Seymour: Up until its strange ending, this year's Oscar ceremony had already been an above-average clutter of topical humor and sincerely noteworthy moments
With all these potentially transformative moments, it's a shame that all people will talk about is what led to the best picture award being announced twice
Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
“Moonlight” won. Let’s be very clear about that before we talk about anything else.
The same Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that has bestowed its best picture award to such glossy, hallowed artifacts as “Gone With the Wind,” “An American in Paris” and “The Godfather” this year gave its biggest prize to a small, critically acclaimed and artistically daring film about a troubled African-American youth struggling with a broken home, confronting his sexuality and stalked by the prospect of violence.
The significance of this best picture award can’t be understated and its essence, the potential broadening of storytelling possibilities for American movies, was best summarized earlier in the evening when “Moonlight” collected the best adapted screenplay Oscar for director Barry Jenkins and co-producer Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the original semi-autobiographical stage play “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue.”
“This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender conforming, who don’t see themselves, we’re trying to show you and us,” McCraney said in their acceptance speech.
At that point in the 89th annual Academy Awards, already groundbreaking in its broad presence of African-American nominees in several categories, many in the audience and millions watching on television believed that would be the only other major award “Moonlight” would collect – besides the best supporting actor prize won by Mahershala Ali for playing the gangster who takes the baffled young protagonist under his care.
With all these potentially transformative moments in play, it’s a shame that all people will talk about, from this day forward, is what led to the best picture award being announced twice; first as a mistake, then as a correction.
At the center of it all was Warren Beatty, who proved to have impeccable comic timing without trying to be funny.
Let’s see if we can piece this together: Beatty and Faye Dunaway, his co-star from the 50-year-old classic “Bonnie and Clyde,” were given the honor of presenting the climactic award.
As the 79-year-old Beatty opened the envelope, he seemed to have a senior moment, nervously grinning, visibly struggling with whatever was on the card. At that moment, he resembled nothing so much as the manic and suicidal senator from his 1998 movie, “Bulworth,” looking as if he were going to trip over his shoes.
The problem was simple: Somebody had handed him the envelope that earlier announced Emma Stone as the best actress winner for “La La Land.” Seeing Beatty’s bafflement, Dunaway genially muttered what sounded like “You’re impossible, Warren!” before taking hold of the envelope and reading what by that point everybody believed was the inevitable winner: “La La Land,” the musical romance that had already collected several Oscars, including Stone’s and a best director prize for Damien Chazelle.
Chaos ensued. The cast and crew of “La La Land” took the stage and in what seemed like seconds, the correct envelope found its way to the stage and a stunned, but gracious cast and crew of “La La Land” gave way to a stunned, yet joyous cast and crew of “Moonlight.”
Up until its strange ending, this year’s Oscar ceremony had already been an above-average clutter of topical humor and sincerely noteworthy moments: the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award; “The White Helmets” – a documentary about the volunteers of the same name saving lives in Syria – winning a first Oscar for Netflix; Iranian director Ashgar Farhadi boycotting the ceremony in protest of Trump’s Travel ban before winning Best Foreign Language Film; and Jimmy Kimmel mocking the President’s abusive tweets about Meryl Streep before tweeting the suspiciously silent President to check he was OK.
And though some acceptance speeches were too long, others were eloquent and touching: among the best came from Stone, Jenkins, Ali and Viola Davis, whose Best Supporting Actress win for “Fences” made her the first African American actress to achieve the Tony-Emmy-Oscar trifecta.
Maybe that’s how history is made: Sneaking up behind somebody else’s mistakes. We’ll have to wait and see if history’s signals have sunk deep enough into Hollywood’s teeming, bemused brain.