Going into the Oscars, the question was which of two competing narratives would dominate the night.
The end result: a balance between the two, amid a disturbing gaffe as presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway pulled a “La La Land” card out of a red envelope. There was a mistake.
With eight nominations, “Moonlight” looked to be the likeliest film to unseat rival juggernaut “La La Land” for Best Picture and so it did, among three total Oscars.
“There were two cards. I wanted to see the card,” said “Moonlight” writer-director Barry Jenkins to the press backstage in explaining the bizarre mixup which initially saw “La La Land” announced as Best Picture before a correction was issued that it was “Moonlight.” Beatty showed to him. (It said “Moonlight.”) “The folks from ‘La La Land’ were so gracious,” he added.
“There was a time when I thought this movie was impossible,” said Jenkins as he accepted — finally — the Best Picture Oscar for “Moonlight,” which was shot for $1.5 million in 21 days.
Best Picture often comes down to which film aligns with the zeitgeist to deliver the message that some 6,000 voters want to send. That message was inclusion.
“I knew I would screw this show up, I really did,” said Jimmy Kimmel after three “La La Land” producers had given two minutes of acceptance speeches.
Backstage, Emma Stone told the press corps, “Was that the craziest Oscar moment of all time? A very strange happening for Oscar history.”
Best Director winner Damien Chazelle never came backstage to talk to the press corps.
Scenario One led to Damien Chazelle’s retro musical “La La Land” wins for Director and Actress for Emma Stone, with fewer than expected craft wins down the line, as Mel Gibson’s intense war drama “Hacksaw Ridge” took one Sound win as well as Editing.
In the end, “La La Land” (Lionsgate) still took a slew of Oscars, including Best Director, which tends to go to the movie with the most scale and scope, and in recent years has not aligned with Best Picture (Ang Lee, A.G. Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron).
Out of its record-tying 14 nominations, “La La Land” wound up winning just six, more than its BAFTA five and less than its Golden Globes sweep of seven, but half the record 12 some were predicting. “West Side Story” still holds the record for a musical, with 10 wins.
Finally, “La La Land” is a light revisionist romp through musicals past, and “Moonlight” had more gravitas. Thus the second story of the night marked a dramatic course correction a year after #Oscarsowhite. Winning Oscars were “Moonlight” for Best Picture, Jenkins for Adapted Screenplay (with playwright Tarrell Alvin McRaney), and Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.
“As an artist my job is the same, to tell the truth,” Ali said backstage, thanking Idris Elba and David Oyelowo for leaving him a job. “‘Moonlight’ is the best thing that ever came across my desk.”
Ali, who won much support when he said “I am a Muslim” at the SAG Awards, had a new baby during award season. Jenkins, who won awards throughout the season, including the Golden Globe for Best Drama and a record six Indie Spirits on Saturday, said that for those who do not feel reflected in the culture, he and the Academy and the ACLU have their back.
Viola Davis (“Fences”) gave such an emotionally wrought speech that her director and costar Denzel Washington teared up and host Jimmy Kimmel suggested she should win an Emmy. “We are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life,” she said. “Here’s to August Wilson who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.”
Backstage she thanked her parents for allowing her to live her own life. “I can’t believe my life!” she said. “I grew up in poverty in apartments that were condemned and rat infested. I wanted to be somebody and be good at something. This is the miracle of God, of dreaming big and hoping it sticks and lands and it did. Who knew?”
Later, she admitted, “At 51, I am happy to be me.”
Denzel Washington, who won the SAG Award for his performance in August Wilson’s play adaptation “Fences,” was widely expected to win Best Actor. But while he had momentum, finally “Manchester by the Sea” took Best Actor for Casey Affleck’s deeply moving portrait of grief which, like Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln,” defined Kenneth Lonergan’s movie. The lauded playwright and writer-director won Original Screenplay.
“One of the first people who taught me how to act was Denzel Washington,” said Affleck, admitting he had just met him on Oscar night. “I am proud to be part of this community, and I’m dumbfounded that I’m included.” His brother, Ben Affleck, was crying. His brother noticed, he said backstage. Other brothers who have won Academy Awards include Joel and Ethan Coen.
Disney Animation’s Oscar-winning “Zootopia” brought together an eclectic ensemble led by Idris Elba, Octavia Spencer, and Tommy Chong to voice a family film with an anti-racist message that resonated with global audiences to the tune of $1 billion worldwide.
Ezra Edelman, director of ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” (clocking in at a controversial 7 hours 47 minutes, the longest film in Oscar history) beat out three people of color for the Best Documentary Oscar: Ava DuVernay for “13th,” Raoul Peck (Magnolia’s “I Am Not Your Negro”), and Academy Governor Roger Ross Williams (The Orchard’s “Life, Animated”).
In one year, that’s more nominees of color than had ever been nominated in that category. (Spike Lee was the first, for “4 Little Girls,” followed by T.J. Martin, who won the Oscar for “Undefeated.”) “I hope this honors them,” Edelman said of his parents Marion Wright and Peter Edelman.
Politics informed other races as well. Best Foreign-Language Film contender “The Salesman” was favored to win because Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won an Oscar in 2012 for “A Separation” and whose second Oscar-nominated film, “The Salesman” (Cohen Media) has passed the $1 million mark, grabbed a lot of press when he canceled his plans to attend the February 26 Oscars ceremony following Trump’s Muslim travel ban for visitors from seven countries, including Iran.
His fellow foreign-language nominees got together and drafted a speech (written initially by “Toni Erdmann” director Maren Ade) to express their “unanimous and emphatic disapproval of the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the U.S. and in so many other countries.”
In the documentary categories, three out of the five documentary short Oscars focused on fallout from the Syrian conflict. Netflix’s “White Helmets” beat out “Watani: My Homeland” for the win. Not able to attend were Raed Saleh and Khaled Katib, members of the Syrian rescue squad featured in “The White Helmets.” Katib was held up boarding his flight as his passport was rescinded.
While “Moonlight,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” and “Arrival” stole Oscars away from “La La Land,” Oscar hopefuls “Lion,” “Hell or High Water” and surging box office hit “Hidden Figures” wound up with nothing at all.