On a night that was almost completely devoid of surprise, the end was chaos, heartbreak and jubilation. In a nod to 50 years of Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway walk out to announce the Best Picture winner. Beatty opens the envelope, examines the contents. He looks confused. He shows the card to Dunaway, who announces La La Land as the winner. Cast and crew go up on stage, start making their speeches. Suddenly, one of the producers, Jordan Horowitz, says, “There’s been a mistake.”
The Best Picture winner was Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. Someone had given Beatty the wrong envelope; the card inside had Emma Stone for Best Actress on it, which is why he hesitated. It was only when Horowitz said he wasn’t joking and held up the right card that the Moonlight camp began to celebrate. Half a minute later, the stage was a mess of tuxedos and gowns: host Jimmy Kimmel, a despondent Beatty and the actors, directors and producers of the two films.
There’s an abundance of irony in the fact that, before this shocker of an ending, the evening had gone exactly according to script. Every award seemed to go to the odds-on favourite in that category, from The Salesman (foreign film) to Zootopia (animated feature) to O.J.: Made in America (documentary feature). La La Land, which had 14 nominations, picked up six awards: original score, original song, production design, cinematography, actress for Emma Stone, director for Damien Chazelle. Manchester by the Sea won in the two categories it was tipped to: original screenplay and actor (Casey Affleck). Moonlight won Adapted screenplay and a richly deserved supporting actor award for Mahershala Ali.
Award ceremonies sometimes take on the qualities of their host, which might explain why, with Kimmel in charge, the results were uniformly devoid of wit, imagination and energy. No one expected Kimmel to be anything better than passable, but when he made a Matt Damon joke (they have a running mock feud on his talk show) within the first five minutes, it was clearly going to be a bumpy ride. At times it felt like Kimmel was hosting his late night show from the Oscar stage: aside from multiple references to Damon, there was a laboured gag involving a tourist bus and a throwaway segment with celebrities reading mean tweets about themselves. It made one long for the unpredictability of Chris Rock, or even the predictable shtick of Billy Crystal.
Kimmel’s safe unremarkableness seemed to rub off on the presenters and winners. There were the usual appeals to liberal values and open-mindedness, but precious little wit was on offer, save for a dry Shirley MacLaine. Best supporting actress winner Viola Davis gave a three-minute speech, a third of which was a moving tribute to unfulfilled dreams and the rest a long list of thanks. John Cho and Leslie Mann joked their way uncomfortably through the “sci-tech Oscars” segment. Affleck was graceless in his acceptance speech; Stone was ecstatic but unremarkable. There were only two bright spots: a beaming Sunny Pawar saying “yes” and “no” to Kimmel’s questions without quite understanding them, and Om Puri turning up for a few seconds in the In Memoriam reel.
When everyone gets over the madness of the final moments, we can all try and come to grips with the idea that Moonlight —a small, complex film about gay, black characters, closer in sensibility to Wong Kar Wai than an American indie—won best picture. Some will choose to use this win to run down La La Land, which is short-sighted, given that Chazelle’s film has extraordinary attributes of its own and would have been a worthy winner as well. Others will attribute the win to a liberal backlash following the Trump presidency, which is again unfair, for this assumes that Moonlight was elevated because of what it represents and not because it’s a fantastic film. I hope Moonlight won because the voters genuinely thought it was the best film on offer. If they can honour a film as complex and thoughtful as this, there might just be hope for the Oscars yet.