Here’s How the ‘Best Picture’ Snafu Happened — and What it Reveals About How We Think




Best Supporting Actor winner (for Moonlight) Mahershala Ali and Best Actress winner (for La La Land) Emma Stone, not the least bit at odds with the others’ success.

For both of you who’ve missed this, the presenters of Best Picture award at Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony announced that the wrong picture — La La Land, when the correct picture was Moonlight — had received the Oscar.  With help from the LA Times, OJB can explain how it happened.

(1) For each category, there are two briefcases, one in each wing, containing a card with the name of the winner in that category.

(2) What happened was that somehow they sent out the *second* briefcase containing the card for the “Best Actress” award (to Emma Stone for “La La Land”) rather than the *first* briefcase with the “Best Picture” award (to “Moonlight”.)

(3) When he opened the envelope and looked at the card, Beatty knew that something was wrong, based on the wrong award category title. He fumfered around a but, but no one came to his rescue, so he passed it on to Dunaway. Dunaway, having been put on the spot, just saw the words “La La Land” on the card and so she announced it as the winner.


It was a backstage error, in other words, not an onstage error. Label the briefcases better next time and write the category name in BIG RED LETTERS rather than tiny italic script at the bottom.

In fact, everyone onstage handled the error with as much class and dignity as possible. None of us are going to forget “who won best Oscar in the 2017 award show?” anytime soon; La La Land and Moonlight are bound together in memory, which is all right by me!

The immediate reactions to the event, captured on Facebook and Twitter, do tell us some interesting things about ourselves, though — and they’re not particularly comforting.

  1. The immediate reaction was to blame Warren Beatty, presenting him as a doddering old fool.  In fact, he was anything but: he caught the error that someone else had made, but didn’t know what to do next other than delay.  The thought did occur to him, apparently, that maybe it was something that someone else could figure out better than he could.  So he passed it to Faye Dunaway, who announced La La Land as the winner.
  2. The next reaction was the blame Faye Dunaway, presenting her as the doddering old fool.  That too was unfair.  She didn’t know why Beatty had been stammering and drawing out the process — it could have been anything from losing his glasses to a mini-stroke to, well, his being doddering and old.  She knew that time on live TV was wasting, so she took the card, looked for the movie name, and read it out.
  3. The next reaction after that, among some people, was to call out “conspiracy!”  In this case, it would have been a conspiracy of “political correctness,” as the “white” film was quickly replaced by the “black” film that was (supposedly) more to the liking of the people who control everything behind the scenes.

What didn’t occur to people — apparently even after Beatty had (somewhat courageously in his own self-defense, as he had seemed to be the fall guy) given a short explanation of what he had seen — is that the problem could have been a screw-up by the accounting firm, the stage managers, and/or the people who designed the cards (putting the category name down at the bottom in small and ornate script, where Dunaway, obviously in a hurry, would not have noticed it) or more critically designed the briefcases themselves would could have been marked in such a way that it would have been much harder to make this sort of mistake.

As the “La La Land” cast was taking the stage to celebrate, a stagehand in the wings said, “Oh … Oh my god, he got the wrong envelope.” They walked back and forth repeating it.

Stagehands, actors, production crew and journalists were stunned. Oscars producer Michael De Luca was peering into his monitor, trying to figure it out. Champagne glasses sat on the table next to him. They had been poured moments earlier to celebrate a good show.

The academy doesn’t know what went wrong. Stage manager Gary Natoli came running past just now saying, “Warren is holding on to the envelope. He will not release it.”

The problem, in other words, was not the hapless actors presenting the awards or a suddenly revealed conspiracy: it was some “reliable” corporate agent that was not even suspected of being liable to screw up … screwing up.  Hubris, insufficient planning, diffident supervision etc.: the sorts of things that happen all of the time were the problem.

But we’ve been trained out of thinking that the nameless and faceless might deserve the blame more than the soft targets of celebrity.  They are somehow above suspicion, and will probably never have to suffer the fair abuse that the blameless Bonnie and Clyde of 50 years ago will nevertheless have to endure, because first impressions matter and the public will go right on thinking that Beatty and or Dunaway screwed up.  That’s politics for you!

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)