Lessons From ‘La La Land’ as the Curtain Falls on Another Oscar Season

Oscars: Lessons From 'La La Land'
Andrew H. Walker/REX/Shutterstock

Few films can weather the harsh spotlight of being the Oscar frontrunner from the beginning of an awards season all the way to the end. Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” which was perceived as the one to beat from the moment it bowed at the Venice Film Festival, proved this yet again in the closing moments of a telecast that left jaws on the floor.

Being in front for too long leaves a big target on your back. It can actually be beneficial to cede the spotlight to other contenders throughout the race, to help deflect the audience fatigue that comes with dominating a circuit where buzz has become louder and louder.

Best-picture winner “Spotlight” started out strong at festivals but began to take on a dark-horse profile as “The Big Short” and “The Revenant” enjoyed their own moments. Similarly, eventual winner “Birdman” sat idle as “Boyhood” dominated the critics’ awards. And “12 Years a Slave” famously fought tooth and nail with “Gravity” all the way to the finish.

But “La La Land” wasn’t challenged until the very end. It won top honors at the Golden Globes as well as from the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild and nearly 20 critics’ groups. To lose the Oscar, it had to do what no film had done so dramatically since “Brokeback Mountain”: crash on the rocks as a rival rode the wave into shore.


damien chazelle barry jenkins variety oscar cover story

Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins on That Oscars Shocker: The Morning-After Interview

“Moonlight,” it turns out, had those killer moves, addressing themes that seemed especially appropriate given the political climate.

The mood of the country unquestionably changed after Nov. 8. But you can’t say for certain whether that pushed us to the Oscar-night denouement, or if the result said something about the frontrunner being divisive (considering “La La Land” previously won on a preferential ballot with the PGA), or if a record-tying 14 nominations spelled doom as an overreach.

All we can say for sure are the three words “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz boomed from the Dolby Theatre stage: “‘Moonlight.’ Best Picture.” Nothing, not even a colossal blunder, should diminish that. The outcome, director Barry Jenkins told me the day after the ceremony, was “imperfectly perfect.” And as you can see in our cover story this week, these two camps project an inspirational level of mutual affection and admiration.

Meanwhile, the Academy has other issues. Lost in the fracas, it unceremoniously rescinded sound mixer Greg P. Russell’s “13 Hours” nomination, embarrassing a longtime member on grounds so slippery that consistency would mean countless other nominees over the years, from this branch and others, having their nominations stricken from the record as well. There was also a careless photo mistake during designer Janet Patterson’s mention in the In Memoriam segment. Indeed, it was a season bookended by controversy, starting with the scandal surrounding Nate Parker and “The Birth of a Nation” and ending with a mishandled envelope.

Let’s hope we’ve learned something from it.

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  1. John says:

    I stopped watching the telecast several decades ago. It’s so laden with unnecessary bloat that it resembles a three day old dead cow laying by the side of the road in mid-summer. One only needs to see the TV schedule blocked out for it to realize its air time is still completely out of control. I don’t care who’s wearing what, or who it was made by, or if they’re wearing anything at all. I don’t want to watch a variety show, or a stand-up comedy routine, or political speeches. Read off the category, its nominees, hand the winner their gold statue, give the recipient 30 seconds to say thank you, be done with it, and move on to the next category. It could be done in an hour and a half, which was the length of the first ceremony broadcast on TV in 1953 (10:30 PM – Midnight EST). Until its length does get under control and become a real awards ceremony without all the worthless fluff, I’ll just read about who won what on Wikipedia the next morning (used to read it in the morning newspaper).


  2. Connie says:

    I don’t mind all the categories, but start it earlier.

  3. Davis says:

    Put the Oscars on a Saturday night. They go off on the east coast after Midnight on a Sunday night. Way to late. Put The Oscars on a Saturday night!!!!

  4. Here’s how the Oscars travel back from ratings purgatory:

    Cut off the nominees at six. Six in every category; in a bad year for movies like 2011 and 2016 were, no more than four. Picture nominees *must* match Director’s. 3 arthouse films, 3 mainstream blockbusters, with the proviso that the latter MUST resonate with fans AND critics alike. Transformers are persona non grata here, mind you. BALANCE is the answer.

    It’s no accident that 5 of the past 7 years’ BP’s double as the 5 least-seen BP winners in the history of American film. A blind dude can see independent films promoted above the intelligent blockbusters Hollywood presents to us are strangling the life out of the Oscar ratings, and until/unless membership has a come-to-Jesus moment and stop copying the Indie Spirits, the ratings will continue to crater

    • Ethan says:

      I do think there should be more blockbusters nominated when they’re good (like Deadpool or Rogue One last year should’ve been), and that 5 or 6 nominees is better for the category, but a strict quota system seems kinda nuts – hard to tell where the arthouse ends and mainstream movies begin (La La Land made $130 million but still felt plenty arthouse to plenty of people). Also why the Best Director nominees match? That doesn’t make much sense, especially if you want to reward visionary movies that aren’t necessarily Best Picture winners. Argo winning Best Picture while Ang Lee won best director for Life of Pi made plenty of sense – Life of Pi was technically an incredible accomplishment but not the best picture of the year, and Argo was a successful movie about an important subject but didn’t have a ton of personality, seems about on par with most Best Picture winners.

