But it took several minutes for the Academy Awards producers and accountants to rectify the mistake and get the actual winners onstage to accept Hollywood’s biggest honor.
Officials with PricewaterhouseCoopers, the longtime Oscars accounting firm, have since apologized for the error and said they are “investigating how this could have happened.” And the forces behind both films have spoken out in deep appreciation for each other’s work. But that moment when one picture won and then quickly lost to another is being compared to a “Shakespearean tragedy.”
It all started when Beatty opened the envelope to read the winner for best picture. He looked confused, took a long pause and then glanced at Dunaway, who clearly thought he was doing some sort of bit.
“You’re impossible!” she said, as the crowd laughed nervously. “Come on!” Beatty handed the envelope to Dunaway, who announced: “La La Land!”
As the cameras cut away to the cast and crew of “La La Land” hugging, Beatty could be heard saying something such as, “It says Emma Stone,” with Dunaway replying, “What?”
It would make (a little bit) of sense shortly.
The “La La Land” team arrived on stage, and producers Jordan Horowitz and Marc Platt delivered their speeches.
All of a sudden, there was a flurry of activity behind them. A man with a headset started talking to several people, as did Martha Ruiz, one of two accountants in charge of tabulating Oscar ballots — and, therefore, one of the only two people who knew all the winners before the show.
He thanked his family and director Damien Chazelle, then turned around to look at the sudden commotion behind him.
“We lost, by the way — but, you know,” he said, shrugging. “There’s a mistake.”
Standing behind him, Stone could be seen mouthing, “Oh, my God.”
Huh? That’s when Horowitz stepped forward again. “Guys, guys, I’m sorry. No. There’s a mistake,” he said. “‘Moonlight,’ you guys won best picture.”
“This is not a joke,” Platt interjected. “I’m afraid they read the wrong thing.”
Confused gasps and stunned silence from the crowd quickly turned into a standing ovation.
“This is not a joke,” Horowitz repeated. “‘Moonlight’ has won best picture.”
Horowitz then held up the card that proved it: “‘Moonlight’ … Best Picture.”
As the audience in the theater and millions of viewers at home tried to process what had just happened, the cameras went to the cast of “Moonlight” in the crowd, clearly in shock and hugging one another.
Host Jimmy Kimmel arrived on stage to help sort things out and crack jokes.
“I think you guys should keep it anyway. Guys, this is very unfortunate what happened. Personally, I blame Steve Harvey for this,” Kimmel said, name-checking the last person who made an epic mix-up on live TV.
Kimmel then turned to Horowitz.
“I would like to see you get an Oscar, anyway,” he said. “Why can’t we just give out a whole bunch of them?”
But Horowitz quickly demurred: “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from ‘Moonlight.’”
“That’s nice of you,” Kimmel said.
Beatty then stepped forward to the microphone to try to clear up some of the confusion: “Hello,” he started.
“Warren, what did you do?!” Kimmel yelled.
Beatty went on to explain: “I want to tell you what happened. I opened the envelope and it said, ‘Emma Stone, La La Land.’” (Stone had just won best actress moments before.)
“That’s why I took such a long look at Faye, and at you. I wasn’t trying to be funny,” he said to the audience.
“Well, you were funny,” Kimmel told him.
“This is ‘Moonlight,’ the best picture,” Beatty said, showing everyone the correct card.
Kimmel then replied: “Yeah, but no one is going to remember that now. I don’t know what happened. We will analyze every bit of it.”
The cast of “Moonlight” took the stage, as the camera panned to more shocked celebrity faces in the audience.
“Very clearly, even in my dreams this could not be true,” “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins said. “But to hell with dreams! I’m done with it, because this is true. Oh, my goodness.”
He turned his attention to the “La La Land” team: “I have to say, and it is true, it’s not fake. We’ve been on the road with these guys for so long, and that was so gracious, and so generous of them. My love to ‘La La Land,’ my love to everybody.”
Producer Adele Romanski took the stage.
“Um, thank you? To the Academy? I don’t know what to say. I’m still not sure this is real,” she started. “It is so humbling to be standing up here with hopefully still the ‘La La’ crew? No, okay, they’re gone.”
She went on to say that she hopes the movie is inspiring to “people, little black boys and brown girls and other folks watching at home who feel marginalized.”
Kimmel returned to the microphone to close out the show.
“Well, I don’t know what happened; I blame myself for this,” he said. “Let’s remember, it’s just an awards show. I mean, we hate to see people disappointed, but the good news is, we got to see some extra speeches. We had some great movies. I knew I would screw this show up, I really did. Thank you for watching. I’m back to work tomorrow night at my regular show. I promise I’ll never come back. Good night.”
The only thing left to figure out: Seriously, how in the world did that happen?!
Stone later explained that she was holding her best actress trophy and the official Oscars card with her name on it at the time “La La Land” was announced as the winner of the best picture award.
“Of course it was an amazing thing to hear ‘La La Land,’” Stone said. “We would have loved to have won best picture. But we are so excited for ‘Moonlight.’ I think it’s one of the best films of all time. I was also holding my ‘best actress in a leading role’ card that entire time. So whatever story, I don’t mean to start stuff, but whatever story that was, I had that card.”
E! later reported that Beatty was handed the wrong envelope and showed a close-up shot of the envelope labeled as such.
Other close-ups showed Beatty with a card reading “Actress in a Leading Role.”
PricewaterhouseCoopers partners Brian Cullinan and Ruiz explained in a Medium Q&A earlier this month that there are actually two envelopes on Oscars night for each category.
