Not long after “La La Land” was announced Best Picture at the eighty-ninth annual Academy Awards—after which “Moonlight” was announced Best Picture at the eighty-ninth annual Academy Awards, and all hell broke loose—I was at the raw bar at the Governors Ball, where two producers were trading notes in front of a display of octopus tentacles.
“Deadline and the Hollywood Reporter are running the story that the Pricewaterhouse accountants gave Emma Stone’s backup envelope to Warren Beatty,” one of them said. “There’s a regular envelope, and a backup one in case something happens. I think the question that might be asked later is, Why did the accountants wait for all three ‘La La Land’ speeches before they corrected it?”
“I thought Warren Beatty just couldn’t read the freaking envelope,” the other said.
“ ’Cause he had trouble! Obviously, he couldn’t interpret it.”
“Some people are heartbroken. I was walking out and I saw Rob Friedman”—the former co-chair of Lionsgate, which produced “La La Land”—“and he was a little unhappy.”
The men were Steve Stabler, the producer of “Dumb and Dumber,” and Stanley Isaacs, the husband of Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy president, who had already been having a stressful year. I found her sitting on a white sofa staring at her phone, and asked what had gone through her mind.
“Horror,” she said. “I just thought, What? What? I looked out and I saw a member of Pricewaterhouse coming on the stage, and I was, like, Oh, no, what—what’s happening? What what WHAT? What could possibly . . . ? And then I just thought, Oh, my God, how does this happen? How. Does. This. Happen.” She sighed. “And it was such a wonderful show.”
In the moments after the Best Picture flub, the Dolby Theatre had become like Dealey Plaza with a thousand Oscar-calibre Zapruders. Instead of the second gunman, there was talk of the second envelope. On social media, people were posting grainy closeups of Leonardo DiCaprio walking offstage with the Best Actress envelope, and then of Beatty walking back on with it. What had happened? As the crowd dispersed, an old Hollywood genre was revived: the whodunit. An accountant? A stagehand? Warren Beatty? Faye Dunaway?
I was in the press room when Best Picture was announced, with about a hundred journalists who had spent the evening watching the ceremony on monitors while the winners were occasionally shown in to answer questions. I’d come to the Academy Awards as a wide-eyed first-timer, eager to see the pageantry in person but a little lost in the mayhem. Luckily, on the shuttle bus there I met a friendly spirit guide in heels, a writer for the Hollywood Reporter named Mia Galuppo. When we got to the Dolby Theatre, we walked through security and up an escalator into the Hollywood & Highland shopping center. On a balcony near a Johnny Rockets, we peered over and could see the backside of the red-carpet bleachers.
“There are actually three lanes,” Galuppo explained. “There’s the step-and-repeat. There’s the fast-track lane, for the really big people, like Jennifer Lawrence. And then there’s the ‘sheep lane,’ where the herd goes—the executives and agents.” Cheers echoed from below as a guy announced the arrival of Allison Schroeder, one of the screenwriters of “Hidden Figures.”
We continued into the Loews Hollywood Hotel, adjacent to the Dolby Theatre. I had received several stern warnings from the Academy that no unsanctioned photos of the press room were allowed, or you’d be escorted off the premises. So here goes my best shot at rendering it in prose: gray and wood-panelled walls, gray carpet with pink patterns, a buffet table of sandwiches and cheese cubes outside, and a small stage with two oversize statuettes. There were seven long tables with placards for news outlets, ranging from the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun to wearemoviegeeks.com. As I walked in, I saw Cindy Adams hunched over a laptop in a pink chinchilla coat, bringing to mind a classic New Yorker cover.
In the front row were five court reporters, hired to transcribe everything the winners said from the press-room stage. One of them, Erika Sjoquist, who had a stenograph machine perched beside her, told me, “I do superior-court work, deposition work. And then we also do the sag Awards.” This was her twelfth year at the Oscars. When I asked who was the hardest person to transcribe, she said, “Martin Scorsese, hands down. He doesn’t have a normal speech pattern. You know the dog from ‘Up’ who’ll all of a sudden go, ‘Ooh, a squirrel’? That’s how Martin Scorsese speaks.”
