No question, the 89th Academy Awards will always be remembered for #EnvelopeGate, the Best Picture flub heard round the world. It’s an awards show’s ultimate nightmare–made even worse given that it happened in the social media age, when the error would be replayed, examined in close detail, and shouted to the world AS IT WAS STILL HAPPENING. It’s a nightmare scenario for everyone involved in putting the show on.
Ironically? It also injected a lot of life into the show. The reveal that underdog Moonlight had actually triumphed over the heavy favorite as the producers of La La Land were already making their acceptance speeches was without a doubt the most thrilling moment of the night. Mostly because it was horrifying, but also because this is kind of the ultimate come from behind victory for a movie that wasn’t supposed to be able to pull off a victory. You could not possibly have thought Moonlight was more down and out with its Oscar chances than after the Oscars had already been handed to La La Land‘s producers. It doesn’t make the victory sweeter. There’s no denying the pain and humiliation for everyone involved. But it did make for a thrilling reveal–the kind of thing you might see in a movie.
It is also ironic that this is precisely the kind of moment the producers of the Academy Awards have come to crave in recent years. I suspect that given the chance they would give this moment back a thousand times over, but there’s no denying they structure the entire show to provide a more camera-friendly version of that very moment. And just when it looked like every attempt to make the 89th Academy Awards go viral had failed miserably, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were handed the wrong envelope as they took the stage to announce Best Picture.
In a way, you can blame Ellen Degeneres for this. When she hosted in 2014 she was a master at incorporating shareable moments, and it seems like every host since has been desperate to follow in her footsteps without much success. She decided to feed the celebrities by ordering pizza, then doubled down on the stunt by surprising the deliveryman by bringing him out into the auditorium on live TV. I don’t even remember this being a huge moment when it happened, but it turned out to be the stuff Oscar flashback clips are made of. Everyone remembers it, and it makes a fantastic bit for commercials or montages. Then she incorporated a social media stunt by gathering a group of stars together for a selfie that nearly broke Twitter.
Odds are pretty good that if you watched the 2017 Oscars those bits sound familiar. Kimmel decided to feed the celebrities, but this time he dropped candy from the ceiling in parachutes. Then he did it again. Then he did it again, but with donuts and cookies. The first time was already too familiar, each successive attempt was sadder and sadder.
Kimmel also stole Ellen’s bit about surprising an everyman with celebrities, but added a twist by having it be an entire tour bus of alleged tourists. I say alleged because he billed these tourists as Oscar enthusiasts, but what Oscar enthusiast is on a tour bus during the show they supposedly love to watch? Right off the bat the whole thing was suspect. Opening the doors to the auditorium was supposed to be a surprise, but somehow the tourists had been forewarned enough to have their cell phones at the ready, cameras going. None looked surprised at all. They clumsily stumbled along the front row taking videos. Kimmel tried to get them to interact with the celebrities but everything was forced. They finally got a ‘moment’ when the first couple in the group (who had clearly been placed in front because of their charisma) met their favorite actor, Denzel Washington, who held a mock wedding ceremony for them. But even though social media had a bit of Stockholm Syndrome about the bit (trying very hard to make this a moment worth talking about), it has to be said that Denzel didn’t look too thrilled to be participating and it wasn’t very funny. The whole bit was overly long and painful. It was a trap Kimmel couldn’t get out of once it had begun. The morning after, all we can do is wonder who thought that was a good idea in the first place?
Kimmel even turned to Twitter as Ellen did before him, but this time it was to attempt to bait President Trump into tweeting at him. Awkward was the key word in this bit as well, because there’s nothing fun or conspiratorial about watching someone else send a Tweet when the intended party isn’t in on the joke or fails to rise to the occasion. Since I think everyone knew Trump wasn’t going to reply, what was the point of taking the time to set up a screenshare for Kimmel’s phone so we could all watch him Tweet?
There’s far too much effort going into creating a moment people will share immediately and talk about again later. What made Ellen’s recent hosting gig a success wasn’t a craven desire for clickbait so much as her ineffable Ellen-ness. The pizza stunt was simple, uncomplicated, quick, and new. And the selfie retweeted round the world? It didn’t even happen the way it was originally planned. The original idea was for Ellen to have Meryl Streep take a selfie with her because Samsung was paying for placement during the show (the joke being that Meryl would accidentally be left out of the photo). But when Ellen moved in for a selfie Meryl recommended they include Julia Roberts, who was seated behind her. That prompted Ellen to invite Channing Tatum to hop over from his spot two seats over from Julia, and suddenly Bradley Cooper stood up from the front row to offer to take the photo for them. Next thing you knew every celebrity in range was vying to be part of the selfie. It was completely spontaneous, and that’s why it succeeded so spectacularly.
