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

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.

“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 Lost in the fracas, it unceremoniously rescinded sound mixer Greg P. Russell’s “13 Hours” nomination, embarrassing a longtime member on grounds so slippery that consistency would mean countless other nominees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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