Sunday, February 26, 2017

La di da, la di da, La La … Moonlight: Best Picture winner stuns in more ways than one

Writer-director Barry Jenkins accepts the Academy Award for Best Picture for Moonlight.

I am still processing what I just saw. The erroneous announcement of La La Land as Best Picture will go down as the biggest gaffe in Academy Awards history. There can be none bigger. Moonlight is your Best Picture winner of 2016. It is the most deserving of the nominated films, and writer-director Barry Jenkins and his cast and crew earned their spot in the sun. But, wow, what a way to step into that moment.

Your heart just sinks for the producers of La La Land, particularly Jordan Horowitz, who was standing at the microphone, pouring his heart out in gratitude, and clutching his Oscar when that frankly shocking announcement took place. I cannot begin to imagine the heartbreak to have achieved your dream for nearly a full minute before it is dashed to pieces on a stage in front of 100 million viewers the world over. Horowitz was incredibly gracious, standing tall in the face of an impossible moment, and stating his pride at getting to hand the award over to such a remarkable film as Moonlight.

Best Picture presenter Warren Beatty’s explanation was both reasonable and confounding, leaving several questions, including how he ended up with the wrong card in his hands. Most importantly, though, the Academy has safeguards in place for just such an occurrence, so how did the folks behind the scenes allow the La La Land filmmakers onstage and almost completely through their speeches before correcting their mistake?

La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz shows the card naming Moonlight Best Picture.
It was an embarrassment of great magnitude for everyone but the artists involved. It stole away what would have been a truly stunning moment of victory for Moonlight, a moment that would have gone down as one of the greatest in recent Academy history, and turned it into a circus. We are not more than a half-hour removed from that moment as I type this, and it remains hard to understand what we witnessed. I am overjoyed for Jenkins and Moonlight, but I will not feel the full weight of the win until tomorrow, when the fog of this absurd ending hopefully will have cleared.

The shame is that this ceremony was on its way to being one of the best Oscars ceremonies in a long time. Jimmy Kimmel made for a wonderfully funny, self-effacing host, if not particularly fleet for an evening that ran just a tad long. The recurring gag with the snacks falling from the ceiling was delightful, and the trick of bringing in a busload of tourists for the most amazing surprise party in history was inspired.

The winners gave uniformly magnificent speeches that spoke to everyone across the world and delivered messages of love, hope, acceptance, and defiance in the face of oppression. In particular, Best Supporting Actress winner Viola Davis stole the show – at least until the evening was hijacked by a misplaced envelope. Wins for movies like The Salesman, The White Helmets, and O.J.: Made in America showed a streak of protest ran deep through these awards, and the power of their victories hopefully will outlast the memory of the only moment anyone will talk about tomorrow and the next day and the next.

Moonlight’s victory, even apart from its circumstances, was a genuine stunner, but there were indications throughout the night Damien Chazelle’s front-running Hollywood musical was vulnerable. The first came in when Colleen Atwood picked up her fourth career Oscar for Best Costume Design for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, beating out Mary Zophres’ work on La La Land. If Chazelle and Co. were going to sweep, it would have started there.

Next came the sound awards, which went to Arrival (Sound Editing) and Hacksaw Ridge (Sound Mixing). La La Land would have been a mild surprise in Sound Editing, but rarely do nominated musicals lose Sound Mixing. By that point, the presumed juggernaut was 0-for-3. The headline in the sound categories, though, really should be Kevin O’Connell, a winner for Hacksaw Ridge and no longer the record holder for most nominations without a win. On his 21st try, O’Connell finally made it onto the stage, and it was among the best moments of the night.

La La Land did not pick up its first award of the night until nearly two hours into the show for Best Production Design, but after losing Best Editing to Hacksaw Ridge, it felt like something might be in the air. A lot of movies with no realistic shot at the top prize were picking up awards that had been earmarked by most pundits, yours truly included, for La La Land. Meanwhile, Moonlight kicked off the proceedings with a well-deserved win for Mahershala Ali as Best Supporting Actor. Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney later picked up Best Adapted Screenplay, while Chazelle lost Original Screenplay to Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea.

Viola Davis wins Best Supporting Actress for Fences.
Heading into the final four awards of the night, La La Land had gone just 4-for-10, bolstered by a pair of wins for Original Song and Original Score that were as good as preordained, though on this night, such impressions were proved foolish at best. However, when Chazelle picked up Best Director and Emma Stone Best Actress – in between Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) beat out Denzel Washington (Fences) at the wire for Best Actor – it felt like the musical was back on track.

Six awards in tow, La La Land was back and chugging its way to the big one, which it won ever-so briefly. Its train was not just derailed, though. It was a crash of epic proportions, and all the blame falls on the shoulders of the Academy. The group’s detractors will laugh and point, and the U.S. president, perhaps with nothing better to do with his time, will probably tweet derisively. There is no doubt Hollywood’s biggest night ended in unprecedented fashion, a manner that will overshadow, hopefully only in the short term, all the good that was accomplished.

In time, I hope the underlying truths of the evening will lodge better in the cultural consciousness than a poorly timed mistake. For roughly the first three hours and 35 minutes, the Oscars ceremony was a beautiful ode to connection and transcendence through art. It delivered a message of hope and inclusivity to peoples all over the world. The final 10 minutes were a colossal disaster, but the triumph of Moonlight as Best Picture of the year only reinforces the ideas of hope, tolerance, love, and acceptance that I will take away from the evening, scandal be damned.

For a full list of winners, click here.

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