  5. Pat says:

    La La Land was a mediocre movie at best and everyone needs to stop talking about it and focus on the movie that DID win and very legitimately so … Moon light was brilliant.

  6. Tony says:

    1. No host
    2. 2 hour telecast
    3. Short subject, documentary, etc present off air pre-telecast
    4. One sound award not two
    5. One screenplay award
    6. On line public voting during telecast only; update poll results throughout broadcast
    7. Cut off dead mike! Political acceptance speeches. No one wants to hear lectures from those pompous hypocrites
    8. Move to mid January right after Golden Globes. Everyone has award fatigue by March
    9. One relevant musical number; more extended film clips of nominated films and performances
    10. Reunite costars from beloved classic movies as presenters. Show clip from their film

    • M-Wolverine says:

      It’ll never happen, but some real interestingly ideas.

      1. Other than tradition, is there anything we’d miss? The host doesn’t even introduce the presenters anymore. If they can just walk out and present, let them.

      2. I think they currently have 2 hours of commercials.

      3. It’ll kill the Oscar pool, but increase ratings.

      4. It seems like even the people voting don’t know the difference so why not?

      5. I can see the value of the difference of original and having a source, but if you’re not giving an Oscar to the source material too. Plus there’s been some bleed lately.

      6. Increase ratings, freak out Hollywood.

      7. God yes. Or give a set time. 2 minutes, say whatever you want, but 2:01 you’re off. Whether you’re Best Sound Mixer or Meryl.

      8. All the other awards are taking the glow off. Instead of a big finish it’s anti-climatic. Spirit Awards blowing the ceremony? Make it 2 weeks after New Year.

      9. Love it. Pick a big artist, medley.

      10. That didn’t work out so well at the end this year. ;-)

      There are certainly some logistical problems to this, but it’s fun to talk about.

      • DancerDiva says:

        Umm….remember what happened the LAST time beloved costars from a classic movie were presenters. Maybe not that.

      • Aaron says:

        Put the Oscars on a Saturday night. How can people truly enjoy the show knowing they have to get up a few hours after it’s over to go to work on a Monday. Ridiculous.

      • M-Wolverine says:

        I wonder…I know it doesn’t bother Hollywood because most there don’t have a job that requires them to show up on Monday morning, so the more logical Saturday night party doesn’t matter as much, but you have to wonder other than tradition why they’re held on Sunday. I guess in general Tv ratings are bigger on a Sunday than Saturday, but would that be offset by later night viewing on Saturday? Are the Oscars big enough to keep people in on a Saturday night? The Final Four, NFL Playoffs, and lots of other things keep people glued to a TV on Saturday. Can the Academy Awards?

  7. dk says:

    controversy filled sure, but the end result was pretty amazing, the 3 best films’ directors each nabbed Oscars, that’s a great result.
    The real problem is lack of quality. Wouldn’t the performances in Big Little Lies or the entire The Crown have been nominees in years past? They would have been made as films not streaming/tv. So is the best work really being done in the film format? I mean, hell or high water, arrival, lion. were all good-bye Best Pic material? Doubtful. Hate to say it but the oscars just don’t mean what they used to. The business has changed.

  8. Elle Lynn says:

    Al Sharpton wins the new ‘I’ll Tell You Who Wins’ award.

  9. Phillip Ayling says:

    “Let’s hope we’ve learned something from it.”
    That’s going to be the hard part. There are Economic/Studio pressures that cry for as many bragging rights as possible (“Academy nominated film…) for as many films as possible. The inconsistencies about who is disqualified and even who is noted for ‘In Memorium’ is also tied to fame and standing,
    Let’s face it, Show Business is filled with narcissism and Award Shows tied to Show Business can only be done wrong depending on how it breaks for you, your project, your agency or your Studio, etc.

  10. A S says:

    Same thing happened to The Social Network. It had all the big buzz but did not win bext picture.

  11. Paul Hanlin says:

    Here’s how the Oscars travel back from ratings purgatory:
    Cut off the nominees at six. Six in every category; in a bad year for movies like 2011 and 2016 were, no more than four. Picture nominees *must* match Director’s. 3 arthouse films, 3 mainstream blockbusters, with the proviso that the latter MUST resonate with fans AND critics alike. Transformers are persona non grata here, mind you. BALANCE is the answer, Ryan and Sasha. It’s no accident that 5 of the past 7 years’ BP’s double as the 5 least-seen BP winners in the history of American film. Even Stevie Wonder can see that independent films promoted above the intelligent blockbusters Hollywood presents to us are strangling the life out of the Oscar ratings, and until or unless the membership has a come-to-Jesus moment and stop copying the Indie Spirits, the ratings will continue to crater

  12. Michael Anthony says:

    In the grand scheme of things, these are hardly scandals.

