Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight – not, as it turned out, La La Land – won best picture at the Academy Awards in a historic Oscar upset and an unprecedented fiasco that saw one winner swopped for another while the La La Land producers were in mid-speech.
Presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway apparently took the wrong envelope – the one for best actress winner Emma Stone – on to the stage for the final prize.
When they read La La Land as the winner, representatives for ballot tabulators PwC - formerly Price Waterhouse Coopers – realised the mistake and raced on to the stage to try to stop the acceptance speeches.
Host Jimmy Kimmel came forward to inform the cast that Moonlight had indeed won, showing the inside of the envelope as proof. “I knew I would screw this up,” said Kimmel, a first-time host.
Gasps were heard around the auditorium. Presenters, winners and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences huddled to discuss the debacle. Beatty refused to give up the envelopes until he could hand them first to Jenkins. La La Land director Damien Chazelle and Jenkins hugged amid the chaos.
“Even in my dreams this cannot be true,” said an astonished Jenkins, once he reached the microphone. “To hell with dreams! I’m done with it because this is true.”
Backstage, Stone said she was holding her winning envelope at the time. “I think everyone’s in a state of confusion still,” said Stone. Later, the actress, who pledged her deep love of Moonlight, added: “Is that the craziest Oscar moment of all time? Cool!”
It was, nevertheless, a shocking upset considering that La La Land came in with 14 nominations, a record that tied it with Titanic and All About Eve.
Jenkins’s tender, bathed-in-blue coming-of-age drama, made for $1.5 million (R19.4m), is an unusually small Oscar winner. Having made just over $22 million as of Sunday at the box office, it’s one of the lowest grossing best-picture winners ever, but also one of the most critically adored.
The La La Land team were celebrating onstage when producer Jordan Horowitz took to the microphone to say: “There’s been a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture.”
He then graciously passed his statue to the Moonlight producers, saying: “This is not a joke. “I noticed the commotion and thought something strange had occurred,” Jenkins said backstage.
“The last 20 minutes of my life have been insane.”
Moonlight co-star Mahershala Ali, the supporting actor winner, said the conclusion “threw me a bit”.
“I don’t want to go up there and take anything from someone,” he said afterwards. “It’s very hard to feel joy in a moment like that.”
In a statement, PwC apologised to each film, Beatty, Dunaway and Oscar viewers. “The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, this was immediately corrected,” said the accounting firm. La La Land still collected a leading six awards. Chazelle, the 32-year-old filmmaker, became the youngest to win best director. Up until the frenzied end, the telecast had see-sawed between jabs at Donald Trump and passionate arguments for inclusivity.
“All you people out there who feel like there isn’t a mirror out there for you, the academy has your back, the ACLU has your back and for the next four years we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you,” said Jenkins, whose film is, in three chapters, about a young black kid growing up poor and gay in impoverished Miami.
Kenneth Lonergan, the New York playwright, won best original screenplay for Manchester by the Sea.
“I love the movies. I love being part of the movies,” said Lonergan. After the wild ending, Lonergan dead-panned to reporters: “It turned out that we actually won best picture.”
A little later, Affleck – in one of the night’s most closely watched races, won best actor – his first Oscar – for his soulful, grief-filled performance in Lonergan’s film.
Affleck and Denzel Washington (Fences) were seen as neck and neck in the category. An admittedly “dumbfounded” Affleck looked shocked when his name was read.
“Man, I wish I had something bigger and more meaningful to say,” said Affleck, who hugged his more famous brother, Ben, before taking the stage.
The show kicked off with Justin Timberlake dancing down the Dolby Theatre aisles, singing his ebullient song, Can’t Stop the Feeling, from the animated film Trolls.”
It was an early cue that the Oscars would steer, at least in part, toward festiveness rather than heavy-handedness. Protests, boycotts and rallies had swirled before Sunday night’s Oscars. But Kimmel, in his opening monologue, quickly acknowledged that he “was not that guy” to heal a divided America.
But he pointedly led a standing ovation for the “overrated” Meryl Streep and later tweaked the president by tweeting to him on air, including telling him that Streep “says hi.”
Viola Davis, co-star of Denzel Washington’s August Wilson adaptation Fences, won best supporting actress. She and Ali, both widely expected winners, marked the first time in more than a decade that multiple Oscar acting honours went to black actors.
“I became an artist, and thank God I did, because we are the only profession to celebrate what it means to live a life,” said Davis, the best supporting actress winner.
“So here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.”
The evening’s most blunt protest came from a winner not in attendance. Best foreign film for the second time went to Asghar Farhadi, director of Iran’s The Salesman.
Farhadi, who also won for his A Separation, had said he wouldn’t attend because of Trump’s travel ban to seven predominantly Muslim nations. Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian astronaut, read a statement from Farhadi: “I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of six other nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US.”
The broadcast often veered between such strong personal statements and Kimmel’s efforts to keep things a little lighter with bits reminiscent of his late-night show.
Shortly before he led a dazed, unsuspecting tour group into the theatre, presenter Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican actor, declared: “As a migrant worker, as a Mexican, and as a human being, I am against any wall.”
Rich Moore, one of the three directors of Disney’s best animated film winner, Zootopia, described the movie as about “tolerance being more powerful than fear of the other.”
Mel Gibson’s World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge was, surprisingly, the evening’s first double winner, taking awards for editing and sound mixing.
Gibson, for a decade a pariah in Hollywood, was seated front and centre for the show, and was a frequent presence throughout.
Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America took best documentary, making it – at 467 minutes – the longest Oscar winner ever, beating out the 1969 Best Foreign Language Film winner “War and Peace” (431 minutes).
Edelman’s documentary, while it received an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release, was seen by most on ESPN as a serial, prompting some to claim its place was at the Emmys, not the Oscars. Edelman dedicated the award to the victims of the famous crime, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
“This is also for other victims, victims of police violence, police brutality. This is their story as it is Ron and Nicole’s.”
The “OscarsSoWhite” crisis of the last two years was largely quelled this season by a richly diverse slate of nominees, thanks to films like Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures.
A record six black actors were nominated. For the first time ever, a person of colour was nominated in each acting category.
“I want to say thank you to President Trump,” Kimmel said in the opening. “Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”
The nominees follow the efforts by Academy of Motions Pictures Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to diversify the membership of the largely white, older and male film academy.
“Tonight is proof that art has no borders, no single language and does not belong to a single faith,” said Isaacs.