Monday, May 20, 2024

Surveying The Oscar Field: How Did Moonlight Win best picture?

By Matt Neglia Forget about the controversy for a moment. Take a step back from what transpired at first with presumed frontrunner “La La Land” taking the stage to claim the Best Picture prize and hearing the producers give their speeches. A bigger story (Ok, maybe not to most) happened here and that is the fact that when all the shenanigans were over with, “Moonlight” managed to beat “La La Land” for Best Picture.

​How did this happen? Click below to find out. Both “Moonlight” and “La La Land” have been on the awards season track all year long. Both premiered at around the same time to great acclaim from both critics and audiences alike. As much praise as “Moonlight” was receiving from critics, it felt like “La La Land” was more beloved by general audiences and that’s understandable. “Moonlight” is a very mature, deliberately paced and seriously somber viewing experience while “La La Land” had the glitz, the glam, the songs, and the love story featuring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars at its center. One was always going to appeal to voters more so than the other.

The season started with the New York Film Critics Circle. “Moonlight” won Best Director, Supporting Actor and Cinematography  from the well respected critics organization and suddenly, pundits realized this would be a huge player in the awards season. But then something strange happened. “La La Land” won Best Picture from the NYFCC, it’s only award. We moved on to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association where “Moonlight” this time thwarted “La La Land” to win Picture, Director, Supporting Actor and Cinematography. It went on to win the Gotham Award for Best Picture, the National Society Of Film Critics award for Best Picture, along with a bunch more Best Picture and Best Director prizes all season long. “La La Land” then started to come on strong in the following couple of weeks where throughout the entire season, it was neck and neck with “Moonlight” for Best Picture/Best Director wins. In the end, when all was said and done, this is how each film did this season for Best Picture and Best Director:



That my friends is what we call a close race. At the Critics Choice Awards, “Moonlight” won two awards including Best Supporting Actor and Best Ensemble. It was a far cry from “La La Land’s” 8 wins which included Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and more. People started to realize at this point that no matter what happened, Damien Chazelle was most likely going to be the Best Director winner barring a huge upset at either the Golden Globes, BAFTA or DGA. That did not happen as Damien Chazelle won all three of those and eventually the Oscar last night as well. People still had it deep in their minds that “Moonlight” could still win Best Picture though after it won Best Drama at the Golden Globes, which was its only win of the night against “La La Land’s” historic record breaking sweep of 7 wins. It was looking slim for “Moonlight” to pull it off. However, had it won the SAG Ensemble or the PGA, it still had a chance. In a shocking surprise, “Hidden Figures” won the Best Ensemble award at SAG and “La La Land” unsurprisingly took the PGA. By the time we had gotten to BAFTA where “La La Land” won 5 awards including Best Picture and Best Director, most had concluded that “La La Land” would take both Best Director and Best Picture with no problem whatsoever. But it did not. Now that we know what happened. Let’s talk about why it happened.

It was right after the record breaking 7 win sweep by “La La Land” and the record tying 14 Oscar nominations that people started to hear mumblings from those who felt that “La La Land” was being “overpraised.” Now, I believe “La La Land” is a fine movie and would have made for a deserving Oscar winner, but when people started predicting that it could meet or exceed the all-time Academy Award winning record of 11 wins, that is when I too started to question “Well, why not Moonlight?” If “La La Land” was going to win Actress, all of these technical awards and even Damien Chazelle, wouldn’t it make the most sense to spread the love over to a Best Picture nominee that could make more of a grand statement with the win for Best Picture? It’s a shame really, that Barry Jenkins and the producers of “Moonlight,” so caught up in the shock and awe of what was happening last night, could not enjoy the moment and fully express to the world what this win meant.

