Gold Standard: How ‘Moonlight’ won the Oscar for best picture
When “La La Land” lost the costumes Oscar, it wasn’t a big deal. When it didn’t take either of the sound categories, that raised an eyebrow or two. Then, after it took its first Oscar for production design, it lost film editing. But that Oscar has gone to only one best picture winner this decade. So it was still going to win, right?
It wasn’t going to win. In one of the most stunning upsets in Oscar history, Barry Jenkins’ exquisite, emotional coming-of-age story, “Moonlight,” took the best picture Oscar … minutes after Faye Dunaway gave the award to “La La Land.”
That’s right. Dunaway and Warren Beatty presented the best picture award to the L.A.-set musical and its producers. Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt and Fred Berger gave heartfelt acceptance speeches, spreading the thank yous like flower petals.
But just as Berger, the last “La La Land” producer to speak, was finishing his remarks, confusion broke out on stage and it was revealed that “Moonlight,” not “La La Land,” was the actual winner. (Beatty: “I opened the envelope and it said Emma Stone … I wasn’t trying to be funny.”)
Presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are onstage and about to read the Oscar winner for best picture.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
“La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz points to “Moonlight” as being the winner of the best picture Oscar.(Kevin Winter / Getty Images)
Jordan Horowitz, producer of “La La Land,” shows the envelope revealing “Moonlight” as the true winner for best picture.(Chris Pizzello / Invision / Associated Press)
“La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz hands over the best picture award to “Moonlight” writer-director Barry Jenkins after a presentation error onstage.(Kevin Winter / Getty Images)
“Moonlight” cast members Mahershala Ali and Trevante Rhodes hug after winning Best Picture for “Moonlight.”(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Oscars telecast host Jimmy Kimmel, left, with Warren Beatty, who explains how “La La Land” was mistakenly announced as best picture winner instead of “Moonlight” at the 89th Academy Awards.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Presenter Warren Beatty shows the envelope with the name of the actual winner for best picture as host Jimmy Kimmel, left, looks on.(Chris Pizzello/Invision / Associated Press)
“Moonlight” actor Mahershala Ali, left, with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone after it was discovered that “La La Land” was mistakenly announced as best picture onstage.(Kevin Winter / Getty Images)
Ryan Gosling, right, stands with arms folded as Emma Stone congratulates Mahershala Ali of “Moonlight.”(Chris Pizzello / Invision / Associated Press)
Ryan Gosling of “La La Land” reacts as the true winner for best picture is announced.(Chris Pizzello / Invision / Associated Press)
Janelle Monae, center, celebrates after coming onstage once the best picture mix-up was announced.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Barry Jenkins, left, and producer Adele Romanski appear both stunned and celebratory after “Moonlight” won the Oscar for best picture.(Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images)
Barry Jenkins, front left, and the cast accept the award for best picture for “Moonlight.”(Chris Pizzello / Invision / Associated Press)
Cast and crew of both “Moonlight” and “La La Land” are onstage.(Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images)
“La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz, left, speaks to a Oscars show producer, who is reading the winners card after “La La Land” mistakenly was announced as best picture winner instead of “Moonlight.”(Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images)
And Damien Chazelle’s musical, the movie that every pundit picked for the top prize, ended up taking just six Oscars for its 14 nominations.
How did “Moonlight” win?
There had been talk that, in these politically charged times, many Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members were loathe to reward “La La Land,” a film that many saw as slight and nostalgic, not to mention another in a long line of Oscar contenders that celebrated the magic of movies and those who make them. After “Birdman,” “Argo” and “The Artist,” did the movie industry need to pat itself on the back … again?
In “Moonlight,” academy members had a strong alternative – a film about seeing people different from you and understanding them, empathizing with them and connecting with them. Fundamentally, “Moonlight” is about the necessity of human connection. That’s one reason why audiences related and responded to Jenkins’ film, turning the modest movie into an indie hit.
And while academy members were voting from Feb. 13-21, there was a fair amount of buzz building toward “Moonlight.” Actor-filmmaker Mark Duplass wrote an open letter to academy members urging them to vote for Jenkins’ film, calling it “a bit of a miracle.”
“It’s fair to say that it’s an important film,” Duplass wrote. “Not important in the ‘eat your vegetables and see this important art film even though it’s painful to watch’ way. The film is important because it is actually not a niche film. It is not just for people who like movies that feature marginalized characters who aren’t often featured in leading roles. The film is important because it is a beautiful, sweet, open love letter to the core human values that connect us all. It is important because it reaches beyond its specific characters and tells the story of all of our dreams and collective life experiences. It simultaneously tells a harsh truth and, miraculously, does it with an air of hope.”
“Moonlight” won the best picture Oscar after a botched announcement threw the ceremony into chaos.
The best picture Oscar is voted on via a preferential ballot. Academy members rank the nominated movies in order. PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants sort the ballots based on members’ No. 1 votes. They eliminate the movie with the fewest first-place votes, giving those votes to each ballot’s second-ranked film. The process continues — smallest stacks eliminated, votes redistributed to the next choice down — until one movie has at least 50% plus one of the votes.
Here’s how that process might have given “Moonlight” the best picture Oscar. “La La Land” clearly had support among academy members. It would not have earned 14 nominations and won six Oscars otherwise. But its backing among voters turned out to be shallow. And when the stacks of lower-ranked movies – presumably “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Hell or High Water” and “Arrival” – were eliminated, supporters of those films had “Moonlight” ranked higher than “La La Land.”
And as their votes were redistributed, “Moonlight’s” stack grew and grew, until it had the requisite 50% plus one.
What’s funny is that moments before he presented the best picture Oscar with Dunaway, Beatty said the “goal in politics is the same as our goal in art – to get to the truth.”
And get to the truth they did — it just took a little longer.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.