Envelopegate Is the Best Thing That Could Have Happened to the Oscars

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I’ve been saying it for months: It’s too bad there can only be one Best Picture winner.

Every year there are many deserving films, but this year’s crop of Oscar contenders included three truly outstanding movies: La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight. All were worthy of acclaim and success; released in separate years, all could have had a shot at the top prize. Each was the sort of smart, beautiful, personal movie that seems in short supply these days. It was a shame, I repeated over and over, that only one gets to win.

Apparently I was wrong. At least two movies can win, if only for a few minutes.

That was the stunning scene last night at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, where Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced that La La Land was the year’s Best Picture, and then minutes later — while the winners (or so they thought) were still giving their acceptance speeches — returned to the stage along with host Jimmy Kimmel to announce a mistake had been made. Beatty had somehow received the wrong envelope (for Best Actress — there are two identical sets of winners, one kept on each side of the Dolby stage) and then proceeded with the announcement anyway. Watching live, it was clear Beatty knew something was up, but instead of asking for help or calling out the error, he just passed the buck to poor Faye Dunaway and let her figure out what to do.

Warren Beatty must be pissed. Faye Dunaway must be even more pissed. (A moment that was designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their great Bonnie and Clyde wound up looking like an alternate ending where Clyde hid behind Bonnie when the cops opened fire). The creators of La La Land are surely disappointed; it’s hard to imagine a more painful way to lose than the way they did. The Oscars’ accountants, PricewaterhouseCoopers, might not want to make any big purchases this month because they could be out of a job soon. But for everyone else, what happened last night on the stage of the Dolby Theatre wasn’t just the craziest thing to ever happen at the Academy Awards — it might have also been the best.

Admittedly, it could have been an abject disaster. If the La La Land team had not been gracious in defeat, and had protested or even demanded some kind of recount, things could have gotten very ugly. And if the movies were flipped — if Moonlight was announced as a winner, and La La Land was then revealed as the true champion — I suspect there would be a lot less excitement and a lot more anger today.

But that’s not what happened. What did happen gave the Oscars a shocking and incredibly exciting moment; the kind that sends millions of people to social media and reverberates through history. Even more importantly, it served as a reminder that while people complain every year about the Academy Awards’ length and pacing, at their best (and their worst) the Oscars can be just as dramatic as the movies they honor.

Envelopegate came at the end of a long and otherwise fairly predictable show. La La Land, perhaps in an ominous sign of things to come, didn’t take home many of the early technical categories, but otherwise, the awards went largely as expected. When there were predicted favorites, they tended to win. There were the usual video tributes to movies, overproduced musical numbers, and a few moving speeches. The snafu might have been an embarrassing gaffe for the people involved, but it was also a must-see moment, one that I suspect will help the Oscar telecast’s ratings moving forward. It might be an exaggeration to say no one will ever turn off the Oscars early again. It is definitely not an exaggeration to say no one will ever turn off the Oscars early again without thinking twice because of this unforgettable event. From now on, you go to sleep before Best Picture at your own peril.

I am sure if given the choice, the creators of La La Land would prefer to win Best Picture. But in defeat, their team, and in particular producer Jordan Horowitz, rose to the occasion. They reacted with the kind of grace, kindness, and class that seems lacking from a lot of public discourse lately. Not only did Horowitz immediately accept the mistake, he announced the winner, and even held up the correct card to the camera for all to see so that there would be no doubt. In his situation, you probably would have had to pry that Oscar out of my hand with a crowbar. Horowitz immediately presented it to its rightful winners, saying “I’m going to be really thrilled to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.

It didn’t feel like a phony line. In a world of artificiality, here was something real. Afterwards, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins complimented Horowitz on the way he handled the situation:

Horowitz’s response about two hours later was classy once again:

The Oscar race is fun, and it’s crucial to the financial health of the sort of adult movies that are increasingly rare from the big Hollywood studios. It also turns art into sports, and sometimes the competition gets very cruel and very ugly. Because only one movie wins, fans of one film are encouraged to root against the others. Very good art becomes despised for the simple reason that it won an award, or even because in some cases it is expected to win an award. There was already so much backlash about La La Land possibly winning Best Picture in January that I felt compelled to write a piece defending it as a worthy Oscar winner.

What we saw on the Dolby stage last night was the opposite of that sentiment. We saw artists considering each other colleagues, rather than competitors. We saw that the creators of both movies understand and practice the values of empathy that are clearly and beautifully embedded in so many of this year’s Academy Award nominees. It is true that only one movie can win the Oscar for Best Picture. But last night reminded us that there is more to the movies, and sometimes even the Oscars, than winning and losing.

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