Ninety years of watching actors read other actors’ names off cards finally paid off Sunday night, as the Oscars had its first envelope-related SNAFU at the worst possible moment. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced that La La Land had won Best Picture, when in fact Moonlight had won Best Picture. The result was the first acceptance speech to end with “We lost, by the way.”
In the heat of the moment, Beatty offered an explanation. He had looked at the card, and realized it was the one meant to announce La La Land lead Emma Stone as winner of the Best Actress award. It seemed like a flimsy explanation, but it held up. Beatty was obviously bewildered, checking and double-checking and triple-checking before eventually making Dunaway read the words “La La Land” off the card.
Beatty clearly told Dunaway “It says Emma Stone!” near the microphone in the seconds after announcing the award:
And upon further inspection, the card Beatty was holding actually did read “ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE.”
Stone didn’t buy that theory. She’d gotten the envelope from Leonardo DiCaprio after winning, and says she held onto it.
But what Stone — and, well, almost everybody watching — didn’t realize was there are actually two envelopes for each Oscar winner. Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, the two accountants who count the Oscar ballots, each bring a briefcase with 24 identical envelopes to the ceremony. They take different routes to the show (in case traffic delays one) and stand on opposite sides of the stage. One hands an envelope to the presenter, and the other keeps the second envelope in their bag.
The accountants are supposed to be the safeguards, the only line of defense against a variety of scenarios which could ruin the show: Voting fraud, leaked results, presenters going rogue. As the Huffington Post presciently explained the other day, they are the only ones who know who the winners are, and they are supposed to intervene if something goes wrong, which it never had in 88 previous Oscars ceremonies. In this case, it seems they’re the ones who did something wrong. The best explanation is Beatty was on the side of the stage with the accountant who hadn’t handed DiCaprio Stone’s envelope, and that accountant accidentally handed over the duplicate Best Actress card instead of the Best Picture one. It’s understandable: These are professional number crunchers turned into secret agents for an internationally televised party for movie stars for six hours a year. Five hours and 59 minutes in, one slipped up.
The story of the historically ridiculous Oscar gaffe very quickly went from “How could this have happened?” to an easy explanation of how it happened corroborated by easily checkable facts and the known details of how the Oscars ceremony functions. It’s an open-and-shut case.
Almost … too open and shut.
Hear me out:
- After the show hit an eight-year ratings low last year, the academy knew it needed to spice things up. Having seen how Steve Harvey’s pageant blunder could make people pay attention to … whichever pageant he blundered at, it knew a flubbed-envelope gag could revitalize the public’s imagination and interest in the Oscars.
- In 2016, Hollywood released the Ben Affleck film The Accountant, the first movie ever about a sexy international murder accountant. The film was wildly popular among accountants across the globe. The film also convinced many accountants that they were capable of high-level espionage, intrigue, and — most scandalous of all — unethical accounting procedures. Finally, it inspired many accountants to despise esteemed character actor J.K. Simmons, who plays the man in charge of investigating the namesake accountant.
- When the Oscar nominations were released, accountants were furious about the lack of praise for The Accountant. They knew it was too late to undo the nominations, but realized they could use their newfound skills to simultaneously ensure Affleck’s brother Casey would win Best Actor and disappoint Simmons, who was also in La La Land.
- These accountants were also enraged at the cushy gig PricewaterhouseCoopers receives year after year at the ceremony. As you may know, PwC is one of the Big Four accounting firms. People from the Big Other Three rarely work together, but they realized that by striking a blow at their common enemy on international television, they could permanently ruin the company’s credibility. They approached the academy, which realized it could boost the show’s ratings while simultaneously making PwC look so bad that it could demand a lower rate for future ceremonies.
- Warren Beatty has been nominated for 14 Academy Awards. You know how many he’s won? One. Four times he was nominated for Best Actor, four times he lost. Four times, he was nominated for best screenplay. He never won that either. After being approached by the accountants, he was all in on their plan: He wrote his part with glee, and prepared to prove to the academy he truly was the best actor alive by acting genuinely duped on stage.
- After receiving the real Moonlight card from either Cullinan or Ruiz, Beatty pocketed it and removed an imitation envelope, designed by a team of prop artisans (jilted, because they had never won Academy Awards for Best Production Design). He walked to the stage and unleashed chaos.
Which is more likely: That a tired, overwhelmed accountant made a single mistake? Or that this is the result of a major conspiracy between Hollywood and CPAs everywhere to boost the Oscars’ Q rating while bashing the credibility of a major accounting firm? I don’t know, but I do know this: If I go to prison for tax fraud, it’s the accountants trying to silence me. Let my truth be heard.