What exactly happened with the Best Picture win at the Oscars?

The weirdest moment in Oscars history.
The weirdest moment in Oscars history.
Image: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The 2017 Academy Awards, a night that honored Hollywood’s best films and brightest stars, is likely to be remembered for delivering one of the most bizarre moments in live TV history—a mixup over the biggest award.

Much of the evening unfolded as a fairly ordinary and uneventful Oscars ceremony. As it reached the final and most anticipated award of the evening, Best Picture, actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (who starred together in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde) walked onto the stage to announce the winner.

After opening the red envelope, Beatty paused, appearing to prolong the reveal for dramatic effect. Dunaway, apparently impatient for the announcement, looked at the card and emphatically named the heavily favored La La Land the winner.

Moments later, however, while the cast and crew of La La Land celebrated on stage, one of the film’s producers, Jordan Horowitz, seized the mic and announced that another film, Moonlight, had actually won the award. There had been a colossal snafu.

“There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture,” he said, motioning for the Moonlight crew to come on stage. “This is not a joke.”

And it wasn’t:

Let’s try to unpack just what exactly happened.

It’s clear now that Beatty wasn’t pausing for dramatic effect—he was truly confused. As he explained afterward, the card inside the envelope wasn’t for best picture, instead, it was the winning best actress card for Emma Stone, the star of La La Land.

With the entertainment media and the internet immediately scouring the video to investigate what happened, it soon emerged that Stone was holding her envelope the whole time—which she confirmed in interviews.

That suggests that the card Beatty was holding—and the one Dunaway read from—was a duplicate best actress card. This makes sense because there are apparently two winning envelopes made for each category, held by Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz of the professional services firm PwC, which oversees balloting at the Academy.

While La La Land producers were giving their thank-you speeches for an award they didn’t actually win, an Oscars stage hand with a headset can be seen behind them breaking the bad news.

Keep your eye on Stone as she realizes what’s happening, on the left of the frame:

Horowitz is then handed the real best picture envelope, which shows that Moonlight—not La La Land—had won best picture. He graciously tells the audience, and millions of us at home, what just happened, and invites the real winners onto the stage to accept their award. “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight,” Horowitz said, before a clearly flustered Beatty explains what he saw when he opened the envelope.

The video of the whole excruciating episode is available on the Oscars’ site.

It was a completely unforgettable ending to what was, until that point, a largely forgettable night. La La Land, one of the most-nominated movies of all time, had won five awards already, including Stone’s and Damien Chazelle’s for best director. (What happened during the Best Picture announcement was perhaps the only thing that could have made people feel bad for the film.)

The moment was not only unfortunate and embarrassing for La La Land, but it also robbed Moonlight of its deserved moment in the sun. Director Barry Jenkins and his team made the best of it once they actually made it to the stage, but, at that point, who was really thinking about their achievement?

Host Jimmy Kimmel tried to make light of the situation, blaming the incident on Steve Harvey, the comedian who infamously announced the wrong winner of the Miss Universe pageant in 2015. “Warren, what did you do?” he ribbed at Beatty.

For those who have seen La La Land—a film about dreams unfulfilled—the snafu was, strangely, fitting.