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The Oscars’ ‘Moonlight’ Surprise

Warren Beatty’s envelope sparked the craziest mix-up — and maybe even upset — of Oscars history


“We lost, by the way.” That was La La Land producer Fred Berger; he’d just finished thanking his mother and father in French. Behind him, a parade of headsets stormed the Oscars stage to inform the joyous gang that presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had screwed up, that Dunaway, who’d announced La La Land the winner of the Best Picture Oscar, had somehow misspoken. “Oh my god,” Emma Stone mouthed. La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz played gracious traffic cop and explained what was going on: “I’m sorry, no. There’s a mistake,” he said sternly, and with what looks from here like a remarkable amount of poise and generosity. “Moonlight: You guys won Best Picture.” Ushering Moonlight director Barry Jenkins to the stage, he insisted, “This is not a joke.”

Beatty, now somehow holding a statuette himself, stepped back up to the mic. “I want to tell you what happened,” he said. “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. I wasn’t trying to be funny.” So: He’d been holding the envelope that delivered Stone her Best Actress award, and he and Dunaway had read from that one mistakenly. You know: a classic Marisa Tomei, only not an urban legend — and crazier by an order of magnitude. As the Moonlight cast and crew filtered onto the stage behind him, Horowitz held up the correct envelope. This one confirmed that Hollywood’s highest honor was in fact going to Moonlight — and, at this point, we wouldn’t have settled for anything less than a tight close-up to prove it.

Lately, it’s seemed as if reality has been scripted on one of the studio lots that populate La La Land. As if surprise third-act endings — in elections here and abroad, in the NBA Finals and the Super Bowl — are now the way of the world. The Oscars are generally immune to this sort of shock. This year that seemed especially true: La La Land, a paean to the magic of Hollywood, is exactly the sort of movie the Oscars tend to celebrate; it was running a prohibitive favorite in the weeks leading up to the show. Moonlight — written and directed by an African American man, adapted from a play written by an African American man, about the maturation of a young African American man portrayed by three different African American actors — was not that kind of movie. And despite the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ well-publicized push toward a more diverse membership, it felt like a sure thing that La La Land would triumph, especially as it picked up award after award as the night ran on.

But Hollywood, we’ve heard time and time again, likes a storybook ending. We just didn’t assume they meant at the Oscars — and for Moonlight — too. “It’s true; it’s not fake,” Jenkins said, Oscar in hand. It took a minute, but we believed him.

More Oscars Coverage