The Oscars Telecast: A Well-Oiled Machine That Got the Monkey Wrench It Deserved

Oscar best picture mistake
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

You’ve got to say this for the jaw-dropping OMG, did that just happen? mistake that provided the climax for the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony: If you’re going to subject 32 million viewers to the most spectacularly embarrassing and inexplicable glitch in the history of televised awards shows, then it helps, in some weird way, if the mistake turns out to be a poetically symbolic glitch. In this case, that’s just how it came off.

La La Land,” the movie that Faye Dunaway announced as the winner (after her co-presenter, Warren Beatty, spent 10 seconds looking up and down at the card in front of him as if it were written in Hungarian), wasn’t merely the evening’s presumed frontrunner. It was the establishment candidate, with a record-tying 14 nominations, the movie that more or less everyone expected to emerge as the night’s big juggernaut of a winner. Had “La La Land” taken best picture, it would have felt like the inevitable finale of what was very much, in form and spirit, a don’t-rock-the-boat evening: no dramatic upsets, no history-making speeches (though Viola Davis’ was soaring in its eloquence), no hijacking of the night by anti-Trump protests, the whole production ruled by the kind of cautious “good taste” that can make you long, in your secret heart, for the days when the Oscars had the courage — or maybe just the showbiz innocence — to be a little more trashy and vulgar.

Moonlight,” on the other hand, wasn’t just the long-shot challenger. It was the underdog candidate freighted with meaning. In a year that was supposed to be the answer to #OscarsSoWhite, “Moonlight,” which dominated many critics’ awards groups, was the ultimate signifier of #OscarsSoDiverse, a one-film trifecta of identity politics, the story of a poor black gay Miami youth that, if it could somehow pull off an upset and defeat “La La Land” (as some predicted it would), would end up being the first true low-budget up-from-the-underground independent film to take the ultimate prize at the Academy Awards.

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The fact that Beatty and Dunaway were on hand to present the best picture award carried its own delicious symbolic weight. The two were reunited, of course, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bonnie and Clyde,” the revolutionary gangster drama that, in 1967, kicked off the New Hollywood. It was an inspired choice of presenters, one that raised a fascinating and nearly philosophical question: Which movie was the more fitting descendent of the New Hollywood? The glossy neo-classical “La La Land”? Or the grungy avant-empathetic “Moonlight”?

You could make a case either way — it depends, probably, on which film you happen to love more. But the way that the evening’s extraordinary, destined-for-the-Oscar-history-books mistake played out, it was as if Beatty and Dunaway, though they were up on stage to represent “Bonnie and Clyde” (a boundary-busting work of art), were now the aged representatives of a Hollywood establishment that had been built by standing on that movie’s shoulders. In getting the 2017 best picture winner wrong, even though it wasn’t their fault, it was almost as if there was a karmic conspiracy afoot to deny “Moonlight” — the upstart movie, the movie of the dispossessed, the outsider movie — its victory.

I won’t add any implication of racist conspiracy, but just take a look at the number one movie in the country this weekend — “Get Out,” a super-smart horror film about … racist conspiracy — and it’s easy to imagine such an accusation rearing its head over the next day or so. Emma Stone, for one, punctuated her backstage interview, in which she was incredibly gracious about the victory of “Moonlight” (calling it one of the best movies ever made), with a conspiratorial touch of her own: the assertion that she was holding the winner’s card with her name on it — the card that Beatty claimed he took out of the envelope — the entire time. So was there a second envelope on the grassy knoll?

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Maybe we can agree on this: The 2017 best picture glitch will be referenced for years to come, but it’s seriously doubtful that will be true of much else about this year’s ceremony, since any hint of real drama was more or less squeezed out of it. Jimmy Kimmel proved to be a host of bone-dry flair, one who knew how to keep the spiky insults humming. The show, he said in his opening monologue, was being broadcast to “225 countries who now hate us” — a good line, though that was about as politically dangerous as the evening got. Kimmel got off a few tweaks about Trump (“Remember last year, when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”), but his best lines were about the movies themselves, as when he described this year’s crop of nominees as being about how “black people saved NASA and white people saved jazz,” or when, speaking for the Academy, he said, “We didn’t see ‘Elle,’ but we absolutely loved it!” That said, he shouldn’t have followed that joke with one about how no one saw “Captain Fantastic” either. You don’t want the person hosting the Oscars to come off like a yahoo who thinks that most of the films nominated are too tiny to give a damn about.

