In the 2017 Oscar Best Picture debacle, we can see so much about our expectations for the seamless seduction of the entertainment industry and the inertia working against disruptions of established power dynamics.
First, I think it is important to lead with professor Brittney Cooper’s article about Moonlight being robbed of its moment. It took much too long for the stage to be given over to the people who brought “Moonlight” to fruition. Winning Best Picture should have been a full celebration of a poignant film about a specific experience of Black life in Miami, Florida. Instead, a muddle of doubt and confusion delayed Moonlight taking the limelight. Director Barry Jenkins noted the delay of disbelief: “Very clearly, even in my dreams, this could not be true. But, to hell with dreams. I’m done with it, because this is true.”
It just so happens my Introduction to Theatre Studies class was slated to discuss Bertolt Brecht on Monday. For most millennial theatre students accustomed to realism and steeped in consumer capitalism, it’s difficult to get on board with Brecht’s urge to disrupt audiences’ expectations and reveal the theatre apparatus in order to “make strange” what seems automatic and natural. Thanks to the 2017 Oscars, I had a ready-made lesson plan about the emotional and political costs of disrupting the status quo. Eight hours after the award show’s conclusion, fifteen students and I were able to discuss what happens when a seemingly seamless illusion unravels.
We watched the whole six minutes of squirm-inducing anxiety, confusion, embarrassment, and inadequate celebration of Moonlight that was the Best Picture award. The moments of fissure began to mount. First, Warren Beatty’s long pause. Could he read the envelope? Was this an age issue? Was he OK? Or, was he inappropriately mugging? When he turned to Faye Dunaway, was he looking for support or passing the buck? The moment appeared resolved when Dunaway announced “La La Land!”
The cognitive blip disappeared as the key players of La La Land promptly fell into the ritual of crowding the stage and taking turns at the microphone, thanking loved ones and supporters. But, wait, look at that man with a headset on stage! What was happening?! The moment you see a headset on stage at an awards show, you know there is a huge problem. Months of planning and scores of employees work strenuously to make the events seem effortless, to render invisible the labor involved in getting celebrities to appear glamorous and unruffled on stage. In epic theatre, Brecht wanted audiences to pay attention to that invisible labor, revealing the means of production that bring a theatrical event to life.
With no Brechtian intent, the 2017 Oscars Best Picture error had audiences asking themselves “How could this have happened? What is it actually like backstage? Wait, how do the envelopes get into the hands of the celebrities? Do they sit on a table, does someone hold onto them? Who is that person?” All of a sudden, audiences were compelled to think of all the work that goes into putting on a live show, even a fairly staid and uninteresting live show like the Oscars.
The confusion of Beatty and Dunaway, and the inadequate quips offered by Jimmy Kimmel in response to this crisis of liveness, point to how difficult it is to imagine alternative possibilities when confronted with entrenched institutions. Why not just say “I have the wrong envelope”? Because the show must go on. Why did the words “La La Land” stick out to Dunaway’s eyes more than the phrase “Best Actress, Emma Stone”? Because Dunaway, like most of us, saw what she expected to see.
Last year #OscarSoWhite brought needed attention to the persistent institutional neglect of films made by and about people of color. Moonlight was lauded for the story it tells and the subdued luminance with which it tells it, but there was strong consensus that Hollywood would continue to honor a story about itself.
The most conventional nineteenth-century melodramas involve the wrong documents getting into the wrong hands, and the right documents eventually getting into the right hands. The 2017 Oscars offered a similar crisis, in which a last-minute reveal changed the fates of the characters and the larger meaning of the story being told. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the bizarro world of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz insisting “There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture. This is not a joke, Moonlight has won best picture.” And then, with the all-important evidence, Horowitz held the proof up to the camera, and reiterated “Moonlight, best picture.” Without the evidence of that heavy cardstock in hand, who could possibly have believed it?
From an epic disruption to a melodramatic reveal, this was certainly the most theatrical event of the evening, and one of the most theatrical in the history of the Oscars.