Here’s the video of that stunt. Notice, if you will, that it takes about thirty seconds for Ellen to even get to Meryl with her Samsung phone. And that until Meryl grabs Julia, the bit is dying a slow painful death.
You could argue that if Ellen hadn’t walked out there with a smartphone intent on getting a picture because Samsung was paying for it, that moment would never have happened anyway. A planned moment led to fantastic improv. But what if Meryl had just smiled at the camera instead of inviting Julia? The entire scheme would have fizzled, because the moment as planned was lame. And that’s what I’m getting at: you can’t plan big moments. No one planned Sally Field’s 1985 acceptance speech for Places In the Heart, which went viral long before going viral was a thing. No one planned Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s exuberance when he won Best Supporting Actor in 1997. No one told Jennifer Lawrence to trip on her way to the podium to accept her Best Actress Oscar and laugh it off in 2013.
These are some of the best and most iconic moments in the Academy’s history, and none of them were scripted or planned. The Oscars are at their best when they have a sort of spontaneous structure. A plan exists and at best, fingers are crossed for a great moment. When you labor over the structure in order to force a moment, you start to ruin it.
This is not to suggest that staging a moment doesn’t work. In 2009, producers shook up the usual format of announcing the acting winners by having a squad of former winners from each category come out to sing the praises of each nominee individually. The often heartfelt results caused several of the nominees to tear up–a much more viscerally emotional reaction than the standard clip reel would have achieved. But when they tried a modified version of this format in 2010, it didn’t have anywhere near the impact because the actors were all ready for it that time. All it did was slow down the show, prompting a return to the standard form in 2011. Did you catch that? Something worked, so they flogged it to death until it was a problem. There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing.
During last night’s show they introduced presenters Charlize Theron and Shirley MacLaine by showing a video of Charlize discussing how Shirley’s work in The Apartment had inspired her, prompting some cute (most likely scripted) interplay between the two when they came out together. That staged moment worked. But when they attempted the same thing with Javier Bardem and Meryl Streep later in the evening, both seemed to feel awkward (note to future producers: know who to pick for your bits. Moments like these are better suited to someone like MacLaine, whose bold personality makes her the kind of lady who will win an Oscar and proclaim to the room “I deserve this.” Streep’s self-deprecating sense of humor makes her feel ill at ease with wild praise). Too much of a good thing.
The other thing that became clear after the 2017 Oscars is this: TV hosts may frequently make good transitions to Oscar host, but they should leave their regular schtick behind. A little bit of Jimmy Kimmel playing off his pretend feud with Matt Damon would have been funny. An entire night in which that was the most prevalent theme? Too much. And did we really need an Academy Awards edition of Mean Tweets? Leave that stuff to your own show, Jimmy. It wasn’t funny when David Letterman made the Oscars stage a platform for Stupid Pet Tricks, and this isn’t either. There’s already a perfectly good venue for these skits. Putting them here just slows down a show that already has time struggles–especially if you’re going to insist on doing a drawn-out segment with a bus full of tourists. This advice isn’t just for the Oscars, it also applies if you’re James Corden hosting the Tonys and want to insert some Carpool Karaoke. Why are these becoming more common, you might wonder? For one thing, they’re tried and true–it’s the equivalent of going to Starbucks while on vacation instead of trying a local coffee shop. You know what you’re going to get and how the crowd will respond. More importantly: they’re shareable. But that isn’t what the Oscars are about–or at least it shouldn’t be.
The 89th Academy Awards were almost a great evening. It was a great show with some good instincts. I particularly liked the way they honored the history with film montages of previous winners in the acting categories and the idea behind the actor tributes with presenters. If anything, this show had a sense of the Academy’s history–which is perhaps its greatest asset. I’m sure producers would rather do without the Best Picture mishap, but it made the Oscars the ultimate watercooler moment. Not in the right way, but it made it happen.
Here’s hoping that next year the Oscars have a host and producers that trust the moment to come to them, and not the other way around.