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Why the ‘Moonlight’ Oscar Upset Was Even Wilder If You Were in the Room

The 2017 Oscars telecast ended with an unpredictable shock. But inside the theater, it had greater significance.

barry jenkins

Barry Jenkins at the 2017 Academy Awards

Eric Kohn

Three days before the craziest surprise ending in Oscar history, “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins was hanging out at a party in West Hollywood and musing on the days ahead. “So,” he said, putting his arms around a colleague and me, “What are my odds?”

We exchanged the usual possibilities — “Moonlight” had a real shot in the Adapted Screenplay category, even if “La La Land” was the presumed Best Picture frontrunner — and I asked him how he was handling the tail-end of a campaign that runs even the toughest promoters into the ground. “You know,” he said, “you kind of run out of material after a while.”

However, by the end of an otherwise predictable ceremony Sunday night, “Moonlight” delivered new material for the ages. As the universe now knows, the evening concluded with Faye Dunaway reading the title of the wrong movie, leading to a bracing moment of unscripted television in which the three producers of “La La Land” actually gave their speeches before learning that they didn’t win. Producer Jordan Horowitz bravely corrected the record and receded to the background as the baffled “Moonlight” team came up.

READ MORE: Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ Journey: How the Year’s Great Discovery Became an American Cinema Milestone

Around the world, viewers must have squinted at their television screens and tried to sift through the logic of the strange climax. It was even wilder if you were in the room. A few dozen rows away from the stage, I was surrounded by murmurs of confusion, awkward laughter, and nonstop murmuring; nobody could sort out the specifics, but the room crackled with energy. The gigantic machinery of the Oscars, which hums along on a tight schedule, had thrown a cog.

oscars 2017 kohn

The view from the author’s seat at the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony.

Eric Kohn

Leave it to “Moonlight” to sit at the center of it all. A movie with no big stars, which treasures small moments over traditional plot, usually doesn’t permeate the mainstream at all. Until a year ago, Jenkins was little known outside the confines of the insular film festival circuit, where he programmed shorts at Telluride, screened a few of his own, and juggled a few tricky projects in the wake of a little-seen debut. “Moonlight” represented the accumulation of years working in the shadows, inspiring an entire community of African-American filmmakers in the process. Of course it had to undergo an awkward, clumsy path to victory.

Yet its win validated the push for broader representation in American movies to such a degree that it reoriented a conversation years in the making: Suddenly, the #OscarsSoWhite debate looked very small. Had another, more traditional movie starring predominantly black characters won — and there were a few of those this year, too — it would have satisfied the discourse surrounding Hollywood’s need for greater inclusivity. “Moonlight” rattled the whole paradigm of the film industry.

Few could have predicted that an unorthodox $1.5 million production about the travails of a gay black kid growing up in the Miami would make it to the Oscars, let alone win the biggest prize. However, it made for an ideal cap for the journey of a movie that seemed to hack the system all along. Produced by a tight-knit group of film-school friends, “Moonlight” is a tone poem about the alienated lives of young characters who are rarely, if ever, represented in American cinema. Its capacity to gain traction around the country for that very reason was a radical victory, even without that memorable finale.

But, oh, what a thrilling finale. While a Best Picture win for “Moonlight” represents a triumph for projects that might otherwise be labeled as non-commercial, the inherent weirdness of its victory solidified its place in Hollywood history. Even on Oscar night, it was viewed as the typical little movie that sneaks into the nominee list but remains otherwise ignored. When an early joke by Jimmy Kimmel about the romantic handjob-on-the-beach scene fell flat, he rebounded with, “You didn’t watch it, did you?”

They have a few more reasons now. For the “Moonlight” team, however, the very prospects of Oscar glory were so far removed from their usual reference points that the Oscars were irrelevant to their success. When I found a few of them at the ceremony, they looked visibly out of place, as if pressed into the arena by an audacious festival programmer to shake up the proceedings.

Wandering the cavernous interior of the Dolby Theater in the moments leading up to the telecast is always a hectic, overwhelming experience. Thousands of famous faces stream into building, crowding by the bars while carefully side-stepping flowing gowns. Pushing my way through the mayhem before the telecast started, I found “Moonlight” cinematographer James Laxton standing by the restrooms, waiting for his mother. With his wife, Romanski, Laxton had worked on dozens of unorthodox projects over the years. He didn’t expect to take home an Oscar and wasn’t too troubled by that eventual outcome.

“Barry’s more nervous, I think,” Laxton told me, “because he actually might win something.” Co-editor Nat Sanders sauntered up. The pair worked together on Jenkins’ 2008 debut “Medicine for Melancholy,” an under-appreciated romantic two-hander shot throughout San Francisco. They joked that nobody asked them about their wardrobe on the red carpet. “Somebody asked me!” Sanders’ girlfriend cackled, “and I’m not anyone!

