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It was a remarkable case of mistaken identity that took more than two minutes to fix. Who's really to blame for the slip-up that gave La La Land the spotlight that Moonlight had rightfully won? Barry Hertz explains

One of the best picture Oscar statuettes appears offstage as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announce the Best Picture winner.

It was the mistake heard around the world. On Sunday night, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway took to the stage of the 89th Academy Awards to announce the winner for best picture. After a bit of fumbling around and a look of hesitancy, Beatty handed the envelope to Dunaway, who announced the three words that would ignite the biggest Oscars gaffe in history: " La La Land."

It took a remarkable two minutes-plus for officials from accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to realize the mistake, leading to La La Land producers – three of whom had already made acceptance speeches – announcing that, no, in fact Moonlight was the winner. How did it all go so wrong? Here, we break down the history-making slip-up.

What the tape shows: Watch Moonlight win best picture after botched announcement

Who's to blame?

Once they had recovered from the shock of the moment, most observers took aim at Beatty, who projected a "what-me-worry" sort of sunny confidence about the slip after it had been discovered. "I want to tell you what happened," Beatty addressed the audience, "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. I wasn't trying to be funny." Yet Dunaway was the one who actually announced the "winner" – though she has not publicly addressed the incident since, telling the Hollywood Reporter only that "I'm not going to speak about it" when she was approached at the Governors Ball shortly after the ceremony.

Actress Faye Dunaway and actor Warren Beatty arrive on stage to announce the winner.

Who's really to blame?

As easy and tempting as it would be to blame the one-time Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the fault rests with PWC. Beatty said that he was holding the card that announced Stone had won for best actress – yet Stone said backstage that she was still holding her lead-actress card when Dunaway was at the podium. It turns out that, as per Oscars protocol, there are in fact two cards confirming the winner that are kept near the stage. As the Los Angeles Times reported last year, the duplication exists "partly as another security measure and also to aid the show's flow." That means that two PWC representatives, in this case Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, stand at different ends of the stage to give presenters envelopes.

If the system works as intended, that means that each PWC employee should have given out only half of their envelopes by the end of the night. Obviously, that didn't happen this year, and Beatty somehow ended up with a duplicate "best actress" envelope, confirmed by photographic evidence.

A photo shows a Best Actress award envelope in Warren Beatty’s hand.

What will happen to PWC?

The storied firm released a statement early Monday morning:

We sincerely apologize to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for best picture. 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. We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.

That's contrite enough, but it belies the confidence PWC carried going into the ceremony, especially with Cullinan saying in an academy-produced Medium post earlier in February that "it doesn't sound very complicated, but you have to make sure you're giving the presenter the right envelope." While PWC has pledged a full investigation, the academy might choose to fire the accounting firm, which has worked on the Oscars for the past 83 years.

What's the precedent?

Although there is an apocryphal belief that Marisa Tomei only won her 1993 Oscar for best supporting actress due to a Jack Palance flub, that rumour has been denied across the board, much to the relief of die-hard My Cousin Vinny fans. But in 1964, while presenting the award for best music, Sammy Davis Jr. was involved in a snafu similar to Dunaway and Beatty when he got the wrong envelope for best music score (adaptation or treatment). Davis announced the winner as John Addison for Tom Jones, but Davis immediately apologized when he realized it was supposed to be André Previn for Irma La Douce. At least Davis was quick on his feet: "Wait till the NAACP hears about this!"

Why institute the envelope situation in the first place?

You can thank the Los Angeles Times for Oscar's decades-long obsession with secrecy. During the awards' first 12 years – a decidedly more humble era – winners were simply released to the media beforehand under embargo, allowing the press to write stories for the next day's newspaper without having to actually witness the awards unfold. But then in 1940 the L.A. Times broke the embargo, publishing a story in its evening edition, "much to the academy's dismay." One year later, the envelope system was put into place.

La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz holds up the winner card showing the actual Best Picture winner.

Who came out of the fracas unscathed?

Although it couldn't have been easy amid the on-stage chaos, producers for both La La Land and Moonlight handled the situation with dignity and class. After he and his fellow producers Marc Platt and Fred Berger made their acceptance speeches for La La Land, Jordan Horowitz interrupted the celebrations to announce that: "Guys, guys, I'm sorry, no. There's a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture." After a wave of shock swept through the Dolby Theatre, he added, "This is not a joke. Come up here," before adding, "I'm going to be really thrilled to hand this to my friends from Moonlight." It was a graceful move that echoed the long and healthy relationship between the Moonlight and La La Land camps, dating back to the start of last year's fall film season.

Producer Adele Romanski, middle, writer/director Barry Jenkins, producer Jeremy Kleiner and cast and crew members accept Best Picture for Moonlight.

Moonlight actor Mahershala Ali hugs Emma Stone after the award mixup was uncovered.

Ryan Gosling reacts as the true Best Picture winner is announced.

What was the other big mistake of the night?

If #EnvelopeGate never happened, then we might all be discussing the academy's other mortifying error: During its annual "In Memoriam" segment, the academy accidentally used Australian film producer Jan Chapman's image to mark the passing of her friend, costume designer Janet Patterson. "I was devastated," Chapman told Variety. "I had urged her agency to check any photograph which might be used and understand that they were told that the Academy had it covered. Janet was a great beauty and four-time Oscar nominee and it is very disappointing that the error was not picked up. I am alive and well and an active producer."

Australian producer Jan Chapman, shown in 2009, is alive, and is not costume designer Janet Patterson.

Follow Barry Hertz on Twitter: @HertzBarry


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