“We each have a full set,” Cullinan said. “I have all 24 envelopes in my briefcase; Martha has all 24 in hers. We stand on opposite sides of the stage, right off-screen, for the entire evening, and we each hand the respective envelope to the presenter.”
He added: “It doesn’t sound very complicated, but you have to make sure you’re giving the presenter the right envelope.”
It turns out that Cullinan had handed Beatty the wrong envelope. PricewaterhouseCoopers chairman and senior partner Tim Ryan told USA Today that the officials made a “human error.”
“We made a mistake,” he said. “What happened was, our partner on the left side of the stage, Brian Cullinan, he handed the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty. And then the second we realized that we notified the appropriate parties and corrected the mistake.”
The Wall Street Journal noted that just three minutes before Beatty took the stage, Cullinan tweeted a backstage photo with Emma Stone, who had just won best actress. “Best Actress Emma Stone backstage! #PWC,” reads the now-deleted tweet.
The newspaper reported Cullinan and Ruiz were on opposite sides of the stage, and each had a full set of the envelopes containing the names of the winners “because they can’t be certain ahead of time which side of the stage presenters will enter from, according to people close to the production.” From the Wall Street Journal report:
Ms. Ruiz gave the best-actress envelope to presenter Leonardo DiCaprio, the knowledgeable people said, which resulted in Mr. Cullinan having the extra envelope for that category, which he inadvertently gave to Mr. Beatty. The best actress award was presented immediately before best picture.
“We apologize to the cast of La La Land for having to have made those speeches in the time that it took to (correct it),” Ryan told USA Today. “Immediately when it was announced, again, because of our mistake, both our partners who knew who the winner was – and they’re the only two who know – they realized the mistake had been made and they began to notify the appropriate people.
He added: “It was a little chaotic and just took time to get out onstage and let people know that the mistake was made. And unfortunately that took enough time to get through two and a half acceptance speeches.”
According to USA Today, which had a reporter in the wings when the wrong best picture winner was announced, one of the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants jumped up, said Beatty had taken the wrong envelope, and rushed onstage.
“Oh, my God. ‘Moonlight’ won. ‘Moonlight’ won,” a stagehand said, according to USA Today’s account.
Minutes lapsed before the mistake was corrected — more than enough time for the “La La Land” crew and cast to celebrate a victory, meander to the stage and begin acceptance speeches.
“Why didn’t the producers of the show rush to the stage when the wrong winner had been announced?!” Jessica Chastain wrote on Twitter. “I feel bad for
#lalaland producers AWKWARD.”
After the awards ceremony, Horowitz, the co-producer, provided a play-by-play on E!, explaining that he had taken the envelope after the winner was announced and held the card as he gave his acceptance speech.
“There was a guy, a stagehand guy, who started kind of buzzing around, looking for the envelope,” he said.
Eventually, the envelope was found. He “opened it, and it said ‘Emma Stone, La La Land’ on it,” Horowitz said. “At that moment, it was clear there was a problem. They eventually found the best picture envelope.”
Jenkins, the “Moonlight” director, later said backstage that “I think all the movies that were nominated were worthy, so I accepted the results. I applauded like everyone else. I noticed the commotion that was happening, and I thought something strange had occurred. And then I’m sure everybody saw my face. But I was speechless when the result — that was awkward, because I’ve watched the Academy Awards, and I’ve never seen that happen before. And so it made a very special feeling even more special, but not in the way I expected.”
He told reporters that he was not given any explanation for the mix-up.
“Things just happen, you know?” he said.
“I wanted to see the card,” he said, adding: “Warren refused to show the card to anybody before he showed it to me. And so he did. He came upstairs, and he walked over to me, and he — he showed the card.
“Everybody was asking, ‘Can I see the card?’ And he’s like, ‘No, Barry Jenkins has to see the card. I need him to know.’ And he showed it to me, and I felt better about what had happened.”
During an interview with the The Washington Post, Horowitz said there was “so much confusion” and “there needed to be some real definitive clarity and truth in that moment,” so he stepped up to do his job.
“In a crisis, [producers] are levelheaded and decisive, and I try to operate from a place of doing what’s right on a moment-to-moment basis,” he said in a telephone interview. “There was a real breakdown of process and setting it right was, in my mind, the only option.”
Horowitz was thrust into the spotlight for springing into action, but he said, “That moment on stage was not about anything but moving the spotlight to where it should have rightfully been.”
“Moonlight” actor André Holland said in a New York Times interview that he was sitting in the hall with some colleagues when he heard Horowitz announce that his team’s victory was a mistake.
“We all looked at each other and were like, ‘Is this a joke?’” he said. “We waited and kept watching — we didn’t want to celebrate until we knew if it was a joke and whether this was really happening. It was surreal.”
Jenkins took pains to tell the reporters that “the folks from ‘La La Land’ were so gracious. I can’t imagine being in their position and having to do that. … I wasn’t speechless because we won. I was speechless because I — it was so gracious of them to do that.”
“It’s unfortunate that things happened the way they did,” Jenkins added. “But hot damn, we won best picture.”
Jenkins called it a “Shakespearean tragedy.”
“I don’t know if it diminished the celebration for us; it just made it much more complicated,” he told “CBS This Morning.” “I think the celebration is bound up now between our film, ‘La La Land’ and the Academy in a very complicated way.”
His co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney chimed in.
“It made it difficult to say all the thank-yous we needed to say,” he said, “but at the same time, it was a great way to show the camaraderie and love that we all have for both of the films.”
This post has been updated.