Kimmel’s Letterman-knockoff gambits worked well, as when he paraded a crew of passengers from a Hollywood tour bus into the Dolby Theatre, provoking the most spontaneous movie-star interplay since Ellen DeGeneres’ selfie, or when he presented an all-star cavalcade of Mean Tweets. But those were the rare interludes that goosed a show that ran like a well-oiled machine yet was notably lacking in pace, excitement, surprise. I felt there was something off from the get-go in having Justin Timberlake open the telecast with a strolling-through-the-crowd performance of “Can’t Stop the Feeling” — and I say that as someone who thinks that “Trolls,” the movie the song is from, is the most exhilarating animated picture of the year. (It wasn’t nominated.) The trouble was, it felt like the opening of the Grammys. It’s a cool song, but it didn’t immerse you in movie love. And the energy flagged from there.

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The producers should really think about mixing a few of the major awards — like, say, the screenplay honors — into the first two hours of the ceremony. Because let’s be honest: They’re way too slow. The reason the Oscars seem to have lost something in recent years is that movie stars are now endlessly exposed (there’s a red carpet somewhere three times a week), and with all that media space to fill, stardom itself comes cheaper. It used to be that you watched the Oscars waiting to see how celebrities carry and present themselves, and how they looked when they wrapped themselves in Givenchy or Armani, but in an all-celebrity-all-the-time culture, the thrilling singularity of that has faded, so the first three acts of the Oscar ceremony almost seemed to be coasting. I counted only one rude musical cutoff, and that’s because everyone giving an acceptance speech now seems to be on his or her best behavior. They cut themselves off before the orchestra has a chance to.

Receiving the award for best supporting actor, Mahershala Ali gave a lovely speech, impeccable in its modesty and feeling, but it was the last speech for a long time — probably until Davis’ — that had any sort of resonance. Casey Affleck, who seemed on fire in the speech he made the night before, at the Independent Spirit Awards, here radiated a sense of humble exhaustion; he seemed honestly grateful to win best actor, but also a tad benumbed by the whole process. Stone, on the other hand, made you feel that winning best actress had woken her right up, as she said to various unnamed associates, “I’m going to hug the hell out of you when the feeling re-enters my body.”

Even before the big glitch, “La La Land” didn’t dominate the Oscars the way many thought it would. I don’t just mean in terms of how many awards it got. It didn’t dominate the awards in spirit. The decision to have John Legend perform a perfunctory medley of the film’s two nominated songs, “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” was typical. How efficient! But neither song was allowed to take wing. There was something businesslike about the Oscars this year. They rolled along, with each award feeling sort of like the one before it, and so the show was only rarely infused with the personalities of the movies it was celebrating. Until, of course, that ending, which might have seemed a smudge on the victory of “Moonlight,” except that the film emerged as almost a bigger winner than it might have otherwise. Just like Chiron, the movie’s own hero, it got beaten, knocked down, defeated. Until it looked up at the Oscars and said, “Whoa, this love is for me.”

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  1. Mary E Winborn says:

    Many didnt even see this chaos. The reason being that they didnt watch the show,as they were so tired of hearing the whining political losers take up precious time on what should be a happy occasion. Enough is enough. The childish complaining and unfunny,clunker remarks made by Kimmel, should stop.( Get a writer.) If people want to make political remarks, they should buy their own air time to do it and not be so cheap and stop insulting the people who voted for the President.

    • freeek says:

      Oh and not that Hillary was a better choice, in fact the whole election process between the two was like a horror satire.
      So of course there should be biting comments from filmmakers and other artists.
      Art often works as a judging mirror to society and politics. If you really think its only purpose is to serve you lightweight entertainment, you must be living somewhere behind the moon.

    • freeek says:

      Nonsense, if some of the nominated films and even more so the nominated documentaries address social and political issues you really expect the filmmakers and actors not to make any comments about those issues whatsoever?? What are you smoking?
      And btw the whole world is wondering how people could really vote for someone as unfit as Trump, he acts like a child with a serious temper problem. His entire campaign is clown show.

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  4. Kevin Lynch says:

    The only important thing to know about La La Land is that it has moved people all over the world and will wind up the only musical film ever made that will deliver $400 million in world wide sales without a literary or musical precursor to drive it (Les Miz, Mamma Mia). Unique. A massive achievement.

