Believe it or not, the wildest moment in Oscars history is five years old. Revisit Moonlight’s unexpected victory over La La Land in 2017—and all of the chaos that came with it—with this article.
This needs to be fixed.
When Jordan Horowitz realized he was smack-dab in the middle of one of the biggest blunders in the history of live television, those five little words popped into his head. “It felt like there was just chaos swirling,” he said. “And that’s when my producer brain took over.”
Seconds earlier, after Faye Dunaway announced that La La Land had won Best Picture, Horowitz stepped to the stage and gave a victory speech. Then, as fellow La La Land producer Marc Platt addressed the audience, stage manager Gary Natoli rushed across the Dolby Theatre stage, asked for the red envelope Horowitz was holding, and opened it. At that point, Horowitz looked down at the card in Natoli’s hands. It read: “Emma Stone ‘La La Land.’” The sight caused a shocked Horowitz to take two big steps backward. “I remember feeling like time had stopped and thinking somebody had taken the card out of my hand and replaced it,” he said. “It felt impossible.” Horowitz didn’t yet know that Brian Cullinan of PricewaterhouseCoopers had accidentally given Dunaway and presenting partner Warren Beatty a Best Actress envelope, not one revealing the Best Picture winner.
Soon, Beatty was making his way through the scrum with another envelope. “This is the card,” Horowitz recalled him saying. Seeing that “Moonlight” was printed on it, Horowitz made his way toward the microphone. He then patted La La Land producer Fred Berger—who’d just blurted out “We lost, by the way”—on the back and pointed his right index finger at the ceiling. “There’s a mistake,” he said. Next he looked to his left, and firmly stated, “Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture.” Horowitz then beckoned the Moonlight contingent up to the stage while insisting that he wasn’t kidding. Then he went back to the mic. “This is not a joke,” he said. “Moonlight has won Best Picture.” It quickly became apparent that the studio executives and movie stars assembled in front of him were in a state of disbelief.“It was palpable that people were still super confused,” Horowitz said. He knew that there was one thing left to do. So he put his left hand on his chest to brace himself, swiftly snatched away Beatty’s card, held it up, and said, “Moonlight. Best Picture.” That instant, he thought to himself, I hope the camera person knows what to do. Sure enough, 33 million viewers watching ABC’s telecast of the Academy Awards were treated to a close-up of the card, which indicated that Moonlight had indeed won Best Picture. “The camera person knew exactly what to do,” Horowitz said. After he displayed evidence that proved his claim, the producer continued, “Everybody was like, ‘Oh shit, this is real.’”
Horowitz’s lone goal in that moment of panic was to help push the spotlight back onto Moonlight. The film was made by an African American director, featured an all-black cast, and centered on a gay protagonist. The miscue stripped a groundbreaking story of the stand-alone triumph that it deserved. Horowitz’s act of correcting an embarrassing error was far from heroic. To him, there simply was a problem that had to be solved. That’s all. He didn’t expect that his spontaneous reaction would land him on the front page of The New York Times. Few outside of Hollywood may have known his name, but by the morning after the Oscars, the bald, bearded former theater kid from Westchester County who alerted the world to Moonlight’s win had become a meme. It was a moment so extraordinary and uncomfortably genuine that the most common response on social media was laughter. An hour after the flub, YouTube personality Jack Douglass tweeted out an image of Horowitz holding a blank Best Picture card to his million-plus followers. Wiseasses of varying degrees of cleverness Photoshopped in things like “Atlanta Falcons,” “Hillary Clinton,” “Lemonade,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” and “THE WARRIORS BLEW A 3-1 LEAD IN THE FINALS.” Naturally, bunches of websites rushed to aggregate examples of the joke. Of course, in the wake of chaos never before seen in the meticulously regimented awards show, Horowitz had no idea that he was about to go viral. Shortly after the ceremony ended, his wife, writer and director Julia Hart, asked him if he had any clue what had happened. “We lost,” he answered. “Moonlight won.” Hart then repeated her question. Horowitz replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He was completely stunned. That was understandable. What had just unfolded seemed like a surreally elaborate prank. “They say we’re living in a computer simulation,” said Variety awards editor Kristopher Tapley. “This was proof of it breaking down. It was wild.” The bungled finish capped a winter dominated by the supposed rivalry between La La Land, a Los Angeles–set star-studded musical that premiered on August 31, 2016, at the Venice Film Festival, and Moonlight, a Miami-set coming-of-age drama that premiered two days later at the Telluride Film Festival. “Those two movies were neck and neck the whole season,” Tapley said. The former amassed a record-tying 14 Academy Awards nominations. The latter garnered eight. Both were prime contenders for Best Director and Best Picture.
