The mood inside the Dolby Theatre was polite but distracted.
“La La Land” was poised to take the best picture Oscar — after months of major awards, a coronation more than a piece of news. Nominees from the musical seated in the back of the theater swept to the front during a commercial break, poised to join the filmmakers and stars on stage. Everyone else began checking their phones — consulting the babysitter or their schedule of post-show parties.
But backstage, something wasn’t right. As producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd followed on their monitors, celebratory champagne glasses stacked nearby, a stagehand arrived from the curtains leading to the stage wearing a pained look. “Oh my God,” she said. “[Presenter Warren Beatty] got the wrong envelope.”
In the botched handoff heard around the world, Brian Cullinan, the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant who had given the actor the card, had messed up. Instead of passing Beatty an envelope with the correct winner of “Moonlight,” he gave him a duplicate of the card naming Emma Stone lead actress winner — just several minutes after Tweeting a selfie with her.
The scene that played out Sunday night in various parts of the Dolby — an operation that normally makes a Swiss watch look like a kitchen clock — illustrates the underlying tenuousness of the Oscars process, relying not on computers but accountants, not on digitalization but a few pieces of paper crammed into an envelope.
And it demonstrated how, for all the tuxedos and glitz, the layer that separates the champagne-sipping glamour from canceled-flight chaos is thinner than casual viewers might assume.
Questions of responsibility were still being sorted through on Monday, although PwC quickly took the onus of blame from Beatty, his co-presenter Faye Dunaway and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But the Oscars blunder — the most high-profile in its 89-year history — took no time reverberating through the Dolby compound, laying bare the ego, the sportsmanship and the humanity that can permeate Hollywood, sometimes all at once.
After producers from “La La Land” gave an acceptance speech for a movie that didn’t win, and those who seemed to lose staggered onto the stage as victors, the room erupted in chaos; it quieted only as Beatty took the microphone again to try to explain what happened. A moment later, as the agents, producers and other well-heeled insiders spilled chatteringly out of the theater, a dazed man stood in the aisle. He held an Oscar and seemed unsure of where to go.
It was “La La Land” cinematographer Linus Sandgren. “I don’t understand what happened,” he said. “Did we lose?”
In the wings, people were trying to figure out just what had occurred.
Beatty, clearly shaken after he and Dunaway had presided over the wrong winner, disappeared down a hallway. “La La Land” co-star John Legend walked by, shaking his head. Host Jimmy Kimmel, fresh off his appearance onstage to self-deprecatingly close the show, came in and stood next to De Luca. “Thanks for covering, man,” the producer said. “Yeah, but no one is going to remember that now,” Kimmel said.
Casts and producers of both films, oddly commingling as they left the stage together, wandered past. Kimmel went to his dressing room. De Luca left the wings and walked through the hall toward his dressing room, which was across the hall from Kimmel’s. A man hugged him and asked if everything was OK. De Luca said: “It’s OK for some but not OK for others. It’s not OK for the academy. But it was great live television.”
Moments later, Kimmel emerged from his dressing room preparing to head to the Governors Ball, the post-Oscar bash at a sprawling event space atop the Dolby. He stopped and explained that he had been about to go onstage and reprise his long-running bit about Matt Damon, this one involving a doughnut. Then he saw chaos had broken out.
“There was a lot of nuttiness. It was kind of like a dispute over a boxing match. You didn't know who won,” he recalled. “‘I think I have to go on stage,’ because otherwise our stage manager Gary [Natoli] was going to have to finesse it.”
Not far away in the Dolby lobby, the most veteran of the “La La” producers, Marc Platt, was trying to process his own thoughts.
The theater-film hyphenate had been through something, well, slightly similar before: Heavily favored with “Wicked” to win the Tony for best musical in 2004, he lost to upstart “Avenue Q.” In fact, a monitor at Radio City Music Hall had briefly flashed his show’s name. “Here we go again,” he thought.