    • That's What She says:

      Indeed. None of this matters unless stock shares and bets were at stake. “Audeince fatigue” can only be attributed to “pund-itis”.

  13. Mikael says:

    What I got from this season is that “pundits” are not that good at predictions (I guess they live in their own bubble), they predicted LLL sweep, and it didn’t happen (not even close).
    Also when it comes to preferential ballot Producers guild and the Oscars are not the same, since actors (the largest group in the Academy) are not voting at the PGA awards.
    And congrats to Sasha Stone, pundits should watch closely at her analysis in the next Oscar season :-)

    • M-Wolverine says:

      Eh, Stone picks from her heart and her politics. She just got lucky that her big upset happened this year. Blind squirrel. Most of her other out of the norm picks didn’t come true. She’s a great compiler of the data out there, but if she really had conviction in her pick she wouldn’t have left the Oscars early.

      Tapley used to be the gold standard for picks. But I think his success has hurt him in this area because final picks have to be in early (the 21st, was it?) for clicks where as a blog could have the latest skuttlebutt changes up to right before the Oscars. Used to be you could count on him coming up with something against the grain like Affleck beating Washington, but his against the grain run has had a rough got of it since predicting Jennifer Lawrence to lose.

      Don’t get me wrong; working for a major publication and providing for one’s family and having professional fulfillment over making sure some Internet stranger has the best picks to steal for his pool is the right call 100 out of 100 times. (Or billion) Just saying he’s a good baseline as long as you watch out for the picks where glaringly obvious will probably come to be (like JLaw) or where it’s obvious the academy’s politics are going to win over what may be the best choice as another blind spot. This year it was The Saleman; but it’s happened with 12 Years as a Slave and others. He’s much more right than Stone most times. I just wish the “how did he know that?” picks would come through like they used to. My hope was on Joe’s Violin this year…because I’m sure it’s even more maddening for him when his second choice/next best bet comes through and wins.

      • M-Wolverine says:

        Didn’t you pick The Big Short last year? That would make 1 of the last 4 Best Pictures. (But I may be more sensitive because my pool is weighted). But new voting rules for BP does make it a lot stranger. And I didn’t mean there was a deadline, but there isn’t a lot of click usage for an article the day before the Oscars. That doesn’t matter for a blog that has a loyal following, but for a major publication like Variety they need more days of eye ball opportunity. But good to hear that isn’t a factor, and if there’s a year with some breaking/hot news/rumor/feelings we’ll still get them here.

        But yeah, the whole thing I can see did come off as a backhanded compliment. I was more forewarning the danger of going with the hot/lucky picks this year over year by year consistency. I just didn’t want to oversell it. So sorry if it came off as insulting. This is still the only Oscar watch/entertainment site I bother to post on, because I’m actually invested in In Contention. And meshing it with Variety seemed liked a good merger for everyone involved.

        I do read a number of sites though, and I think the flub at the end of the Oscars was great for ALL the pundits, because besides big news page clicks, it really took the glare off of how wrong most of them were. Not just with Big Picture; that happens. But with the near unanimous opinion on a lot of the tech and smaller categories. (Just one example of many – Jackie for Costume. (With La La Land as an alternative pick). I mean, Make Up was probably worse, but really, I can’t knock anyone for thinking “Suicide Squad – Oscar winner” was something they’d never have to say. (And I didn’t even think the movie was THAT bad.) There was a lot of consensus on categories this year, and a lot of it was surprisingly wrong. So I think you’re in good company when you say you had a bad year – did ANYONE have a good year? I mean a really good year, not just comparative to everyone else. But the insane ending saved a lot of “where did we/I go wrong?” columns post Oscars on all sorts of sites.

        (Related to the other post I can’t say I follow nomination accuracy as much as actual winners, but see above).

      • Not insulting at all! It was an interesting year. We’ll see if we can make sense of the ashes.

      • John G. says:

        “I just wish the ‘how did he know that?’ picks would come through like they used to”

        To defend Kris, he did predict the Kubo effects and the 13 Hours nominations…

      • Eh, I think I was like second among the pundits last year. Total nose dive this year, though. And the early deadline stricture isn’t really a thing. I didn’t have to save my predictions for a column (which has a print deadline). But regardless, there wasn’t much last-minute scuttlebutt to speak of this year. You have BAFTA and you have the buzz during the voting window. But I’ll try harder, Wolverine!

    • It was an off year for the standard logic, no question about it. And I’m happy to concede the point.

      • Matthew Galo says:

        When I saw your final predictions lined up almost squarely with mine for a fun office pool, I was feeling good. Then the actual show started and my pool was obliterated almost instantly lol Oh well, I’ll always love LA LA LAND.

        Enjoying the podcast, too. Keep up the good work.

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