'La La Land' producer Jordan Horowitz  announces the actual best picture winner as 'Moonlight' after a presentation error.
Watch: Best picture mix-up on stage
01:02 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a Ph.D. in renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral between Yale University and University College London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

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Kate Maltby: Film actors aren't as confident editing their own scripts as they like to think

When you need to improvise for real, you'd better be able to do it right, she writes

CNN  — 

Janet Jackson endured a wardrobe malfunction – and Warren Beatty now knows all about a script malfunction.

All great stage actors can handle the unexpected, whether it’s a forgotten line or a lost prop. They are trained to improvise and, following a decent rehearsal process, are usually on stage with colleagues they trust implicitly to pick up the pieces and react to their unspoken cues.

Kate Maltby

Beatty didn’t seem to be able to draw on any of these skills when he came on stage to announce the winner of the Best Picture Award at last night’s Oscars – and opened what turned out to be the wrong envelope.

After opening it and scrutinizing the card inside for an age, he leaned into the microphone and declaimed “and the Academy Award for Best Picture…” before thrusting the card like a coward towards his Bonnie and Clyde costar, Faye Dunaway – even though an ounce of initiative would have told him what had happened.

In my career as a theater critic, I’ve seen lots of things go wrong on stage. I was impressed by the actress who, forgetting her lines in the high-profile press performance of a production of Sheridan’s “The Rivals,” simply held position and called firmly out to the wings: ” Can I have a prompt, please?” Admitting when there’s a problem always wins points for honesty. Beatty, ever the attention seeker, compounded his error by grabbing the spotlight back at the end of the show and attempting to justify his behavior.

On another occasion, I saw a team of actors who incorporated a fire alarm into their performance, evacuating the entire audience in character before continuing the show in the street. Passing pedestrians weren’t amused by the in-character racial slurs and a fight nearly broke out.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s duo, “House” and “Garden,” are intended to run simultaneously on two stages. This involves tight exits and entrances for actors racing between theaters. One particular solution to a possible late arrival involved the sound of an angry dog being kept cued up on the audio rig. If an actress needed to fill time she could do so by faking a comedy dog attack while she waited for a co-star to appear.

Perhaps it’s true that, compared to stage actors, film stars are lost without an autocue. Certainly, last night’s chaos looked indicative of a ceremony so sterile, so synthetic, that improvisation would have been inconceivable. Much as we may have wanted to sympathize with such a forgivable human error – who hasn’t experienced this kind of anxiety nightmare? – the fact that most Oscar attendees try to avoid looking human made it tricky.

If only Beatty, Dunaway and the “La La Land” brigade had given an indication of being more than shiny automata on parade. I blame all those metallic dresses.

Fred Berger, one of the film’s producers, began a “thank you” speech, although video replays show he seemed to have already realized that the award had been given in error. What else is a clockwork toy to do, once he’s all wound up and ready to go?

If the evening taught us anything, it’s that film actors clearly aren’t as confident editing their own scripts – or speaking off the cuff – as they like to think.

Individual protest, much mooted, had been muted at this Oscars. We hear a lot from actors about their ability to give a voice to human suffering.

But on the night, where political speech surfaced, it was expressed wordlessly, through costume: Ruth Negga’s ACLU ribbon, Emma Stone’s super-discreet Planned Parenthood broach, Halle Berry’s black-is-beautiful hairdo.

And while the Academy Members rousingly applauded a statement by Asghar Farhadi, who used his absence to protest the immigration policies of Donald Trump, they were less bold about confronting scandal in their own midst. Despite years of racist and sexist outbursts, Mel Gibson proudly strode up the red carpet; Casey Affleck, whose past sexual-harassment allegations (which he denies) have prompted controversy in many circles, was cheered as he won his Oscar.

Perhaps I’d be more sympathetic if the Oscars hadn’t included an attempt at an off-script sensation – the stage-managed arrival of a bus of random tourists who found their way into the front row of the Dolby Theatre. Can you imagine any risk assessor allowing Joe Public to shake hands with Nicole Kidman without a security screening?

There’s a basic lesson in this for actors – if you’re going to pretend you can go off-script, fine. But when you need to improvise for real, you better be able prove you can do it right. We love actors because they show us how human beings deal with life’s curveballs.

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    A great actor can do that in real time, too.