In a moment that will be hard to beat as the strangest, most gasp-inducing thing to have ever and might ever again happen at the Oscars, “Moonlight” was revealed to have been the actual Best Picture winner after “La La Land” had been mistakenly read off the wrong envelope somehow handed to Best Picture presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. “La La Land” was the clear popular front runner expected to win, and already the recipient of 6 Oscars that night, while “Moonlight” was the beloved underdog, the film many hailed as a deeply moving masterpiece. But few believed the small, very-low-budget poetic movie about being gay and black and living amid the scourge of drugs would best the ravishing valentine to love, musicals and movie history. That it ultimately did, even in such a spectacularly weird way, is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to both “Moonlight” and “La La Land”.
First, how did it happen? How does the film that won Best Director (Damien Chazelle) not also win Best Picture? Director/Picture wins used to be the norm at the Academy Awards. But it isn’t anymore. Ever since The Academy expanded the Best Picture list of nominees to be up to ten pictures, there have been more splits between Picture and Director than not. One reason, and I believe the main reason this year, is that the new system has votes for Best Picture tabulated differently than for all the other categories incl. Director. For Director, Academy members simply vote for one out of the five nominees. Whoever gets the most votes wins. But for Best Picture, because there can be up to ten movies (there were nine this year), Academy members are asked to rank their top five choices in order of 1-5 on what is called a “preferential ballot”. PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accountants who somehow got the wrong envelope into Beatty’s hands, never reveal vote tallies, but it is possible for “La La Land” to have received the same leading share (plurality) of votes for director and picture #1 rankings. Let’s pull a number out of the air : 35%. And let’s pretend “Moonlight” and its director Barry Jenkins both got the second most votes for Director and Picture #1’s : 30%. “La La Land” would win best director. 35% wins the plurality vote. But to win Best Picture, over 50% of ballots must end up in the winning movie’s column; so the amount of #2 placements “La La Land” and “Moonlight” received on the ballots that listed the other films on the #1 spot becomes very important. A movie may not get the most #1 votes, but if it picks up most of the #2 votes it can overtake the front runner. This is what apparently happened last year when “Spotlight” won Best Picture while the perceived front runner “The Revenant” received Best Director; and it appears to have happened again this year.
So that’s the likely how, but what’s the why? Sasha Stone at Awards Daily theorizes that front runners that are divisive don’t fair well on the preferential ballot. You can’t just have the most people put the film at #1, you also need most of the rest of the voters to put it at #2 or #3, not at the bottom of their preferential ballot. So, was “La La Land” divisive? Somewhat. There have been several articles and voices that praised “La La Land” while also criticizing it for a perhaps blinkered or naive attitude towards jazz and Hollywood dreamers. There were also those who felt, with everything going on in America right now, that this was not the year for the Academy to elevate escapism over social significance, even while acknowledging how reductive it is to box in “La La Land” with the “escapist” label and “Moonlight” with the “socially relevant” label.
Those factors surely played a role. But more importantly, and positively, I detected a real groundswell of feeling for “Moonlight” building that was not really a reaction against “La La Land” but a passionate personal connection to “Moonlight”. I could hear it in the voices of the many commentators and red carpet attendees during the Oscar pre-show who volunteered how much they were deeply affected by “Moonlight”. There was just so much love and goodwill in the air for what would turn out to be the little movie that could. And this goodwill extended to both movies’ teams. The graciousness with which “La La Land’s” producer Jordon Horowitz announced the error and called up the “Moonlight” team to accept their rightful award (“I’m gonna be really proud to hand this to my friends from ‘Moonlight,'”), the love “Moonlight’s” Barry Jenkins returned to the “La La Land” team from the podium genuinely and movingly capped off a long awards season during which both film’s creators showed each other nothing but admiration and respect. The error with the envelopes must have been painful and disorienting for both film teams, but it also ultimately highlighted their decency, generosity and goodwill, and that elevates them all, particularly in such divisive and ungenerous times as these.
Why do I feel this is ultimately the best thing that could have happened to both “Moonlight” and “La La Land”? The case for “Moonlight” starts with the obvious: winning Best Picture will ensure that it will be much more widely seen; and because it is a critically acclaimed masterpiece that has touched so many so deeply with its rare poetic alchemy, it will surely stand up to history’s judgement over time. Even people whose first choice was “La La Land” are mostly not likely to begrudge “Moonlight” its win. However the opposite was possibly not to be the case, as the growing grumbling about the expected “La La Land” sweep in the last weeks before the ceremony indicated. Sometimes winning Best Picture can hurt a film’s reputation over time, especially when beating out another film perceived as more “deserving”. The most infamous case of a movie being thus damned is when “Crash” won over “Brokeback Mountain”. “Crash”, the well-meaning but flawed rumination on race relations, was Hollywood’s go-to choice when Hollywood wasn’t ready to award the “Gay Cowboy Movie” its top prize. But the homophobia baked into that decision and the subsequent backlash has torn down “Crash’s” reputation with a vehemence it surely wouldn’t have suffered if it hadn’t won. I don’t believe “La La Land’s” future reputation would have been as direly effected if it had beat “Moonlight”, the Gay Movie that Finally Could Win, but now I believe whatever backlash was brewing against “La La Land” before the Academy Awards ceremony will dissipate rather than increase.
So, from an Oscar history perspective, instead of an unfortunate “Crash/Brokeback Mountain” comparison, we can look back further in time to 1972’s “Cabaret/The Godfather” match up. “Cabaret” won a record 8 Oscars without winning Best Picture; that award went to “The Godfather”. “Cabaret” is widely considered a masterpiece. But “The Godfather” is often ranked as one of the greatest movies of all time. What would movie lovers say about “Cabaret” if it had deprived “The Godfather” of Best Picture? The historical comparison goes deeper. “Cabaret” won for its director, lead actress, cinematography, production design, and scoring, an equivalent five out of the six awards “La La Land” won. “The Godfather” won picture, screenplay and actor, almost mirroring “Moonlight’s” picture, screenplay and supporting actor wins. “Cabaret” and “La La Land” are both seminal movie musicals. “The Godfather” and “Moonlight” are both … okay, I think I will not try to stretch this comparison any further.
I think “La La Land’s” future reputation may likely thrive more without winning Best Picture than with the win. And the movie has been richly rewarded with 6 Oscars, singling out the individuals most responsible for its popular and artistic success, the director/writer Damien Chazelle, lead actress Emma Stone, the composer Justin Hurwitz, cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Yet happily the deeply beloved underdog “Moonlight” was not deprived but elevated, and so a sense of good feeling is more likely to prevail than any negative hindsight. The strange, awkward, sensational way the best Picture Oscar was awarded this year may always be seen as unfortunate, but it also shines an extra light on both films for history books, and may thus ultimately burnish their reputations and legacies even more.
PS: All winners in all categories can be found here.