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The Night the Oscars Woke Up

‘Moonlight’ was victorious, but the astounding Academy Awards finale revealed an awards show still in transition

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There has never been a Best Picture winner like Moonlight. There has never been a film with a budget that small, a cast that unknown, a story that personal, a box-office haul that modest, and an origin that unlikely to be bestowed with the highest honor in the film industry. The confounding fumbling of the award’s presentation will make Moonlight’s triumph, and La La Land’s painful, awkward shuffle off the stage, a dramatic, hilarious, absurd, brutal Oscar memory that will be apologized for, anguished over, and meme’d until we are all dead and buried. There will be diagnostic analyses of Warren Beatty’s envelope-handling, hosannas for La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz’s gracious acknowledgment of the error, and high-level Tumblr work on this image of Ryan Gosling.

But make no mistake, independent of the PricewaterhouseCoopers clown show, this was a galvanizing, thrilling, utterly unexpected result. Moonlight — an independent film about the life of a gay black boy coming of age in a Miami rarely depicted onscreen — is the Best Picture of the 89th Academy Awards. After 12 months of unpredictability in American life, we should be used to saying this by now, but still it jolts: No one saw this coming.

Just four days ago, I called my final Academy Awards column “Oscars Predictions in a Time of Alternative Facts,” a cheap joke riffing on a desperate moment. Ninety-six hours later, the win for Moonlight has all but confirmed how cheap it was. La La Land, which did lead all winners with six Oscars, was among the most heavily favored Best Picture front-runners of the past 10 years. It was nominated for 14 awards, and many — myself included — thought it had a genuine chance at 13 wins, which would have been a record. That it came away with six is astonishing, even in a vacuum. La La Land is a postmodern musical made by a 32-year-old who’s obsessed with jazz and the films of Jacques Demy. This is highly unusual. I have understood the backlash to the movie and acknowledge its flaws, but it is not and should not have been perceived as the second coming of Gone With the Wind. Now, its box-office momentum and awards-season dominance puts it in league with Saving Private Ryan and Brokeback Mountain among the most stunning favorites to be upset for Best Picture.

As for Moonlight, it has no historical comparison. Its win expresses a fascinating moment of change inside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Twelve months removed from #OscarsSoWhite, a declaration by Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs to mature the composition of the organization, and a redistricted voting body that now includes more women, people of color, and international members, it is clear that the Oscars are changing in real time. Though they have not completely transformed. That isn’t how a democracy works.

One of the funniest themes of the first half of the broadcast was the continued stymying of La La Land. For more than 90 minutes, viewers made hay of the fact that Moonlight, but also Suicide Squad, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Hacksaw Ridge had more Oscars than Damien Chazelle’s film. The oppositional narrative that Moonlight director Barry Jenkins and Chazelle decried for the past few months was playing out, but so was a La La Land vs. the World story line that doesn’t really make sense. The two wins for Hacksaw Ridge — for sound mixing and film editing — seemed to reveal a contingent supporting the old-fashioned studio-war-film style of Mel Gibson, a pariah-cum-dubious-comeback figure this Oscars season. Some started to speculate about a Gibson Best Director win, which would have been a genuinely transgressive moment in the Dolby Theatre.

Then, quickly, La La Land began piling up statuettes and things started to click into place: Setting aside the early, sometimes unpredictable technical categories, there was a lot of chalk. By the time the great Sandy Reynolds-Wasco and David Wasco (who have worked with Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, among others) won for their production design and Linus Sandgren for his cinematography on La La Land, the order of logic seemed to take hold. The results were increasingly predictable — Viola Davis, vigorous and resplendent in her acceptance speech; the two music categories going to La La Land — and we all seemed to ease off our conspiracies. So it was ordained, so it will be done: La La Land would ascend.

Then there were little signs, flashes of disruption in La La Land’s pathway. When Kenneth Lonergan won Best Original Screenplay for Manchester by the Sea, my ears perked up. When Casey Affleck outlasted Denzel Washington, despite a SAG Awards win last month, I crooked an eyebrow. There were others. An eight-hour documentary produced by ESPN, O.J.: Made in America, had won Best Documentary Feature. Both Amazon and Netflix reeled in their first Oscars, for foreign film and documentary short. These are not normal occurrences. Chazelle’s win for Best Director — the eighth time in two decades that Best Picture and Director have not been for the same film — though, seemed to lock in an inevitability. It would be mild and unenthused, but an expected final award for La La Land seemed imminent. Which did happen. Until it didn’t.

What does all of this mean? It’s difficult to know for sure — the Oscars are not a football game. Kneeling twice and kicking a field goal was never an option for Chazelle. This is a messy scoreboard, with four multiple winners among an unusual crop of Best Picture nominees. What if we had it wrong all along? La La Land was the speculative juggernaut. But maybe Plan B Entertainment, Brad Pitt’s production company with Dede Garner that guided Moonlight, was the real power. With five Best Picture nominations this decade — and now two wins — it is arguably the most prestigious shingle in Hollywood. Couple Plan B with A24, the savvy and hugely admired distribution house that just won for the first film it financed outright, and you can see, in the smoke, a veritable powerhouse.

Perhaps we should have looked to the field to explain the results. If you did, there were some tried-and-true figures, like 21-time nominee Kevin O’Connell, who finally got his first win for his sound mixing in Hacksaw, and some new-guard entrants, like Mahershala Ali, who took home the prize for his elegant work as Juan in Moonlight. Will Ali be back? Probably. But so will O’Connell. There’s your microcosm: The Oscars’ attempt to wrangle an entire industry’s best into a room and determine the “best” is an impossibility. This is pure folly unworthy of moral outrage. If you want to quest for justice — or more specifically, opportunity — look to the people who provide the money to make movies in the first place. Gatekeepers seal envelopes, they don’t open them. The gala of the Oscars comprises a diaspora of technicians, dramatists, handypeople, visionaries, money managers, fabulists, the fabulous, control freaks, delicate flowers, conservatives, liberals, Lakers fans, dipshits, geniuses, and normal people you see in traffic. There is no consensus. Moonlight’s victory proves, as always, nobody knows anything.

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