“It’s just an awards show. We hate to see people disappointed.”
Thus spoke host Jimmy Kimmel at the wild conclusion to the 2017 Academy Awards, which ended with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty mistakenly announcing that “La La Land” had been awarded best picture — an error that was reversed only after the acceptance speeches had begun. “Moonlight,” director Barry Jenkins’s piercing portrait of a young gay man’s growing-up in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood was named the actual best picture.
It was a confusing, crushing spectacle made worse by the way the two movies had been pitted against each other in the run-up to the ceremony: The outcome of the contest for best picture set up as a referendum on Hollywood’s racial attitudes and ability to see beyond movies that celebrate the entertainment industry itself.
“La La Land” had been subjected to scorching criticism in the run-up to the Academy Awards, some of which to me has read as critics in search of damning arguments. The light, sweet musical is not, as some have alleged, about a white man saving jazz as an art form. Instead, it has a plot about how a black artist (John Legend) is doing more to find jazz new audiences than a white jazz purist (Ryan Gosling), though it does include a scene in which that white man explains to a white woman (Emma Stone) why he loves the music so much. It is not a crass celebration of careerism over love; in fact, it’s rueful and clear about the sacrifices the characters have made along the way, and the pain those choices caused them. And given everything else that’s happening in American civic life and geopolitics, a win for “La La Land” would probably not even register on the scale of — as one headline put it — “a disaster for Hollywood — and us.”
But I’m hard-pressed to imagine that even the people belittling “La La Land” are getting much satisfaction from the schadenfreude of the moment. It must be shattering to have the best moment of your professional life arrive, to be filmed celebrating it in footage that will become an inevitable part of Hollywood history and Oscar commentary for years to come and then to have the moment pass. And it wasn’t even a member of the Oscar team who announced the error: “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz ended up passing the Oscar and the torch to the “Moonlight” team.
For as awful as I feel for everyone involved with “La La Land,” what’s even worse about this colossal error is the way it denied everyone involved with “Moonlight” their moment of triumph: from being announced as winners in an uncomplicated way with an untainted round of applause, and from getting to give acceptance speeches out from under the shadow of people who had already spoken and who had suffered a crushing disappointment.
Marisa Tomei has lived for years with the rumors that her best supporting actress award for “My Cousin Vinny” was a mistake. The “Moonlight” team will at least be spared that, since the official card certifying their win was displayed for the camera.
“Moonlight” was made by an extraordinary group of people: from Jenkins to playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney who accepted the best adapted screenplay Oscar with Jenkins; to stars Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, who play the film’s main character, Chiron, as a child, a teenager and a young man; to Mahershala Ali, who was named best supporting actor for his work as the sensitive drug dealer Juan who recognizes something fragile and rare in Chiron and tries to protect it; to Janelle Monáe and Naomie Harris, who played the women in Chiron’s life; and to Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland, who play Kevin, the love of Chiron’s life. They don’t deserve to feel second-best or like their win was snatched from the abyss at the last moment, and delivered to them in tainted, diminished terms. I hate that this happened to them.
And I hate that the contest between “Moonlight” and “La La Land,” which was framed as a litmus test about race and the entertainment industry, ended in confusion and a reversal that emphasized the sense that they were locked in a zero-sum contest, and that for “Moonlight” to win, “La La Land” not merely had to lose, but to be defeated.
The truth is that both “Moonlight” and “La La Land” are highly moving, original works, and they went toe-to-toe during the ceremony, with “Moonlight” picking up three awards to “La La Land’s” five. Both movies produced a winner of an acting award. Both Jenkins, 37, and “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle, 32, are young directors of tremendous vision who are going to compete for Academy Awards again, maybe even against each other. Let’s hope the next time they do, they aren’t pitted against each other in a way that mirrors an ugly idea about racial progress that is ascendant in our politics: that the only way for members of one community to advance is at the expense of another. The Oscars ended in a painful way, but the wins “Moonlight” and “La La Land” racked up throughout the evening means we’ll be getting outstanding movies from both Jenkins and Chazelle for years to come. That’s good for moviegoers, and good for America.