(L-R) Jeremy Kleiner, Adele Romanski, and director Barry Jenkins, hold the Oscar for Best Picture for 'Moonlight' in the press room during the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, USA, 26 February 2017. The Oscars are presented for outstanding individual or collective efforts in 24 categories in filmmaking.Press Room - 89th Academy Awards, Hollywood, USA - 28 Feb 2016

Jeremy Kleiner, Adele Romanski, and director Barry Jenkins, hold the Oscar for Best Picture for “Moonlight”

Shutterstock

Inside the theater, the lights flashed as a booming voice ordered the audience to settle down: “Please take your seats … for the best show on Earth!” A few rows behind me, someone snarked, “‘Best show on Earth?’ I mean, it’s fun, but…”

Then came just that: A fun show that sagged into obvious moments over the course of three hours, only to wind up as, yes, the greatest show on Earth. Justin Timerblake’s opening performance of “Can’t Stop the Feeling” had the audience grooving to a smooth beat that never diminished throughout the evening. Kimmel’s recurring jokes about Matt Damon gave the reliably smarmy Kimmel a safe target for his crudest tendencies. When he dragged an unsuspecting group of Los Angeles tourists into the first row of the theater, their surprise was obvious up close. The speeches were frustratingly non-political for such a fraught moment in American society, but at least the program zipped along.

At least, it seemed to be going fine whenever I took a break from visiting the bars. Wandering from floor to floor during commercial breaks, it became increasingly clear just how little of the film community is actually represented by the Oscars. I spoke to one prominent foreign director who admitted he had only voted in five categories, refusing to cast a ballot for movies he hadn’t seen, then went on a hilarious rant about the inexplicable commercial success of “Sully.”

I saw Cannes director Thierry Fremaux, who cheered on Cannes alumni like “Toni Erdmann” and “Elle,” but looked strangely out of place. He couldn’t quite figure out if he belonged to the Academy. “I don’t know!” he exclaimed. “I don’t understand it. I receive some DVDs and tickets. I don’t vote.” His thoughts turned the upcoming Best Actress category, where he was naturally pulling for French icon Isabelle Huppert to land a surprise upset. “You think she’ll make it?” An hour later, she lost to Emma Stone, but in the midst of the pandemonium surrounding the Best Picture win, Fremaux smiled broadly. “Hey, maybe she did win!” he said.

Back in the lobby, dazed expressions met dazed expressions, but even among some of the losers the tone was resoundingly jubilant. Bob Berney, Amazon’s head of marketing, had pretty much assumed from the start of the night that Amazon nominee “Manchester By Sea” wouldn’t take home Best Picture. He was grinning ear to ear. “That was awesome,” he said. His wife and longtime business partner, Jeanne Berney, joined him. “Great ending!” she added. “Classic Hollywood!”

Except that it wasn’t. For all the drama associated with the evening’s final minutes, the “Moonlight” win had a welcome whiff of the subversive. While many complained about the evening’s lack of politics, the jolt of the “Moonlight” win felt like a political statement itself. Hollywood loves escapism, and Hollywood loves itself, so why wouldn’t a charming celebration of classic Hollywood escapism win the night? “La La Land” capably salutes a grand tradition of filmmaking and bodes well for Damien Chazelle’s future prospects, but it had to take a bullet for this greater cause. Months after a volatile election, it was suddenly acceptable to feel good about a surprising victory. The sheer uncertainty of art permeating the awareness of a wider audience shook up American culture and, in the process, made everyone look a little closer at the extraordinary vision that “Moonlight” has to offer.

READ MORE: 2017 Oscars Backstage: Best Picture Flub Leads Chatter From Emma Stone, Barry Jenkins and More

Just as pollsters wound up clueless in late 2016, the typically reliable awards season whisperers looked a little out of place. Upstairs at the swanky Governors Ball, New York-based consultant Peggy Siegel gazed wide-eyed at nothing in particular. “I’m in shock,” she said. “This …Oscars-so-white stuff must’ve had an impact. But now, everyone must feel so bad!”

The jury was out on that one. Elsewhere in the room, Roadside Attractions co-presidents Eric D’Arbeloff and Howard Cohen tried to figure it out. “It embarrasses the whole industry and gives fuel to Trump!” Cohen exclaimed. “He’s probably saying, ‘Of course they fucked it up, it’s the stupid Oscars!'” D’Arbeloff wasn’t so sure. “Maybe it’s gonna be good for ‘Moonlight,'” he said. “It’ll be famous now.”

Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in "Moonlight"

“Moonlight”

David Bornfriend

That gets to the essence of the paradox at the center of the Oscars. Rather than celebrating the best new movies, the process is often complicated by countless variables that have little to do with quality. The “Moonlight” win would have made history Sunday even if it didn’t deserve the big prize, but too often Oscar winners come and go like the breeze. Winners get a mild box-office boost, the campaigns conclude, and everyone moves on. Over the past 20 years, Oscar season has become more sport than aesthetic assessment, and nobody lingers too long at the finish line. (Years later, do we still debate the merits of “The King’s Speech”… or, for that matter, “Crash”?) But “Moonlight” will not only get to linger in the spotlight; within a matter of seconds, it also gave the whole damn process a new identity.

As the crowd thinned at the Governors Ball, Jenkins and Romanski sped to the back of the room for the ritual of engraving their Oscars, then stayed there while the scene continued outside. This time, the rest of the world could wait on them.

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