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Beyond Oscars' best picture chaos, 'Moonlight' and 'La La Land' disrupt the status quo

No one who has paid attention to the Academy Awards over the past 89 years has ever seen anything like “Moonlight’s” shocking, exhilarating, stomach-churning come-from-behind Oscar win on Sunday night — a victory that stunned the Dolby Theatre audience and viewers watching around the world.

In a rare year when everything went bizarrely haywire at the last minute, triggering memories of Steve Harvey’s 2015 Miss Universe flub, as well as flashbacks to the recent historic upset in the presidential election, one statistical trend held steady: Not since Hilary Swank won the Oscar for “Million Dollar Baby” in 2005 have the awards for lead actress and best picture gone to the same movie.

The stage had seemed set for Emma Stone to break the trend this year as the lead actress front-runner starring in the best picture favorite,  “La La Land.” Though some had anticipated an upset win by Isabelle Huppert for “Elle,” Stone’s road to victory seemed clear. And indeed it was: She won the second-to-last prize of the night handily, and everyone assumed that her film would be honored next.

But then “Moonlight,” despite having lost the reliably predictive Producers and Directors Guild awards to “La La Land,” pulled through with the win — not at the last minute, but after the last minute, after “La La Land” had already been announced as the winner. And to witness the barrage of confusing reports on what went wrong on stage, it was, ironically, Stone’s category that seemed to have tripped up the proceedings. It was a duplicate of her best actress envelope that wound up in the hands of best picture presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

There are several possible takeaways from all this confusion, not least the fact that Barry Jenkins’ film, despite the unfortunate circumstances of its moment in the spotlight, strikes me as the single most deserving best picture Oscar winner since “The Hurt Locker” and possibly “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

Of course, “Moonlight” offers us a radically different vision of masculinity than those two films. A gay love story of bruising tenderness and psychological intimacy, “Moonlight” stands at a decisive remove from the kinds of movies that the academy has until now been fairly comfortable rewarding.

That’s why the film’s big win feels so culturally and statistically improbable; Even without the on-stage mix-up, it would have been a shocker for the history books. And amid all the necessary talk about improving diversity in front of and behind the camera, its triumph stands as a rebuke to the perception problem that the motion picture academy has often faced in terms of which films — and by extension, which genders, races and sexual orientations — are deemed significant enough for its highest honor.

Movies about straight white men, including “The King’s Speech,” “The Social Network,” “Lincoln” and “The Revenant,” don’t usually have to work hard to be taken seriously; their dramatic significance and mainstream appeal are assumed from the get-go.

To be fair, there have recently been several female-centric films that fulfilled the same requirements and were duly recognized for it. Brie Larson won the actress Oscar last year for “Room,” an intimate and emotional two-hander that was also nominated for best picture and director. Natalie Portman won for carrying the multi-Oscar-nominated “Black Swan,” while Sandra Bullock took the prize for one best picture nominee (“The Blind Side”) and was nominated for another (“Gravity”).

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But for the most part, these feel like the exceptions that prove an unfortunate rule. Not for nothing did Cate Blanchett, accepting her Oscar for “Blue Jasmine” three years ago, rebuke “the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences.” That idea still persists. Unlike their male-dominated counterparts, films like “Blue Jasmine,” “The Iron Lady” and “Still Alice,” to name a few recent lead-actress Oscar winners, are still largely treated as specialty items. They seem to have been conceived as showcases for their leading ladies’ technical brilliance, rather than as great movies in their own right.

Stone’s work in “La La Land” is different. She and Gosling drew plenty of criticism for their less-than-Juilliard-worthy singing and dancing, but the worth of Stone’s performance isn’t predicated on musical prowess alone. Her strengths as a performer — her sharp comic instincts and emotional sincerity, that piercing sense that the camera is seeing straight through to her soul — dovetail with the film’s own melancholy virtues. She isn’t at odds with the material; she’s beautifully in sync with it.

That Stone won for “La La Land” and Gosling didn’t is entirely fitting; this is very much her movie, and its most affecting moments belong to her. And that highlights still another phenomenon at work here, one that is actually cause for optimism: 2016 was an exceptional, fiercely competitive year for female leads, and a relatively middling one for male leads.

Had the academy somehow not nominated Stone, Huppert, Ruth Negga, Portman and Meryl Streep for lead actress, they could have still served up a terrific lineup with, say, Amy Adams, Annette Bening, Rebecca Hall, Jessica Chastain, Taraji P. Henson and many others.

There’s also the much-discussed fact that Viola Davis, the supporting actress winner on Sunday night for “Fences,” was submitted in that less competitive race despite playing a leading role (and she has a lead-actress Tony for “Fences” to prove it). Had Davis, a three-time nominee, been campaigned as a lead, her shattering turn would almost certainly have been a threat to win — and, I suspect, she would have ultimately done so, beating out Stone in the process.

The thorny, difficult, overbearing and extremely necessary discussion around the Oscars and diversity will continue, and I hope the day the academy gives best picture to a female-led film is not far away. But Sunday night’s history-making flub aside, there should be no regret on the members’ behalf for awarding their top prize to “Moonlight,” the most artistically accomplished and politically resonant of the nine films nominated.

“Moonlight” doesn’t re-entrench conventional notions about masculinity; it subverts them entirely. It’s only the second film from a black director to win best picture, after “12 Years a Slave” (2013) — and it will do even more than that earlier groundbreaking film to explode the industry’s ideas of what kinds of black stories deserve to be told, and which ones deserve to win industry prizes.

Writing about both “La La Land” and “Moonlight” a week ago, I noted that “in the spirit of a less hostile, less Trumpian awards season, I’d suggest that these two fine movies, far from being natural adversaries, are in fact worthy companion pieces.”

None of us who were watching realized exactly how true that would be — how inextricable these two movies’ fortunes would be, up until the thrilling, devastating, you-couldn’t-have-scripted-it finale.

justin.chang@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

Feb. 27, 4:55 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details and analysis of the ceremony.

This article was originally published on Feb. 26 at 2:10 p.m.

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