“The movies had been pitted against each other,” Horowitz said. One narrative sounded something like this: La La Land symbolized the old lily-white Hollywood, while Moonlight represented the kind of stories the stodgy Academy habitually ignored. But the juxtaposition didn’t result in any inter-movie feuds. In reality, the two camps were friendly. They had navigated the festival circuit together. In fact, as Tapley pointed out in a post-Oscars cover story, directors Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) first met at Telluride. Two Septembers ago in the Colorado Rockies, they screened—and reportedly loved—each other’s movie.
Andrew Hevia, who coproduced Moonlight, recalled an acquaintance of his saying that the buzz generated by his movie and La La Land signaled “a baton pass between the generations.” Chazelle was 32; Jenkins was 37. Said Hevia: “The most lauded films of the year were by filmmakers under 40.” As the Academy Awards approached, La La Land pulled ahead of Moonlight in the Best Picture race. The Emma Stone–and–Ryan Gosling–propelled ode to trying to make it in L.A. won Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes in addition to taking home top honors at the Critics’ Choice Awards, the Producers Guild of America Awards, the Directors Guild of America Awards, and the British Academy Film Awards. The musical appeared destined to win Hollywood’s biggest prize. “Everybody thought La La Land was gonna win,” said Tapley, who’s been covering the Oscars since 2001. “La La Land had won the D.G.A., the P.G.A., and it was sweeping the precursor guilds and the industry awards. It just seemed preordained.”
At an awards ceremony, a nominee usually faces two possibilities. “Either you’re going to win or you’re going to lose,” Horowitz said. “You want to be prepared one way or the other.” But what if, somehow, the outcome wasn’t binary? Prior to February 26, 2017, that question would’ve been considered an unfathomable hypothetical. But then came the Oscars.
Like it typically does, the highly choreographed event went smoothly. As predicted, the evening mostly belonged to La La Land, which collected six gold trophies. Stone won Best Actress, and Chazelle became the youngest ever Best Director winner. That night, Moonlight also shined. For his role as Juan, a father figure to Chiron, the film’s main character, Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor. Together, Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play upon which the movie is based, earned the Best Adapted Screenplay award.
Just after 9 p.m. PT, Beatty and Dunaway took the stage to announce the winner of the show’s last award: Best Picture. At the time, Los Angeles Times photographer Al Seib was stationed in the wings, stage right. The position allowed him to capture candid backstage expressions of the honorees and also gave him a nice view of the house. The Pulitzer Prize winner, who’s spent his career shooting intense breaking news stories like the Northridge earthquake and the L.A. riots, wasn’t expecting to see anything out of the ordinary. “In so many ways it becomes so predictable,” Seib said. “The show goes the same way each year. The tuxedos and gowns are the same. Some of the faces don’t even change.” As he drove to the Dolby Theatre that day, he remembered thinking to himself, What photograph could make it different this year?
As soon as Dunaway said, “La La Land,” Seib cheated out toward the stage and with his camera followed Gosling. It didn’t take long, however, for the photographer to sense that something was wrong. During the ceremony, he’d been standing close to Brian Cullinan of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that since 1935 has been in charge of counting Oscar votes. PwC partners Cullinan and Martha Ruiz were posted on opposite sides of the stage. Each was tasked with handing sealed envelopes to presenters. The hellish mix-up was set in motion when Cullinan slipped Beatty the incorrect envelope. In a post-Oscars statement, PwC claimed that Cullinan had “mistakenly handed the backup envelope for Actress in a Leading Role instead of the envelope for Best Picture to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.” As it turns out, Cullinan—who like Ruiz lost his Academy Awards gig after the screwup—was on Twitter around the time of the gaffe. Photos by Andrew H. Walker of Variety show the executive using his phone. (The Academy has since instituted a policy forbidding PwC on-site employees from being on their cellphone during the Oscars.) According to the magazine, Walker’s picture of Cullinan on his cell carried a digital timestamp of 9:04 p.m. PT. A minute later, Cullinan tweeted—and subsequently deleted—a backstage image of Stone. Beatty and Dunaway had walked onto the stage at 9:03 p.m.
