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What It Was Like Being in the Room at This Year’s Crazy Oscars Ceremony

The mix-up seen around the world. Photo: Eddy Chen/ABC

Did the crazy finale of this year’s Oscars have you screaming at your TV? It’s nothing compared to what it was actually like in the theater as it happened. On this season’s final episode of The Awards Show Show, co-hosts John Horn and Kyle Buchanan tell their stories: From his seat at the Oscars, John spotted a snafu that may have contributed to the Best Picture mix-up, and Kyle reports on what it was like to go to the after-party for La La Land, a movie that won the top Oscar for two minutes. Plus the hosts dissect Jimmy Kimmel, try to cope with Suicide Squad’s win, and parse how Moonlight made it all the way.

An excerpt from the conversation follows; listen to the episode below, and subscribe to the Awards Show Show on iTunes.

Kyle Buchanan: We’re sleep deprived and caffeinated and running on a whole lot of adrenaline. This is certainly not going to be a boring post-mortem. Although, I don’t think we would’ve had one anyway. There’s a lot of stuff that actually happened during the ceremony, but there’s no way that we can talk about anything at the top of the show besides the all-time snafu that was the Best Picture Presentation.

John Horn: It was epic. I was in the auditorium and here’s what I saw: There’s a huge scene change just before Best Picture and there’s these big sets that came out of the floor of the Dolby Theater. And they didn’t get them locked in place. So the stage crew was frantically trying to get the scenery set up and it’s this big staircase that clearly Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are supposed to walk down. So they’re wrestling with the stairs, the commercial break you’re getting counted down with 30 seconds, 15 seconds. You see Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway scamper out. Faye Dunaway starts to go up the stairs and Warren Beatty grabs her like, there’s no way you’re going to get to the top of the stairs in the next three seconds. The lights come up and there they are. So it was already kind of discombobulated and disorganized. I don’t know if that explains the Pricewaterhouse mistake because clearly the mistake was they gave them the wrong envelope. But that was the backdrop. And then, the rules are, according to the Academy and other past producers, is that if a presenter reads the wrong name, the accountants are basically supposed to rush the stage and stop it.

KB: Boy, didn’t they!

JH: It took two minutes and 25 seconds.

KB: Multiple speeches. Nobody doing anything. Warren was clearly … when you look back at it, you know, it’s quite an incredible moment to parse every little bit of it. Warren Beatty opens this envelope which, as we know now, was a duplicate of the Best Actress in a Leading Role envelope. He sees “Emma Stone in La La Land.” And he knows something’s amiss.

JH: Something’s wrong!

KB: He should not see Emma Stone’s name there! He should see the producers’ names. And so, he looks at it, he sort of looks to the wings, he looks back at it, he looks at Faye. Faye thinks he’s doing a bit. She’s like, “Oh, Warren. You’re remarkable.”

JH: “Just get on with it.”

KB: And then he hands her the envelope to, I think, essentially try to nonverbally confirm what is happening. Trying to keep this as smooth as possible. Faye Dunaway, who is not gonna turn down an extra line, immediately seizes this chance and says, “La La Land.” And I guess if you listen to the audio afterwards, which, by that point, nobody was really doing, Warren says to her, “But it says ‘Emma Stone.’” And it still took them ages, as many people from La La Land go up, take the stage, the producers give speeches, [to do anything]. And then that’s when, as Marc Platt is giving the speech, you see all of these stagehands and then eventually Jimmy Kimmel, come onstage and slowly give everybody the information that they did not in fact win, which is … heads are gonna roll.

JH: What you don’t see in the room is just before, what you don’t see on television, but what’s happening in the room is probably about a minute in, the stage managers start coming on the stage and you’re just really curious. It looks like they’re lining them up for … and you don’t know what’s going on and they’ve got envelopes in their hands. And as they’re walking from stage left onto the stage, you go to yourself, In about five seconds, they’re gonna be on-camera. And you know something is very wrong when the stage managers with the headsets are about to be on-camera. That’s when everything gets strange. I was just talking to David Hill, who produced last year’s show, and he said his theory is that the directors and the producers were not in the truck calling the show; they were somehow in the wing. So there was a miscommunication of how to stop everything. I’ve gotta say though, how you hand the wrong envelope is just … I know there are going to be duplicates. But as soon as Emma Stone wins, you burn the other one! You lock it up! You throw it in a trash compactor. You get rid of it so something like this doesn’t happen. I think it’s a legitimate question: Would somebody have done something different in that moment? You have tens of millions of people watching. You know something is wrong, would some other presenter said, “Wait a second, I think we have the wrong envelope,” and gotten the right one or turned it around, where it clearly says, “Actress in a Leading Role.”

