Living in La La Land

I’ve never presented an award at an awards ceremony, and only once have I gone on stage to collect one, and then only as one of those people who stands in the background and says nothing. But the nightmare is still the same, that the name you read out is the wrong one – it puts a whole new spin on the idea of fake news.

You can watch the hesitancy as La La Land was announced as the winner of Best Picture at this weekend’s Oscar, and the milling around of officials speaking into their lapels and listening to evident panic in the control room. The final person to speak in celebration knew it was a hollow jubilation they were a part of, it was Moonlight which had in fact won. 

To recap if you haven’t already read enough analysis of this mishap: the presenters for this award, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, opened the envelope and saw on it words they were not expecting, after Beatty hesitated Dunaway took the envelope and announced La La Land had won best picture. Half the cast and crew made their way to the stage and two speeches were given in full before the mistake was corrected. Instead of the Best Picture envelope Beatty had in his hand the Best Actress award which had been presented immediately before by Leonardo DiCaprio. The winner’s envelopes are held in duplicate by two PWC partners at each side of the stage to hand to the presenter, because DiCaprio had entered from the other side there was a redundant envelope that should have been discarded but wasn’t.

There’s more, and PWC have issued multiple apologies – presumably in part to protect their 83 year old relationship with the Academy – but it quickly became the most notably event of the evening, overshadowing Moonlight’s triumph, and even over La La Land’s other Oscar victories. Already dubbed the worst mistake in Oscar history, this was clearly embarrassing, but probably not of the cataclysmic extent some of the coverage has made out.

If I was to preach a sermon on this I’d have three points, and they would be about mistakes, embarrassment and joy. First of all, we all make mistakes and this should temper our reaction when others do so. Yes, Brian Cullinan (the PWC partner in charge), handed out the wrong envelope, and possibly because he was too preoccupied with grabbing a selfie with Emma Stone as she walked off stage. Yes, the presenters could have figured out they had the wrong card and tried rectifying the mistake before ploughing on with their best guess.

As Mark Woods has commented in relation to this: “Like all of us, I’ve made some bad mistakes. Some of them have been professional (not too many – I’m still working, after all). More of them have been personal. But I’m profoundly grateful that I can move on. I’ll always regret my errors and sins, but I don’t have to be defined by them”.

Because most of us will not face the embarrassment Brian Cullinan now faces, most of our mistakes happen with few onlookers, and for very few with the audience that consigns you to the trivia section of year-in-review quizzes that appear in newspapers between Christmas and New Year. With embarrassment often comes shame, Cullinan is not some neophyte accountant, he’s the US board chairman for PWC, but this episode will likely become the thing attached to his name on google for all eternity. (I’m not sure whether Google will be around for all eternity.)

Shame can haunt us if we let it. This was a mistake with huge coverage but minimal consequences. The situation was rectified immediately, and I suspect more people know Moonlight won than would had their success been announced and celebrated without a hitch. Shame shouldn’t be allowed to haunt Brian Cullinan, and we shouldn’t let it haunt us. It also provides a prompt for how we talk about mistakes in the public eye, does our language heap on guilt and shame? What might coverage look like that offers hope and redemption from the most public of mistakes?

One final aspect of this fandango that interests me is that Jordan Horowitz, director of La La Land, knew that a mistake had been made, still took the mic to give an acceptance speech, made his thanks and then confessed that they hadn’t won and Moonlight were indeed the winners. Horowitz was able to enjoy a moment of incredible embarrassment by passing on the glory to the real winners. He was enjoying joy.

I’m not a film fanatic, I normally only pay passing attention to who wins the main awards at these events, but while it is not something of life and death seriousness in which a mistake has real and lasting consequences, it is not something so trivial it should be dismissed and ignored. Celebrating success and feeling joy are vital habits which we all need to foster. Sometimes we all need a trip to la la land.  

Written by Danny Webster, Advocacy and Media Officer for the Evangelical Alliance, follow Danny on Twitter or on his own blog.