There are hundreds of Oscar gaffes that have become legendary. A naked man crossing the stage leaving David Niven in a hole, an indigenous representative going up to receive the statuette in the name of Marlon Brando (not a faux pas in my book, but it is often cited as one), Jane Fonda‘s political protest, the slap in the face of Will Smith in Chris Rock, Jenniffer Lawrence‘s fall before going on stage… there are several, but none of them beats the wrong announcement of La La Land as the best film of 2017. I watched it live because I torture myself every year to enduring the 3.5-hour Academy party, always taking a gamble – and rarely leaving disappointed – with something that will surprise us. But that a beautiful film like La La Land has a story like this? Unfair.
I don’t mean to say that Moonlight‘s choice is wrong, that’s not it. But to speak of a “la la land” moment is today to rely on something that seemed right, but could leave you “embarrassingly” mistaken. And how did it happen? Very typical of current times. But let’s go back in time a little more.
The participation of auditors in the Oscar voting arose precisely because in 1935 there was a serious problem, starring the brilliant Bette Davis (by the way, an actress who changed a lot in Hollywood). She had a highly praised performance in Of Human Bondage and was an “Andrea Risebrough” of the year. Andrea is among 5 nominees for Best Actress in 2023 after influential friends campaigned for her and her great performance in For Leslie, just in case you’ve forgotten already. Well, back in 1935, only three actresses were nominated every year and Bette was still seen as a newcomer. Voting was also different: the 10 most voted names were submitted to a council of 5 “judges” who then determined the three finalists. Bette, still far from the fame she would gain next, was not among the 3. The world still didn’t even know Bette Davis and even less an enraged Bette Davis.
The actress, not yet the legend, wanted challenging roles and fought with her studio, Warner, to play the unglamorous role in RKO’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham‘s novel. Her performance was considered innovative and masterful at the time, hence the shock of not being nominated. Even though the author praised her, soon the exclusion turned into drama. The Academy was besieged with telegrams from other actors demanding Bette’s inclusion on a written ballot so that she would have a fair chance. Since then, they have expanded to include the five most-voted nominees, no longer pre-selected by any committee. All efforts were in vain, Bette lost, but since it was Claudette Colbert who took it for It Happened One Night, and Bette respected her, she accepted with peace of mind. I can speak? I saw both movies. Bette was stolen. Years later, she took hers, and remember, it was SHE who named the (until then) nameless statuette “Oscar”. So it is.
Fast forward almost 88 years, after that incident in 1935, to ensure the transparency and veracity of the vote count, the Academy hired the accounting firm Price Waterhouse, based in London, for the next party and which would count the votes keeping the secrecy of the results until the opening of the envelopes. That’s right, the suspense was to avoid early criticism of the result.
From 1936 until 2017 everything ran (almost) smoothly. There is the evil legend that in 1991 Marisa Tomei‘s victory was a wrong announcement by the presenter, but only in 2017 did the la la land moment come.
The problem started with technology, social networks, and the wonder that any citizen has or would have when exposed to so many famous people at the same time.
How it works? Well, two PwC accountants are on standby, one on each side of the aisle. When the presenter enters on your side, one of them hands over the envelope and the one on the opposite side discards his, to – ha! – do not hand the wrong one over to the next presenter. It takes attention and coordination, but it’s also not that challenging. But how can you resist taking a selfie or tweeting from backstage when handing over an envelope is all you have to do?
In 2017, the accountant who had headed the team for four years, Brian Cullinan, at the height of his 32-year career, was seen taking pictures and sharing his presence on Twitter. Especially when Emma Stone‘s Best Actress win for La La Land was announced. The envelope for this category was delivered by his colleague, Martha Ruiz, but Brian FORGOT to dispose of his envelope for Best Actress because he was writing (or taking a photo, depending on the source). Then, poor Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway entered the stage to play the worst of their stories.
Was it Ga Ga Land? Yes, they tried to blame the error on the actors’ advanced age. Once it happened, the mistake was fixed by Brian himself because only he and his partner, Martha, knew the result of each envelope BEFORE it was opened. Upon hearing the wrong announcement, the accountant was forced to step onstage and intervene, but that didn’t happen before the entire cast of La La Land was already there celebrating a blundering victory. It was so embarrassing that it makes you laugh nervously, you know? To this day I laugh at the scene, condemn me!
Returning to Warren Beaty, the actor-director was outraged for HOURS at being singled out as the one who made the mistake. Even though he was seen arguing in the background, holding the envelopes in his hands, he lingered for more than enough time as if he had been a ga ga land in obvious ageism gaining steam. He demanded that the Academy publicly clarify what happened and only when it was no longer possible to deny that PwC assumed “human error” did he apologize “sincerely” to everyone and remove the two accountants. I don’t know how poor Martha could have been punished, but she paid the price equally as the partnership between Price Waterhouse Cooper and the Academy of Films and Science remains strong.
Beating this Oscar story will be difficult, but nothing a slap can’t try, do you agree?
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