envelope. One Oscar stage manager, John Esposito, found out Cullinan had the envelope and contacted Gary Natoli, another Stanger manager, who radioed someone to find Ruiz.
Those backstage say that Ruiz, who also should have had the winners memorized, was not aware “La La Land” was an incorrect winner and had little urgency checking her envelope. Even after both PwC accountants had verified the mistake, Natoli says they still refused to go onstage. Considering they had approached the Academy about doing a skit with Kimmel during the broadcast, many thought this was even more odd. Natoli pushed the PwC team onto the stage, joining them to stop the acceptance speeches. Both Cullinan and Ruiz have been banned from attending any future ceremonies.
Like a cruel joke or twisted horror film, the Awards season frontrunner, “La La Land,” was Best Picture for about three minutes only to hand over their Oscars to another film in an upset that would have been huge even without Envelopegate. “Moonlight” is the first LGBTQ film to win Best Picture and it is also the first film with an all-African-American ensemble to win as well. It is a shame that this progressive and beautiful film’s win will be remembered as a scandal or punchline instead of just an artistic and groundbreaking triumph.