It’s one of the most secretive jobs in all of Hollywood: handling the precious envelopes containing the names of the Oscar winners. Each year, only two people, labeled as accountants, are given the prestigious task. They are the only ones to know the winners up until the announcement onstage.
At last Sunday’s Oscars, accountant Brian Cullinan seemed at ease as he handed envelopes to presenters as they went out on stage; everything seemed to be running smoothly. He’d done this a few times, so there was nothing to worry about. The relaxed Cullinan even tweeted a picture of Emma Stone backstage after winning her Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Little did he know that minutes later, he would be responsible for the biggest blunder in Oscars history.
Presenting the final award for Best Picture, a confused Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly read out “La La Land” as the winner. As the cast and crew took to the stage, only the two accountants realized the huge mix-up that had just taken place. Frantically searching through the envelopes he had left, Cullinan suddenly realized his grave error.
The accountant had not handed Beatty the envelope for Best Picture at all, who instead received the duplicate copy of the envelope for Best Actress in a Leading Role. As Beatty made clear to the camera at the end of the broadcast, the envelope had read Emma Stone’s name with “La La Land” written underneath, which led to the confusion.
“Moonlight” was the actual winner of the award for Best Picture. The film follows a young African-American man through various stages in his life as he grows up in a rough neighborhood of Miami and comes to terms with his homosexuality.
The crew of “La La Land” was already partway through their speeches before producer Jordan Horowitz took the mic to announce the mix-up. A red-faced Cullinan had run out on stage to fix his mistake, alerting Horowitz.
“Guys, guys, I’m sorry, there’s a mistake,” Horowitz said. “‘Moonlight,’ you guys won Best Picture. This is not a joke. ‘Moonlight’ has won Best Picture.”
It was a jaw-dropping moment both inside and outside the theater. The confused cast and crew of “Moonlight” left their seats to take the stage from “La La Land” while host Jimmy Kimmel tried to lighten the mood with a series of failed jokes.
“I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from ‘Moonlight,’” Horowitz said. He was the one to hand the award to “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins.
The accountants responsible for what is now being dubbed as “Envelopegate” are partners at PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accounting firm that has calculated the results of the Oscars for over 80 years. PwC has now been given blame by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which puts on the awards show.
In an effort to maintain its reputation, PwC assumed “full responsibility” in a statement released shortly after the incident. The firm’s main effort is putting safeguards in place to prevent future similar mistakes, which is important if it is to keep the Academy’s massive account.
Both accountants have been banned from all future Oscars, though they still hold positions at PwC.
Controversy has also risen surrounding the headlines following the Oscars. After a few years of protest surrounding a lack of diversity in the nominations, this year’s Oscars saw a record number of African American nominees and winners. “Moonlight” in itself was a triumph that celebrated diversity, although news outlets around the country are instead focusing on the big Best Picture flub.
The record-setting winners included Viola Davis as Best Actress in a Supporting Role in “Fences” and Mahershala Ali as Best Actor in a Supporting Role in “Moonlight.”
Other big winners of the night were Casey Affleck as Best Actor in a Lead Role in “Manchester by the Sea,” Damien Chazelle as Best Director for “La La Land,” “City of Stars” as Best Original Song, and “La La Land” for Best Cinematography and Best Original Score.
Click here for a full list of winners.