What Happened: La La Land & Moonlight Best Picture Flub Explained [Updated]

La La Land Moonlight

The 89th Academy Awards ended with a major surprise when Moonlight won Best Picture. The A24 indie darling had managed to ride an immense wave of hype and beat throwback musical La La Land, which was such a firm favorite it was barely even worth putting money on. That’s incredibly shocking by itself – the Oscars, especially with the big prizes, are usually incredibly predictable – but what makes this one for the ages is how it was announced.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were the pair chosen to present the award (in honor of Bonnie and Clyde’s fiftieth anniversary). When they got to naming the winner, however, Beatty prevaricated for about twenty seconds after opening the envelope before showing it to Dunaway. She then announced La La Land as the winner, everyone clapped, the cast and crew ran up on stage, producers Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt and Fred Berger read out nicely rehearsed speeches and the audience who’d sat through the three-and-a-half hour telecast got ready for bed.

However, there was something odd going on in the background. The stage managers were running through the amassed creatives, creating a general air of confusion. Then, mid-way through his speech, Berger revealed they’d actually lost and Horowitz took over, appealing for calm and announcing that Moonlight was the real Best Picture recipient. Reaffirming it wasn’t a joke, he showed the Best Picture card to the millions watching, confirming the statuettes should go to Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner.

The night had mostly gone to plan. Moana star Auli'i Cravalho was hit by a flag during her rendition of "How Far I’ll Go", Taraji P. Henson stumbled over a speech and the “tourists meet the stars” bit went on too long to be comfortable, but otherwise there were no major upsets to rival the recent antics of John Travolta. This snafu more than rebalanced the scales.

Moonlight - Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali

As the crews switched, Beatty explained his side of the story:

“I want to tell you what happened. I opened the envelope and it said ‘Emma Stone – La La Land’. That’s why I took such a long look at Faye and at you [the audience]. I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

If you look at the footage of the mistake, you can clearly see the envelope in Beatty’s hand when coming on stage is labeled “Actress in a Leading Role” - he was 100% right to be confused as he had the details for a different award. While that explains the presenter’s mistake, though, it doesn’t get us close to grasping how the wrong envelope ended up in his hands in the first place.

There has never in the Oscars' 89-year history been a mistake on this scale. The closest came in 1964 when Sammy Davis, Jr. was given the Best Original Score envelope instead of the Best Adaptation or Treatment Score one, reading out Tom Jones as winner instead of Andre Previn, but that was over sixty years ago for a minor award and was quickly rectified. This was a major event that eclipses pretty much every mistake in the Academy's illustrious history.

To get to the bottom of this, we need to look at how the awards actually work. Oscar votes are handled by PwC, who deal with the voting and monitor the reveals. This process is overseen by Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz – they monitor the counting and heavily check the contents and labeling of each of the winner envelopes. Outside of those envelopes, only this pair know the winners, and that's commited to memory (to avoid any physical list falling into the wrong hands). On the night itself, they stand on the sidelines and ensure the right awards go to the right recipients. Speaking to The Huffington Post earlier this month, Cullinan talked about what they would do if a mistake was to occur:

“We would make sure that the correct person was known very quickly. Whether that entails stopping the show, us walking onstage, us signaling to the stage manager — that’s really a game-time decision, if something like that were to happen. Again, it’s so unlikely.”

So unlikely, yet less than a week after those comments were published we witnessed exactly such a disaster on the biggest scale imaginable. Ironically, the problem comes from one of the key elements of extra security applied; to avoid any potential issues this level of secrecy may cause, there are two sets of envelopes:

“From a security perspective, we double up everything. That’s why there’s two of us. We have two briefcases, that are identical, and we have two entire sets of winning envelopes. Martha carries one of those briefcases, I carry the other.”

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land

This means that in the Dolby Theater there were two envelopes for Best Actress. One was used as expected by Leonardo DiCaprio to announce Emma Stone’s win, which the actress appears to have kept (per Oscar tradition). The other - a backup -somehow wound up with Beatty before going on stage instead of the Best Picture envelope. You can see the reaction to this almost immediately in the footage: the stage management are checking the envelopes held by the various people who’ve previously won awards – Linus Sandgren for Cinematography, Justin Hurwitz for Song and Score, Stone for Actress, Chazelle for Director – to find the one Beatty read out, and when it was confirmed it was a duplicate and not for Picture, they bring out the new envelope (which Horowitz then showed to the world).

The only logical explanation to how this happened is human error; Actress is the award just before Picture, so it’s somewhat more likely for a mistake to be made. This would mean that the fault lies not with organisation of the actual show. As part of their behind-the-scenes coverage, USA Today suggested that the root cause is Beatty picking up the wrong envelope:

"The accountant from PriceWaterhouseCoopers jumps up and says, 'He took the wrong envelope!' and goes running onstage. Craziness breaks out. No one knows how Beatty got a best actress envelope. 'Oh, my God. Moonlight won, Moonlight won,' a stagehand says, her hands on her head."

Update: The Wall Street Journal allege that Cullinan handed the envelope to Beatty. They report he broke with Oscar rules and shared a backstage photo of Stone after her Actress win, minutes before the mistake occurred, suggesting the accountant was distracted.

The short-term ramifications are that Moonlight gets Best Picture (obviously). The La La Land producers were incredibly gracious about the mistake, with Horowitz even saying "I'm going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight" - his incomparable sportsmanship is a shining beacon of light in a murky story. There should also be no extreme flack to Beatty either, who even if he did make an innocent mistake was really just reacting to a never-before-seen situation (although perhaps pawning the responsibility over to Dunaway wasn't the smartest move).

Long-term, though, it leads to a question of how PwC organizes the voting, storing and announcement of the awards, and how the event itself is run. That such a major mistake could happen for the biggest, most high-profile award in the film industry reveals that things aren't as tightly organized as they should be. Curiously, this year there wasn't the usually requisite highlighting of their process by host Jimmy Kimmel, a coincidental harbinger for the problem.

One thing about the fiasco can be said for certain – if this is what happens when there's a mistake, then it seems that Marisa Tomei really did win for My Cousin Vinny.

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