KB: Who can say? It’s an incredibly pressure-filled thing to do that.

JH: Unbelievable. You would not want to be there.

KB: It’s obviously never happened before, so you place your trust in the envelope that you’re given. And they did such a bad job of course correcting, it was left to Jordan Horowitz, who had initially accepted for La La Land, to even give it to Moonlight and announce what had happened. Which they weren’t doing themselves. Jimmy Kimmel bashfully walked up and eventually said something, but there was no sort of official chain-of-command situation. It was a total mess. And just watching all the reaction shots of the audience, the Moonlight team reacting to it with utter disbelief. It’s just an incredibly Oscar moment. Not for the people involved, but for the viewing audience. It’s going to go down in infamy.

JH: And certainly, in the theater, and I don’t know how it played out on TV, and this to me is the tragedy upon tragedy: I could not hear what Barry Jenkins was saying. I’m sure he gave a lovely acceptance speech. Nobody was listening to Barry Jenkins. Everybody was talking to each other, basically saying, what the fuck just happened? I mean it was a din in the theater. The other thing that happened is that as soon as La La Land was announced as Best Picture winner, where I was sitting, everybody left. They went up to go to the Governor’s Ball. They wanted to get into the party. They didn’t even see what happened. Dozens, scores of people left and didn’t even see the whole drama unfold. And they certainly didn’t hear Barry Jenkins’s speech.

KB: My colleague, Stacey Wilson Hunt, did the exact thing. She was in the Governor’s Ball. She did not know Moonlight had actually won. She got the partial crazy story as people started to come into the Governor’s Ball. What a mess!

JH: Never leave early, that’s the lesson.

KB: What was it like just right around you, John? How did it dawn on you? Was there this wave of disbelief?

JH: It was not totally unlike the day after the presidential election where people said, “What just happened?” But this was all of that — all of those hours of Trump versus Clinton — compressed into two minutes. And I walked out of the theater and I ran into somebody who worked at A24, which is the distributor and co-producer of Moonlight and she just said, “What just happened to our movie?” And then I ran into an Oscar consultant who worked on Moonlight and La La Land was like, “I won and then I lost and then I won!” She had no idea what to make of the whole thing. I talked to six Academy governors at the Governor’s Ball, to a person they said, “Inexcusable error. There’s only one thing that could’ve happened and that is Pricewaterhouse gave them the wrong envelope.” I ran into Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy. She was in a catatonic state. She looked so horrified. It was a really good ceremony, I think, up until that point. Still a really good ceremony, but for all the wrong reasons.

KB: Well, we’ll parse that, but yeah, it’s funny to me how many texts I got yesterday from people saying, “Do you think this is a Jimmy Kimmel prank?” And I’m like, “Oh, I don’t think you understand that this is a permanent stain on the Oscars and Pricewaterhouse. People will be fired. Next year’s ceremony, this will loom over it like an ax.” It’s just crazy to me. I happened to go to the La La Land party after the ceremony and I got there before most of the team had shown up. They were still at the Governor’s Ball at that point, I assume, shell-shocked. Everybody at that party was roaming around like, “What just happened? What did we witness? How did that happen?” And eventually Damien Chazelle got there, and was immediately swarmed by people who were congratulating him and commiserating with him. He won Best Director and briefly won Best Picture. I saw Jordan Horowitz, the producer, now very famous for engineering that hand-off to the Moonlight crew, and he said, “Boy, if I ever do win Best Picture, everybody’s expressions are just going to be nuts.” I mean, it’s just, I almost don’t know what to say. And I don’t think anybody does. The sad thing too, for La La Land, is it did win six Oscars, and that is a remarkable achievement. And unfortunately, it ends on such a bizarre note that the celebration that it … if Moonlight had just won Best Picture, which would have been a shocker, La La Land would say, “Wow, that’s a good movie, it won, but we won six. I won Best Director, we won the score …” And yet, it doesn’t. So the people who win the most Oscars, La La Land, somehow feel like they did badly because they win and then they lose. And Moonlight, which does incredibly well, winning three Oscars, it somehow seems like the movie that wasn’t announced first.

What It Was Like in the Room at This Year’s Oscars Ceremony