On Sunday night, La La Land won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Then, the award went to Moonlight. In an excruciating debacle that played out on live TV, and has since been picked apart online, Warren Beatty was given Emma Stone’s Best Actress envelope, which he handed off to his co-presenter Faye Dunaway, who announced the award. As the La La Land team started to give their speeches, stagehands rushed onstage, telling them the shocking news that Moonlight had, in fact, won instead. It’s not entirely clear how such a simple moment went so wrong, but comments from the presenters, PricewaterhouseCoopers (the accounting firm that tallies the votes), and others involved in the ceremony have revealed a little of what happened behind the scenes. Here’s everything we know.
The accountants prep two envelopes for each award.
There were two PwC partners, Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan, responsible for tallying the votes in advance of Oscar night. They carry two identical sets of envelopes in two briefcases, passing envelopes from either side of the stage.
Leonardo DiCaprio presented one Best Actress envelope to Emma Stone.
Despite rumors that DiCaprio may have passed Stone’s envelope back to one of the presenters and triggered the chaos, Stone insisted that she had hers on hand during the whole show. “I don’t mean to start stuff,” Stone said, “but whatever story that was — I had that card.”
Instead of getting a Best Picture envelope, Beatty was given the other Best Actress envelope.
As Beatty came up to present, you could see that the gold writing on his red envelope reads “Actress in a Leading Role.” Why was he given the wrong card? Well, human error struck all around, but if you’re looking for a specific culprit: It was Cullinan. Tim Ryan, a PwC senior partner, gave an explanation to Variety on Monday, attributing the mistake to the fact that Cullinan accidentally drew the Best Actress envelope from the wrong pile and handed it to Beatty. Apparently, each accountant separated their envelopes into two groups, one set to hand out to presenters and a “back-up” pile of copies of those given out on the other side of the stage. After Ruiz gave one Best Actress envelope to DiCaprio, Cullinan reached for the wrong set of cards on his side of the stage and handed the other Best Actress envelope to Beatty.
“He feels very, very terrible and horrible,” Ryan said. “He is very upset about this mistake. And it is also my mistake, our mistake and we all feel very bad.” PwC also apologized in a statement this morning, writing, “The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.”
As for possible sources of distraction, the Times, fascinatingly, noted that PwC, at the Academy’s behest, used different envelopes this year, going from red lettering on a gold background to gold lettering on red, which is potentially harder to read. Additionally, The Wall Street Journal reported that Cullinan tweeted a photo, now deleted, of Emma Stone holding her Oscar three minutes before Beatty and Dunaway took the stage.
Variety, working through a set of backstage photographs like they’re the Zapruder film, also contests PwC’s notion that Cullinan drew the Best Actress envelope from a “back-up pile.” In Variety’s photos, Cullinan is holding two envelopes, presumably Best Actress and Best Picture, along with his phone, before he handed the wrong envelope to Beatty and Dunaway. In Variety’s timeline, Cullinan is also on his phone, presumably tweeting, while Beatty and Dunaway were beginning their presentation onstage. Moral of the story: Never tweet.
Beatty knew something was amiss when he opened the envelope, but he wasn’t sure what.
Onstage, Beatty vamped, checked for a second card, and then passed the card to Dunaway, as if to check to see if she had a second opinion. Dunaway saw La La Land listed under Emma Stone’s name and announced it as the Best Picture winner. A microphone picked up Beatty saying, “But it says Emma Stone” as the camera cut away and the audience started to cheer.
Afterward, Beatty acknowledged that he was unsure of what to make of the card in the moment. “I read the card that was in the envelope,” he said, according to People. “I read it but I didn’t say La La Land. I thought, ‘This is very strange because it says Best Actress on the card.’ And I felt that maybe there was some sort of misprint … As planned, I gave it to Faye, and that’s all I want to say on the subject.”
After the La La Land team took the stage, the crew realized the mistake and had to stop their speeches.
The PwC accountants first realized the wrong winner had been announced, according to the New York Times, and alerted the rest of the crew. The crew rushed to find the correct Moonlight Best Picture envelope, and also asked La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz to open the one he had just been given, which read “Emma Stone, La La Land.” After Horowitz came to the mic to tell Moonlight that they have won, a man in a headset passes the correct envelope to Beatty, who passes it to Horowitz, who brandishes it in front of the camera.
As Moonlight took the stage, Beatty apologized for his mistake.
“I want to tell you what happened. I opened the envelope and it said ‘Emma Stone, La La Land.’ That’s why I took such a long look at Faye and at you,” he said onscreen, gesturing toward the audience. “I wasn’t trying to be funny.”
After the speeches, Beatty made an effort to find Moonlight director Barry Jenkins and show him both the Best Picture and Best Actress cards. “Warren refused to show the card to anybody before he showed it to me,” Jenkins said. “And so he did. He came upstairs and he walked over to me, and he showed the card. And everybody was asking, ‘Can I see the card’? And he’s like, ‘No, Barry Jenkins has to see the card, I need him to know.’ And he showed it to me. I felt better about what happened.” Jenkins also tweeted a photo of the correct Best Picture card.
Dunaway isn’t saying anything.
She told The Hollywood Reporter that she wouldn’t comment on the matter. Per Vanity Fair, she, “seemingly unfazed, was snacking on cashews backstage in the first moments after the Best Picture announcement.”
The Academy has issued an apology …
“We deeply regret the mistakes that were made during the presentation of the Best Picture category during last night’s Oscar ceremony,” the Academy said in a statement. “We salute the tremendous grace they displayed under the circumstances. To all involved — including our presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the filmmakers, and our fans watching worldwide — we apologize.” While the Academy added that it is committed to “upholding the integrity of the Oscars,” it placed much of the blame on PricewaterhouseCoopers, reminding everyone that the accounting firm that tabulates the votes had already taken responsibility for the mix-up.
… and booted the two PwC accountants from being involved in future ceremonies.
Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs told the Associated Press Wednesday that both Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan would not be involved in future ceremonies, and added that PricewaterhouseCoopers’ involvement in the Oscars remains under review.
This post has been updated throughout.