By now, the event has taken on the dimensions of a tragedy. Not the epic sort, maybe, but the immediate if not fatal conflagration that inflames social media.
At the 89th Academy Awards ceremony Sunday, the Best Picture Oscar went to director Damien Chazelle’s musical “La La Land” — until it didn’t. “Moonlight” — the made-in-Miami masterpiece about growing up gay and black in Liberty City by natives Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney — was really the Best Picture.
Somebody made a mistake. And everybody lost their minds.
Social media went berserk. Local “Moonlight” fans were incensed, then celebrated. Confusion and conspiracy theories reigned. Was this a prank by host Jimmy Kimmel? Was it a stealthy publicity stunt designed to get people to remember the Academy Awards for more than a day? Did presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty — the former Bonnie and Clyde — commit a new form of white-collar crime?
On Monday, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that tabulates Oscar ballots, issued a statement taking the blame. One of two PwC representatives in the Dolby Theater’s wings, Brian Cullinan, handed Beatty the wrong envelope.
“We sincerely apologize to ‘Moonlight,’ ‘La La Land,’ Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for best picture,” the statement said. “The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and, when discovered, was immediately corrected.”
Much of Miami could be forgiven for wanting to be included in that apology. Filmmaker Billy Corben (“The U,” “Cocaine Cowboys”) — who used to give McCraney a ride to his home in Liberty City after school when they attended the New World School of the Arts together in the early 1990s —says that when the winner was first announced as “La La Land,” he thought “This is not the first time kids from Liberty City had been robbed by white people.
“I didn’t really believe it,” he said. “I was in a state of denial. It didn’t make sense. It seemed like someone was going to throw a flag on the field … The Oscars get it wrong all the time, but I felt like this terrible injustice had been done.”
Minutes later, when “Moonlight” was proclaimed the proper winner, Corben was relieved.
“I had never seen an injustice that profound corrected that quickly,” he said. “As much as the drama unfortunately overshadowed their moment, not only did Barry and Tarell make the best movie of the year, they also made one of the best moments of television history. What happened on Oscar night will become legendary.… And the whole thing felt so Miami, which is so fitting for this ragtag team of filmmakers who came down here and made this extraordinary film.”
As much as the drama unfortunately overshadowed their moment, not only did Barry and Tarell make the best movie of the year, they also made one of the best moments of television history. What happened on Oscar night will become legendary, which in a way that creates an added layer of celebration around the movie. And the whole thing felt so Miami, which is so fitting for this ragtag team of filmmakers who came down here and made this extraordinary film.
Miami filmmaker Billy Corben, on ‘Moonlight’
Here’s the breakdown of how it all happened on live television:
▪ The “Best Picture” montage finishes. Dunaway applauds. Beatty opens the red envelope with the winner inside. A close-up will later reveal it reads “Actress in a Leading Role.” He’s got the wrong envelope. He looks inside.
▪ Beatty looks like he knows there’s a problem. “The Academy Award,” he says, and pauses. Then continues: “For Best Picture.” He stops, looks stage right.
▪ Dunaway, clearly thinking he’s joking, laughs and says, “You’re impossible.”
▪ Beatty shows her the card with the winner on it; we will all learn later it says “Emma Stone, La La Land.” Dunaway, though, glances at the card and cheerfully announces, “La La Land.”
▪ Team “La La Land” hugs, heads to the stage and producer Jordan Horowitz launches into his thank-you speech, followed by producer Marc Platt.
▪ During Platt’s speech, there’s a commotion in the background. A man in a headset shows Horowitz what is presumably the correct winner.
▪ Platt finishes up and waves producer Fred Berger to the stage. Berger refuses at first, and then, in what may be the most bizarre moment of the night considering he clearly knows what has happened, gives his speech anyway, ending with, “We lost, by the way.”
▪ “Oh my God,” says Emma Stone.
▪ It falls to Horowitz to drop the bombshell. “Guys, I’m sorry, there’s a mistake.” He gestures at the “Moonlight” cast. “You guys won best picture.” He takes the correct card from Beatty and holds it up for the cameras.
▪ The truth sinks in. Jimmy Kimmel looks like he needs a drink.
After that, the stunned “Moonlight” cast hugged, and shocked director Jenkins struggled to muster more than an “Oh my goodness.”
“I will say that the folks from ‘La La Land’ were so gracious,” he told the Los Angeles Times afterward. “I can’t imagine being in their position and having to do that. I wasn’t speechless because we won. I was speechless because it was so gracious of them to do that.”
Stone, who won Best Actress for her role in “La La Land,” was stunned, according to the Hollywood Reporter, but said she was thrilled about the way things turned out.
“I f---ing love ‘Moonlight,’ ” she told the press after the Oscar finale. “Of course it was an amazing thing to hear them say ‘La La Land ‘— we would have loved to win best picture, but we’re so happy for ‘Moonlight.’ I think it’s one of the best films of all time, so I was pretty beside myself.”
Local reaction was equally shocked. Like many Miami “Moonlight” fans, patrons at Jimmy’s Eastside Diner — where much of the key final act was shot — were not happy with the original outcome.
Jimmy’s cashier J.C. Cadigan did what others at Jimmy’s said they did: “I just turned off the TV.”
Many at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City, which held a Moonlit Oscars block party, had the same reaction.
“Some people, every time they heard ‘La La Land,’ they booed. Every time, they heard ‘Moonlight,’ they cheered,” Marshall Davis Sr., the center’s director, told the Miami Herald. “So, some people, when they heard ‘La La Land’ as the Academy Award winner for Best Picture, you saw a lot of people get up, ‘boo,’ and start walking away.”
When they learned the truth, he said, “The place was ecstatic. You’d think it was a Pentecostal church. People were just overjoyed, having a wonderful time celebrating the success of a movie and the impact that it has for Miami.”
Borscht Corp co-founder Lucas Leyva, who was instrumental in luring Jenkins back to Miami to make the film, watched the telecast at the center, where Borscht had hosted a free screening of “Moonlight” on Sunday.
“Most of my waking life for the past 10 years has been devoted to fertilizing the soil here in Miami so we could make a feature film,” Leyva said. “We finally do it, and the first one that comes from the Borscht birthing ground wins the Oscar for Best Picture. That’s crazy, inspiring and mind-blowing. ... It was surreal enough seeing Tarell in the dopest tuxedo of all time accepting the screenplay Oscar.… But a lot more people will see ‘Moonlight’ now that it’s won the Best Picture Oscar than would have seen it before. This is what audience-building is about. Sometimes, people will come to your event and graffiti the bathroom mirror. Sometimes, they will make ‘Moonlight.’ ”
In the end, it was a happy ending — except there’s blame floating around for Dunaway (for her careless reading of the card) and Beatty (for not summoning help earlier). Even his longtime friend Larry King had issues with Beatty’s behavior.
“If I were in Warren’s position and opened the envelope, and I see it’s the wrong name and that it’s got the name of the winner of best female, all you do is turn around and say, ‘I have the wrong envelope.’ I love Warren. But if you’re a veteran of live broadcasting, you go to the moment. There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘This is the wrong envelope.’ Then the audience is in the same boat as you, they commiserate with you,” King said.
“If there’s a fire in the theater you say, ‘There’s a fire in the theater.’ You don’t hide it.”
Miami Herald staff writers David J. Neal and Howard Cohen contributed to this report.