In the back corner was my favorite part of the press room: the librarians’ table, where the Academy librarians are on hand to answer questions. Under a sign that said “reference,” a librarian named Lucia Schultz had a thick binder of Oscar history and another of credits for the nominated films. Reporters came by to ask questions. Had there previously been two African-American acting winners in the same year? (Yes, in 2002, 2005, and 2007.) If Lin-Manuel Miranda won Best Original Song, would he be the youngest-ever “egot”? (Depends on whether you count noncompetitive awards. Barbra Streisand was younger, but she won a Special Tony Award.) Was Mahershala Ali the first Muslim to win an Oscar? (They couldn’t say, because the Academy doesn’t keep records on winners’ religious affiliations.) After Colleen Atwood won for Best Costume Design, a Metro.co.uk reporter rushed up to Schultz and asked if any other British people had won four Oscars. “Yes, but Colleen Atwood is from Washington State,” Schultz said.
As the show started, we were given tiny radios with headphones so we could listen in and, if we wanted to, tune out whichever winner was in the room with us. This proved useful. In came Alessandro Bertolazzi, who had just won Best Makeup and Hairstyling for “Suicide Squad,” and answered questions in Italian. (“Grazie, tutti!” he said before leaving.) The winners for Best Sound Mixing (for “Hacksaw Ridge”) arrived, and someone asked Kevin O’Connell, who won his first prize after twenty-one nominations, which was the hardest movie he had ever worked on. He said, without hesitation, “Top Gun.”
I was only half-listening, because two representatives for the Iranian film “The Salesman” were onscreen, delivering a blistering statement from its director, Asghar Farhadi, who was boycotting the ceremony because of Trump’s travel ban. A few minutes later, those representatives—including Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian to travel to outer space—came into the press room. As they spoke, there were random inappropriate bursts of laughter, because half the reporters were listening to Jimmy Kimmel’s tour-bus shtick on their headphones. It was then that I realized that the press room was a total bummer. Twenty minutes after giving an Oscar speech in front of an audience of millions, you’re in a room of a hundred reporters, some of whom are asking you what you love about Los Angeles and others who are ignoring you completely.
Toward the end of the ceremony, the energy in the press room started fading. The winner of Best Live Action Short was answering questions in Hungarian, but no one that big had stopped by. When Damien Chazelle won Best Director, there was a smattering of applause. When Casey Affleck won Best Actor, there was some applause and some mumbles. Finally, Warren and Dunaway announced “La La Land” as Best Picture, and the reporters applauded warmly and began writing their headlines. Then things got crazy.
On the monitors, a guy in a headset was onstage, and the “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz was saying, “This is not a joke. ‘Moonlight’ has won Best Picture.” When the camera zoomed in on the envelope, the press room collectively screamed. A reporter ran up to Schultz and asked, “Has anything like this ever happened before?” Schultz, who had not prepared for this scenario, was frantically searching her records. “I cannot think of a case where this has happened,” she said. “There are times when people thought it happened.” More reporters lined up with the same question—it was the most attention Schultz had got all night. She remembered something about Quincy Jones and Sharon Stone forgetting the envelope for Best Original Score, in 1996, but no other precedent came to mind. (In fact, Sammy Davis, Jr., once read from the wrong envelope, in 1964.)
Before anyone had any time to process what was happening, a staffer announced that Viola Davis was about to arrive. People ran back to their tables and tried to focus. I mean, here was Viola Davis. Someone asked her what she was feeling. “I grew up in poverty,” she said, her voice catching. “I grew up in apartments that were condemned and rat-infested, and I just always sort of wanted to be somebody. And I just wanted to be good at something. And so this is sort of like the miracle of God.”
A reporter from Essence.com took the mike and said, “Tell me what you love about being a black woman.” “Everything,” Davis said. “I love my history. I love the fact I can go back and look at so many different stories of women that have gone before me who seemingly should not have survived, and they did. And I love my skin. I love my voice. I love my history. Sometimes I don’t love being the spokesperson all the time, but so be it. That’s the way that goes, right?”
Davis exited, and Emma Stone came in. “Hoo! Did you guys see that?” she told the crowd. Asked about the Best Picture snafu, she smiled brightly and said, “I fucking love ‘Moonlight.’ God, I love ‘Moonlight’ so much. I was so excited for ‘Moonlight.’ And, of course, you know, it was an amazing thing to hear ‘La La Land.’ I think we all would have loved to win Best Picture, but we are so excited for ‘Moonlight.’ ” She added, “I also was holding my Best Actress in a Leading Role card that entire time. So, whatever story—I don’t mean to start stuff, but whatever story that was, I had that card.” The plot thickened; the room murmured. (Turns out there were two sets of envelopes, one for each backstage wing.)
