How The Biggest Oscar Upset Of All Time Happened

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"We lost, by the way." Oscar buffs around the world will always remember where they were when they heard La La Land producer Fred Berger end his acceptance speech with that casual jaw-dropper. But how did La La Land lose Best Picture? I don't mean, how did the mix-up occur; it soon became clear that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had somehow been handed the wrong envelope, one containing the results of the Best Actress category (which Emma Stone won for, yes, La La Land) rather than the one they were presenting. Berger's co-producer Jordan Horowitz soon corrected the error. "There's a mistake," he said. "Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture."

But while that mystery has been solved, it does nothing to lessen the shock of what remains one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history — if not the biggest. Yes, bigger than Shakespeare In Love over Saving Private Ryan or Crash over Brokeback Mountain. Damien Chazelle's throwback movie musical went into Sunday night's ceremony as the prohibitive frontrunner, having mopped up virtually every precursor imaginable, including top prizes from the Critics Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and 10 of the 12 guilds including the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild… not to mention its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, which put it in league with former Best Picture winners Titanic and All About Eve.

On the other hand, Moonlight, which had been a critical darling throughout the season, seemed to stumble with the industry, winning only the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama) and the Writers Guild Award for Best Original Screenplay. It didn't even win the SAG Ensemble award for which it was considered the odds-on favorite — an award that was won by both Shakespeare In Love and Crash before their respective upsets. (Hidden Figures took the Best Ensemble prize this year.)

So how did this stunning coup even happen? Let's take a look at some of the factors that went into the most memorable moment in Oscar history:

1. The Backlash

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The fact that frontrunners will inevitably face some sort of backlash is a yearly Oscar tradition; but the thing is, it doesn't usually work. Backlash didn't derail Casey Affleck from picking up a Best Actor trophy this year despite allegations of sexual harassment in his past (which the actor has consistently denied). And it didn't prevent the divisive Birdman from taking Best Picture from critical darling Boyhood a couple of years ago, to use another recent example. History hasn't really shown that any number of thinkpieces or angry tweets will have any effect on who Academy members (anonymously) vote for.

But for whatever reason, the backlash faced by La La Land this year seemed even more virulent than most, with complaints ranging from mild — "Ryan Gosling mansplains jazz" — to toxic — "La La Land is white nationalist propaganda." The sheer force of the anti-La La Land sentiment may have actually caused some voters to think twice before casting their ballots. Suddenly, a movie that objectively was both a critical favorite (garnering a score of 93 on Metacritic, higher than all but one previous Best Picture winner this decade) and a commercial hit (earning $370 million worldwide, by far the most of any Best Picture nominee this year) may have lost some of its luster.

2. The Politics


Following in the wake of Donald Trump's victory in the Presidential race, the world at large — including Hollywood — has been on edge, wondering what the proper response is in a time of such division and uncertainty. Would Academy members respond by voting for the escapism of La La Land, or the cultural significance of Moonlight? For most of the season, it seemed like it would be the former; after all, the Cold War gave rise to the golden age of Best Picture-winning musicals, including West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), and The Sound Of Music (1965). But there was a decided political bent in the air this Sunday, including Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi winning Best Foreign Language Film in absentia for The Salesman over critical favorite Toni Erdmann after Farhadi refused to attend the ceremony in protest of Trump's Muslim ban.

Of course, the other political factor at play besides the election was #OscarsSoWhite. Headlines were quick to declare the death of the catchy hashtag as soon as the nominations were announced, containing a record number of non-white acting nominees as well as four films in the Best Picture lineup that focused on characters of color. And while Academy members could easily have patted themselves on the back and left it at that, they should be commended for showing their commitment to progress by ultimately lauding Moonlight with their highest honor. (Of course, 12 Years A Slave's victory three years ago was followed by two consecutive years of #OscarsSoWhite, so the Academy's real commitment to progress will be tested next season.)

3. The Academy Membership

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Speaking of #OscarsSoWhite… In response to that embarrassing debacle, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs launched a concerted effort to increase the diversity among the organizations members. As part of that drive, the Academy invited a record number of new members last summer; a class of 683 inductees that was 46% female and 41% non-white — compared to the 25% female and 8% non-white preexisting members at that time. Those new invitees also represented a record number of international members: 283 people representing 59 countries outside of the United States. (All numbers as reported by Variety.)

This dramatic increase in the diversity of gender, race, and country of origin within the Academy was definitely a wild card heading into this awards season… and it's quite possible that their inclusion could have tipped the scale away from the more traditional Oscar fare of La La Land and towards the more bold and provocative choice of Moonlight.