As sympathizers approached Platt outside the Dolby, though, he tried to keep perspective “Experience prepares you,” he later recalled. “I held an Oscar for two minutes, 43 seconds, and gave it back. It's a big bummer — you feel stung by a bee — but you come out the other side.” He sought to convey that perspective to younger “La La” filmmakers.
Not all seemed as willing to accept it, at least in public. In the news-conference room at the adjoining Loews Hollywood Hotel, Damien Chazelle, who directed “La La” and had just become the youngest director winner in Oscar history, was a no-show, as he was at many post-Oscars events later in the evening.
That left Stone to face the media music. “Whoo, did you guys see that?” she asked reporters in the press room. “I was on such a buzzy plane backstage that I already felt like I was on another planet.”
She raised a question: “I also was holding my best actress in a leading role card, so I’m not sure what that was. Whatever story you’re hearing.” It was taken by some as the suggestion of a conspiracy theory. But she said she “loved” “Moonlight” and, in any event, at that moment she clearly didn’t know the Oscars’ system — duplicate envelopes held by Cullinan and colleague Martha Ruiz, both as a redundancy and to allow presenters to be handed them from either side of the stage. “Is that the craziest Oscar moment of all time? Cool, we made history. Craziest moment,“ Stone said.
Shortly after, the “Moonlight” crew came in, “Moonlight” director and co-writer Barry Jenkins still trying to make sense of what he saw.
“I noticed the commotion that was happening and thought something strange had occurred. I’m sure everybody saw my face,” he said. “It made a very special feeling even more special … but not in the way I expected.”
Then he and other members of his team went up to the Governors Ball too. Co-star Naomie Harris was already standing outside. “I thought it was a practical joke,” she said. An acting nominee not affiliated with either film came to the top of steps alongside her. “What the...,” the nominee mouthed in exaggerated slow-motion to a TV reporter.
Inside, Hollywood’s elite were talking, and asking questions. How did pollsters get it so wrong, especially after a year of Trump and Brexit? And how did the academy, known for its military-style efficiency at the Oscars, allow this to happen? Was it a victim of its own secrecy requirements, in which only two PwC staffers in the know meant a delay in realizing the mistake? Did Beatty and Dunaway play it right by not stopping? Or did they let appearances get in the way of accuracy?
One question seemed to prevail above the others: How would people, many of them nominees themselves, react if they were in “La La Land’s” position? “I’d like to think I’d stand up there and be very tough,” said “Arrival” executive producer Glen Basner “Then I’d go home and cry.”
Nearby, some of that vulnerability was on display, as Jenkins and “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz came together for the first time after their awkward stage moment. “I feel so out-of-body right now,” Horowitz said. Jenkins took out his phone and showed him a message pertaining to the envelope mix-up.
Then he snapped a selfie with Horowitz. There was a genuine feeling of affection between the men after all that had happened — two movies, a juggernaut and an upstart, forever linked in Oscar history.
“Moonlight” producer Jeremy Kleiner, who had been chatting a few feet away, turned to Horowitz. “I wish you had your moment,” Horowitz said to him.
Kleiner then gave Horowitz a deep hug. “I love ‘La La’ and I love our film,” Kleiner said to The TImes a moment later. “Our film is about empathy and breaking barriers. Maybe the symbolism of that is a rebuke to what’s been happening in our country.”
Did tonight's circumstances give him the same feeling as winning the traditional way? "It can't," he said with a shrug. "How can it?"
A few feet away, Horowitz continued to process the events. “I got to speak and got to thank my wife,” he said, as much to reassure himself as the listener. “I’d like to watch it and see what happened.
“I still don’t know if I can watch it,” he added ruefully.
He paused and took a breath.
“It’s an award. It’s just an award,” he said, then repeated the statement.
Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman, Amy Kaufman, Tre’vell Anderson and Jessica Gelt contributed to this report.