Stone left, and Barry Jenkins, the director of “Moonlight,” came in. “The last twenty minutes of my life have been insane,” he said, looking genuinely bewildered. Someone asked how the film would break down barriers for L.G.B.T. people of color. A reporter across the table from me banged his fists into his head and whispered to himself, “Ask about the two envelopes. That’s all anyone cares about.”
I ran down the hall and took an elevator to the Governors Ball. Ava DuVernay was leaving, Nicole Kidman was arriving, and people were handing out chocolate Oscars on sticks. I pushed through to the back of the ballroom, down a hallway swathed in red velvet, and found the little corner room where the winners get their statuettes engraved; it was a corny Oscar formality I wanted to witness. All anyone was talking about was the Best Picture insanity.
“When they said ‘Moonlight’ really won, I thought they meant on an emotional level,” the filmmaker Tom Dolby (who shares his family name with the theatre) said.
“It’s humiliating for everyone involved,” his plus-one, Andrew Rose, said. “What’s more prestigious than the Oscars? The Nobel Prize?”
“I don’t think it’s embarrassing at all,” Dolby countered. “Filmmaking is full of mistakes.” Behind him, the young songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who had won Best Original Song for “La La Land” (thus denying Miranda his egot), were headed in to get their statuettes engraved. “Let’s hope they just don’t make any mistakes on these people’s plaques,” Dolby said.
Around midnight, I got to the Vanity Fair party, hosted by Graydon Carter. Some “Moonlight” people were just arriving, including the actor André Holland and the writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, dressed in a smashing white tux. McCraney put his Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar on a table and walked through the metal detector. Inside, there were more famous people than not-famous people: Justin Timberlake, Sarah Paulson, Jon Hamm, Martin Short. Adrien Brody and Rufus Wainwright were on the dance floor. People from In-N-Out were handing out burgers. Faye Dunaway—either the Jackie Kennedy or the Lee Harvey Oswald of the situation, depending on your interpretation—had been by the bar, where one reporter had overheard her saying, “I really fucked that up.”
Out on the smoking balcony, amid guests like Ricky Martin and Megyn Kelly, I met two guys in Union Jack blazers, John Roberts and Jamie Bentley. They had won their party tickets at a charity auction for unicef. “I sell washing machines,” Roberts said. “In Europe, I’m the Amazon of electricals.”
“And I sell soap,” Bentley said. “My only connection to Hollywood is that I once consulted on ‘Fight Club,’ as to whether you could make soap out of fat from a liposuction clinic.”
They had their own theory about the Best Picture debacle, the equivalent of “the C.I.A. killed Kennedy.” “What better way to promote the Oscars than to script that?” Bentley said.
“Create the car crash,” Roberts added. “The Oscars’ ratings have been in decline. You need noise and you need news. Not fake news, real news.”
“And the two films, one of them was classic old Hollywood, destined to win, and the other was slightly more risqué—racial and all the rest of it. So put Hollywood up there, and then smash it down. Fantastic!”
“It’s just a theory.”
“From two people who know nothing about what they’re talking about.”
Back at the Governors Ball, I had spotted a twelve-year-old boy in a suit, dancing to “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” It was Alex R. Hibbert, who plays little Chiron in “Moonlight.” Like everyone else, he was still trying to figure out what had just happened.
“When they said, ‘You guys won,’ we were, like, ‘Uhhh, nice joke,’ ” he told me. “And they’re all, like, ‘No, you guys really won,’ and I was, like, ‘Oh, my God!’ I’m sorry for this guy, but I jumped right over him and walked onstage. He was, like, ‘What’s up?’ And I was, like, ‘I’m sorry, I just won an award!’ Me and Jaden”—he jerked his head toward Jaden Piner, who played young Kevin—“hugged onstage. We were just crying. But it was so disrespectful how they treated ‘La La Land.’ ” He said that the person he had been most excited to meet was Andrew Garfield, because he played the Amazing Spider-Man.
He started dancing again, then continued, “They said we made history and they pulled a Steve Harvey on us. I don’t know what that means. I gotta find that out.” I told him about how Steve Harvey had announced the wrong winner of the Miss Universe contest, in 2015. Hibbert looked at me in disbelief. “They pulled a Steve Harvey on us! Oh, God. Now I know.”