4. The Preferential Ballot

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There's no question that the way the Academy votes for Best Picture has had a huge impact on the way things have played out ever since they switched from a straight plurality vote to a preferential ballot seven years ago. That switch coincided with the expansion of the Best Picture category, since a plurality vote with 10 nominees would mean it would possible for a film to win with the support of only 11% of Academy members. Conversely, a preferential ballot is meant to find a consensus winner through a system of run-off voting, in which the lowest-ranked contenders are eliminated and their ballots redistributed to the voters' second or third choices until one film has reaped over 50% of the vote.

What this change has resulted in is an increasing number of splits between Best Picture and Best Director, which used to be a rarity in the era of the plurality vote and is now becoming de rigueur in the era of the preferential ballot. In fact, only once in the past five years have the top two categories lined up, when Birdman and its director Alejandro G. Iñárritu both won. Otherwise, we have seen a pattern emerge in which one film wins the most awards of the year — a smattering of technical categories and Best Director — while another films reaps Best Picture despite a lower win total: Life Of Pi (four awards, including Best Director) losing to Argo (three awards); Gravity (seven awards, including Best Director) losing to 12 Years A Slave (three awards); Mad Max: Fury Road (six awards) and The Revenant (three awards, including Best Director) both losing to Spotlight (two awards); and now La La Land (six awards, including Best Director) losing to Moonlight (three awards).

Given the fact that La La Land earned the most trophies of the year, including awards in a Lead Acting and the Best Director categories, it's even quite likely that the film actually had the most No. 1 ballots in the first round of voting. But as the lower-ranked films were eliminated and their ballots redistributed, it would appear that more voters had Moonlight ranked #2 or #3, adding to that film's pile faster than La La Land's, until that film ultimately overtook the frontrunner. (Of course, Price Waterhouse Cooper doesn't release any voting information, so this is pure speculation. But it's a likely scenario given the evidence at hand.)

What is clear is that, for as long as the Academy continues using the preferential ballot system, we should now consider the Best Picture and Best Director categories as separate entities when making our predictions, and not the package deal they've been for most of Oscar history.

5. The Gender Gap

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There is a lot that makes Moonlight a unique winner, from its subject matter (the first LGBT film to win Best Picture) to its scale (one of the lowest-budget movies ever to win, made for a mere $1.6 million). But there is one way in which La La Land would have been a unique Best Picture winner that Moonlight cannot boast: it would have been the first time in 12 years that a Best Picture-winning movie also had a contender in the Best Actress race. The last time this happened was in 2005, when Million Dollar Baby and its star Hilary Swank both won. Since then, all 12 Best Picture winners have not even had a single nomination in the Best Actress category between them.

The decade-plus stretch that has followed Million Dollar Baby has been the longest streak in Oscar history without a female-fronted Best Picture winner. Every film that has won in that period has either had an ensemble cast (Crash, Spotlight) or a sole male protagonist (The King's Speech, Birdman), with nary a female lead — or even a female co-lead like La La Land — in sight. In the same stretch of time, several critically acclaimed films with female protagonists have fallen short of the Best Picture race despite a smattering of nominations in other categories, including Bridesmaids, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Blue Jasmine, Gone Girl, Wild, Sicario, Carol, and Jackie.

The gender gap also exists beyond the Best Picture race to other categories like Director (where only four women have ever been nominated, including winner Kathryn Bigelow) and Screenplay (in which only one of this year's 10 nominated films even had a female co-writer). Even after the Academy's recent and admirable diversity push, the organization still remains 73% male; and La La Land's shocking defeat indicates that movies about female characters will continue to do poorly at the Oscars until something is done to address that discrepancy.

6. Because Moonlight Deserved It

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There's no denying that La La Land was the frontrunner for Best Picture this year, and thus people are bound to be curious about the factors that led to its stunning defeat. But of course, none of these reasons I've listed to help "explain" why it lost should take anything away from Moonlight's victory. It doesn't really need a "reason" for why it won other than the fact that it's a terrific movie and it deserved every trophy it won. Perhaps the simplest explanation really is the right one, in this case: more voters simply preferred Moonlight to La La Land.

After all, the precursors that we use to try to predict the Oscars are decided on by different voting bodies; we use them as signposts in the Oscar race, but ultimately the only people who choose the Best Picture winner are the 7,000 Academy members — and as this shocking upset reminds us, they are occasionally capable of making decisions that are independent of the main narrative of the season. Hopefully, if voters continue to follow their instincts rather than simply voting for the films and performances that have already won other awards, we'll be in for many more surprises at the Oscars in the years to come.