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  7. Angeleno says:

    I have to disagree with Mr. Gleiberman on this one. I thought the Justin Timberlake opening worked wonderfully to get the place livened up at the beginning, and it let Jimmy Kimmel start out very suavely in his elegant tux, instead of wading his way through some overdone production number. Kimmel did a great job as host, riding the line of just enough snark to be fun without ever crossing the line to truly mean. I’m still not to sure about the tourist bit, but it was pretty much saved by “Gary’s” enthusiasm and Denzel Washington being a sport and jumping in to help out. A lot of people seem not to like the food parachuting in, but I thought it was hilarious because all I kept thinking about was all the little parachute things bringing various helpful items to the tributes in “The Hunger Games”! Even the snafu over best picture was salvaged by Jordan Horowitz stepping forward to try and get the chaos under control and the gracious way he handled getting the Oscar to the group from “Moonlight,” as well as the equally gracious way Barry Jenkins praised “La La Land.” Very classy job by both of them in the middle of all that mess on stage. It could have been a much uglier scene if not for the good will of those two guys. It certainly ended up being a show that none of us will forget any time soon!

  8. AllWiledUp says:

    Owen’s turning into a grumpy old man. That was the best Oscars in years, Kimmel was a great host caustic and funny. Not too many actors trying to get attention by flaunting their political correctness, leaving that to the genuinely aggrieved like the director of The Salesman. Even the mess at the end was fabulous! Who remembers what movie won last year? Er, I don’t. But we’ll always remember the LaLa Land and Moonlight screw-up. They’re both legendary now.

  9. Lisa says:

    Yes, even Ben Mulroney, the Canadian Etalk host, commented that the Tour Bus part may have been a bit fudged since while he was outside he saw that the whole road was red carpet, not like the bare payment shown in the shot of the tour bus. As well, who’s out bus touring at 8 pm at night? And why would the holidaymakers be so surprised upon entrance knowing it’s the Oscars that night?
    Anyway, I enjoyed it. Watching felt inspirational as all get out.

  10. And it’s Gleiberman once again who gets it ALL wrong, as usual. If a “don’t-rock-the-boat evening” consists of first Muslim actor winning an Oscar, Davis becoming the first black person with the acting “triple crown”, youngest director to win ever Direction, longest Oscar losing streak ends for Kevin O’Connell, and the first woman to produce two Best Pictures, then I guess we’re just humdrum bored losers compared to you, Gleiberman! Or are you referring the telecast not “Cops”-like enough for us to be really entertained?!

  11. AC says:

    Couldn’t disagree with you more. I thought this year’s show was extraordinary. Kimmel was great and the show seemed to fly by, especially when compared to previous years. I blame the ending snafu on PWC and not on the producers or on Kimmel. I’d love to see him back next year.

  12. Mary says:

    Unfortuntely, the Oscars just keep getting boring and ridiculous each year. Broadcast something else Hollywood. How about just your talent.

  13. Richard Davidson says:

    What a bunch of morons….and they want us to follow their lead politicly?

  14. Daryle says:

    I disagree with Owen, too. I thought it was one of the best Oscar telecasts in years, and Jimmy Kimmel did a terrific job. From a political standpoint, I think Hollywood “had its say” there, but in a shrewd way that didn’t give Donald Trump a lot to tweet about. Thank goodness!

  15. Mark says:

    Just a thought Mr Gleiberman, but maybe you’ve been covering Hollywood just a little to long. Perhaps a late in life career change would make you a little less dour?

  16. Dex says:

    One of the best in years. From the energetic Timberlake opening to Kimmel’s flawless hosting, the
    telecast was lively and kept everyone engaged.
    Really thrilled for all the winner’s including the little indie that could… “Moonlight.”

  17. JC says:

    The glum in Hollywood after being defeated by the American people in November 2016 seems to be on parade… and the ending the coup de grace….. “CUT CUT” !!

  18. Del Mar says:

    Conspiracy theory #1: Beatty and Dunaway conspired to create a perfectly Trumpian car wreck “reality” moment whose result was entirely consistent with their own “New Hollywood” experience.

  19. Geri McCall-Barrath says:

    Kimmel did a great job. The Matt Damon jokes were good and the unexpected joy of Gary from Chicago was lots of fun. The best joke of the night was his comment to Meryl Streep – “Nice dress, is that an Ivanka?” Mistakes happen – if certainly woke up everyone who was watching at home. In a year where none of the nominated films inspired a ton of love from audiences outside of Hollywood the mistake was a terrific way to end the night – almost as if it had been scripted.

  20. Steve Rubin says:

    Owen, Take a chill pill – I thought Kimmel was the best host this show has had in years. His interplay with Matt Damon alone was hysterical, the tour bus vignette was LOL and there were a lot of cool moments you didn’t mention like Seth Rogan and Michael J. Fox. All in all a total pro show.

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