Monday, February 27, 2017


Best Picture is usually the least interesting of all the awards at the Oscars. At least, that’s how it seems most years. Which film will win often feels, after the results of all those other awards shows, like a fait accompli going in, and even when it doesn’t, by the time we’ve arrived at the last award of the night, you typically have a sense of how things are leaning. There are exceptions, of course—Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan in 1999, for instance—but as a rule, Best Picture tends to be an anticlimax.

That sure wasn’t the case this year, however.

The show Sunday night began in normal fashion. Host Jimmy Kimmel, not being of the Neil Patrick Harris, Seth MacFarlane or Billy Crystal mold, didn’t try to wow everybody with a big semi-ironic song-and-dance production number, so that duty was managed by Justin Timberlake, extravagantly performing “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” his nominated song from Trolls.

Kimmel took over from there, and handled himself well, with some relaxed, mostly uncontroversial but quite funny standup and an unobtrusive modesty. There were oddball routines—like concessions dropping from the ceiling in tiny parachutes, or a group of Hollywood-star-home tourists being led through the Dolby Theatre by surprise—that seemed, as such bits often do, like more laborious trouble than they were worth, but they still had some charm.

There were touching moments as well, like the real-life, 98-year-old NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures, being wheeled onstage to a thunderous ovation. And a friend called me, convulsed with hilarity, after a segment in which Seth Rogen, discussing 1985’s Back to the Future, observed that “They really, like, captured future clothing pretty well, ‘cuz if you saw, like, Tilda Swinton wearing that exact outfit, you would not think it was weird.”

For most of its length, the show chugged along agreeably, if without any particular excitement. Casey Affleck winning Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea was perhaps a slight surprise, as Denzel Washington had taken the SAG Award for Fences. But on the whole, nothing suggested that La La Land wouldn’t win Best Picture as expected.

That Moonlight took the award instead would have been a surprise to begin with, but what made the upset great TV was an unfortunate mix-up: Presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were somehow accidentally given the wrong envelope, a duplicate of the one reading Emma Stone for Best Actress in La La Land. Beatty was confused, paused, and showed the card to Dunaway who, thinking that Beatty was just clowning, glanced at it and announced La La Land as the winner.

The cast and producers of that film came onstage and were in the midst of their acceptance speeches when the error was pointed out to them. Producer Jordan Horowitz stepped to the microphone, announced the mistake, and graciously called the Moonlight team to the stage, saying he was proud to present the award to them.

While I was less enthusiastic than most critics about La La Land, and while the stirring Moonlight topped my Top Ten List this year, it was hard not to feel for the La La Land gang, and harder still not to admire the grace with which they handled the situation. It was painful, but it sure wasn’t dull.

Another friend called me after the show to tell me he had the inside scoop on how the practice of two sets of envelopes originated. He claims that at the 1964 Oscars, the agent for Pricewaterhouse (then still known as Price Waterhouse) suffered a fatal heart attack just before showtime. These being the days when, probably mostly for the sake of showmanship, the operative would be presented onstage handcuffed to the briefcase containing the winners, the misfortune created an obvious problem for the ceremony, and the need for a backup became clear.

But there was another twist to the tale, according to my friend (who claims he knew the Price Waterhouse man's family as a kid in Reseda, California). He says the guy's heart attack was brought on by stress because he was related to Governor John Connally of Texas, who had been wounded a few months earlier in the Kennedy assassination. So there you have it: Last night's Oscar telecast was one more casualty of that fateful day in Dallas.

I have been unable to find any independent confirmation whatsoever for this. But hey, if you can't trust the testimony of a guy who calls you late at night after playing bar trivia, what can you trust?

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