After a visibly bewildered Beatty peeked at the card inside the envelope, Dunaway read the name of the supposed winner. When the La La Land delegation took the stage and speeches began, Seib heard someone shouting the words “No!” and “envelope!” It gradually dawned on him that the announcement had been botched. As the wrong was being righted on stage, Seib focused a long lens on the theater’s first few rows. In a single shot, he caught, among others, David Oyelowo, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Michelle Williams, Busy Philipps, Salma Hayek, and Meryl Streep all looking uniquely confused. Dwayne Johnson can be seen on the far right side of the frame involuntarily doing the People’s Eyebrow. Not long after it appeared in the L.A. Times, the photo became an internet sensation. Seib, for one, doesn’t think it was an exceptionally well-composed picture. “It’s not something I’d frame and hang on the wall,” he said with a laugh. But, he added, “It’s a moment. What made it interesting was seeing how all these people reacted. That was kind of a function of not knowing what was going on.” Tapley, who was writing from home on deadline, felt like a sportswriter. “It must be like you’re writing the Super Bowl story, and the guy’s about to kick the extra point that wins the game, and you pretty much know he’s gonna nail it,” Tapley said. “And holy shit, he didn’t nail it.” When Horowitz spoke up, the fog started to lift. Host Jimmy Kimmel, who’d been getting ready to interview Damon for a closing bit that was ultimately shelved, returned to the stage looking dazed. “This is very unfortunate what happened,” he said before composing himself and delivering this zinger: “Personally, I blame Steve Harvey for this.” Kimmel then turned to Horowitz and said, “I would like to see you get an Oscar anyway. Why can’t we just give out a whole bunch of ’em?” Before Kimmel could finish talking, the producer responded, “I’m gonna be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” After Beatty went to the mic and explained that he had opened the incorrect envelope, the real Best Picture winner finally got its moment. Horowitz recalled handing the Oscar he was gripping to Jenkins. “We put our foreheads together,” Horowitz said. “He’s a bald guy and I’m a bald guy and I remember thinking about how we were both bald and our foreheads were touching.” Patrick T. Fallon’s photograph of the two men hugging made the cover of the next morning’s New York Times.“Very clearly, even in my dreams this could not be true,” Jenkins said after taking the stage. “But to hell with dreams.” After Moonlight producer Adele Romanski spoke, Jenkins got on the mic again. “There was a time when I thought this movie was impossible because I couldn’t bring it fruition,” he said to the crowd, which had risen to its feet, “I couldn’t bring myself to tell another story. And so everybody behind me on this stage said, ‘No, that is not acceptable.’ So I just want to thank everybody up here behind me, everybody out there in that room, because we didn’t do this. You guys chose us. Thank you for the choice. I appreciate it.” Kimmel finished the telecast with a few self-deprecating jokes. “I promise I’ll never come back,” he said in conclusion. “Goodnight.” Minutes later, Horowitz wandered outside, where he had a fast conversation with Gosling about what had just transpired. “I didn’t quite know what was going on,” Horowitz said. Then he and his wife headed to the Governors Ball. The short trip downward required several escalator rides. Horowitz felt like he was floating. On the way to the party, Hart opened Twitter on her phone. “Dude,” she said, “you don’t know what’s happening right now.”
Once Horowitz arrived at the Academy’s official bash, reporters immediately descended. He gave a handful of interviews, but made it known that he had no interest in being portrayed as the Oscars’ savior. “It wasn’t even like admitting defeat or anything,” he said. “It was just dealing with the facts on the ground.” Because Horowitz was in position to do so, he helped right a wrong. That’s all. “It was really important to me to keep the conversation about Moonlight,” he said. “I could just feel the conversation becoming about something else, which I didn’t want.”
Still, a few hours after the movie he directed won Best Picture, Jenkins made a point to tweet about him. “Jordan Horowitz,” he wrote. “Wow. I’m slipping slowly into reflection, perspective. Much respect to that dude.”
The next day, Horowitz attempted to watch a clip of the show’s climax. But when he hit play on the video, his stomach turned. “I’m usually pretty calm about stuff,” he said. “It was so unexpected.” It was, he added, his body’s way of telling him that it wasn’t yet ready to relive such a strange experience. “And so,” Horowitz said, “I didn’t.” He wasn’t physically able to view the replay until later that week. By then he was in New Mexico doing technical scouting for the Hart-directed thriller Fast Color. “I watched it through,” he said, “and I said, ‘Fuck!’” It took him 10 days to respond to all his post-Oscars emails and text messages. “The outpouring was very positive,” Horowitz said. “I think there was a general positivity about our industry that was projected at that moment.” And though it was a moment he wishes never happened, the fallout is proof that an image-obsessed, often-toxic industry—that’s now belatedly and deservedly facing a reckoning—is capable of genuineness.
“I think,” Horowitz said, “a lot of people had forgotten that’s a thing that was possible.”