Moonlight didn’t just win Best Picture. It took it. The Academy Awards are inherently a zero-sum game: It may be an honor just to be nominated, but at the end of the night, there are the winners, and then there’s everyone else. But that’s never been illustrated as dramatically as it was last night, when the producers of La La Land were briefly awarded the Best Picture statuettes and then, due to a historic mix-up, compelled to hand them over to the real winners.
In theory, the envelope Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were accidentally handed could have belonged to any of the night’s winners: Just imagine Dunaway announcing, “And the best picture of the year goes to … Suicide Squad!” But it’s fitting that the now-infamous duplicate, the backup for Actress in a Leading Role, had La La Land’s name on it as well as Emma Stone’s. Although Oscars prediction is a matter of educated guesswork rather than hard data, the perception from the moment the two films premiered in the same week last September was that Moonlight and La La Land were locked in a two-way race to the top. Had Moonlight received its award in normal, snafu-free fashion, the assumption would still have been that it had snatched the Best Picture Oscar away from the movie that had, by then, become the overwhelming favorite. That events conspired to produce a literal handoff from one film’s crew to another only made it concrete.
The blizzard of pre-Oscar think pieces about how La La Land’s victory over Moonlight would have represented a triumph of Tinseltown escapism over a movie about “the real world” were never fair to the former: As a rule, movies in which people spontaneously burst into song tend to be short on gritty realism, and La La Land’s bittersweet finale is hardly the stuff of Hollywood endings. But it is a movie that begins by showing us a vibrant, diverse patchwork of Los Angelenos stalled in traffic, then picks the two gorgeous white movie stars out of the crowd. There are a million stories in the naked city, but we’ve been told this one before.
Moonlight’s, by contrast, is the kind of story the movie industry rarely deigns to tell, told in a way that the Oscars seldom recognize. It’s a first no matter how you come at it: the first Best Picture by a black American director, the first with a gay protagonist, the first Oscar-winning movie about black people that doesn’t foreground racism or “the struggle.” It’s an elliptical character study recognized by a body that almost always opts for issue-driven stories or glossy spectacle. La La Land’s Damien Chazelle, who was awarded Best Director, is a white graduate of Harvard; Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins is a black alumnus of Florida State who didn’t see his first subtitled movie until he was already in film school.
The mutual respect between the makers of La La Land and Moonlight shows every sign of being genuine: La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz showed admirable poise in trying to give the Moonlight crew back their moment when the mistake was finally realized, and Moonlight’s Adele Romanski returned the favor by trying to point out the La La Land cadre during her acceptance speech. (They had, quite properly, already vacated the stage.) In interviews, Jenkins forcefully rebutted the framing of “white, fascist musical” vs. “gay, black, ’hood love story,” and at the New York Film Critics Circle awards in January, winners from both films stressed the camaraderie that had developed between them—and their fellow festival darling, Manchester by the Sea—over months of doing the awards circuit. So it seems churlish to perpetuate the idea that they’re locked in some sort of battle to the death.
You could even make the case, although it’s certain to be cold comfort to the La La Land crew, that they’re better off this way: It’s now, despite the absence of any evidence to back up the claim, the movie that almost won Best Picture, rather than just another also-ran, and having been relieved of the burden of being cast as a referendum on Where We Are Now, La La Land can go back to being the genial, backward-glancing romance it was designed to be. And while Moonlight’s win may have been complicated by the slip-up, it wasn’t tarnished, and the metaphorical transfer of the Oscar from Chazelle’s hands to Jenkins’ added a powerful symbolic dimension, as if a torch was being passed along with a trophy. The Best Picture fiasco may have been the biggest mistake in Oscars history, but it was strangely fitting, too.