Forget about stats for a moment. A movie about a BLACK and GAY man won Best Picture. Let that sink in. Never has a film dealing with a gay man won Best Picture. The fact that he is also black, living in modern times and how the people he experiences life with and even his own environment, impacts the kind of man he ultimately becomes is a crisis of identity that deeply resonated with viewers more I think this year than in maybe another year. With everything going on politically and how marginalized and scared many people feel, “Moonlight” winning Best Picture was for them. It’s the kind of film that had virtually no backlash and that appealed to everyone’s inner humanity, which Hollywood desperately recognizes needs to be on full display during these troubling times. It’s a beautiful film that represents where we are now as individuals living in a world that is constantly trying to hold us back from simply being ourselves and what that can do to us as we get older. “Moonlight” had the right hook, at exactly the right time.

As I said before, forget about stats. From a  statistical standpoint, “La La Land” should have won Best Picture after winning literally everywhere it needed to, except one place (Which I’ll get to later). With the older voting system in place, and judging by how the rest of the evening was going in terms of wins for “La La Land,” it’s extremely possible that on a plural ballot “La La Land” would be your Best Picture winner. However, the Academy does not use the plural ballot. Instead they use the preferential ballot which, if you’re not familiar with it, Steve Pond does a great job of explaining in the video below. The film with the most “consensus” wins Best Picture. Look at the films that have won since the Academy switched over to this new voting system.

“The Hurt Locker”
“The King’s Speech”
“The Artist”
“12 Years A Slave”

These are films that even if they did not rank number 1 or number 2 on your ballot, you most likely have a hard time finding a single negative thing to say about them, hence why they won. Even if “La La Land” managed to get 49% of the number one votes in the first round of voting, the ballots all go to a second round and that is where many felt that “Moonlight” stood the best chance to win. Many (myself included) believed that “La La Land” would win more than 50% of the vote and we would be saying game over, set, match for Best Picture. But it did not go down that like that and one only needs to look at how the evening was going to tell that an upset was in store for us. The backlash against “La La Land” possibly winning 11 or more Oscars started at the BAFTA’s where it took home 5 awards. A decent haul no doubt, but no where near what people were expecting. And the same thing started to happen here as “La La Land” lost Costume Design, the two sound awards and even Best Film Editing. The love was not as strong as we all had thought but still, people felt “La La Land” had Best Picture secure. Once it won Best Director and Best Actress with only the night’s big surprise left, when Faye Dunaway said “La La Land” it was business as usual. 7 Oscars? That’s a fantastic number that no one could criticize as being “overpraised.” “Moonlight” had already won two and even other films which we did not expect to see win, such as “Hacksaw Ridge,” got to enjoy some nice golden hardware. But then the unthinkable happened with the envelope in a moment that will go down in history as the most shocking Oscar moment ever. So “La La Land” really won 6. “Moonlight” won 3. “Manchester By The Sea” won 2. Viola Davis won for “Fences.” “Hacksaw Ridge” over performed with two wins, including a Sound Mixing win finally for 21 time nominee Kevin O’Connell. Even “Arrival” which many feared would get shut out, won at least one award for Best Sound Editing. It was a “spread the wealth” evening which flew in the face of those who felt going into the evening that “La La Land” would pull off another historic sweep like it did at the Golden Globes. Quite honestly? If you want to please as many people as possible, while trying to honor the best in film for 2016, not just one film, this is how you would do it. It’s clear that the “backlash” reached Academy member’s ears and they threw their votes towards what they felt was the “best” in each category. Not because the internet told them do that, but because that is what they simply felt like doing. So “overpraising” backlash, the preferential ballot, politically charged times and quite simply, a beloved film that had been in conversation all season, until it was not (thus making it the underdog), was the mixture needed to make the impossible happen. A film with no major prior wins except for the Golden Globe – Drama win (Where it was not up against “La La Land”) and the WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay defeated the film which had won everything in its path. Not since “Crash” and “Brokeback Mountain” have we had an upset this huge. Where in that year, people were taking to the streets to complain and cry foul at the Academy, something deep down tells me that this win, once you look past the silly antics of the unveiling of the winner, will go down in history as one of the best ever on par with the “Cabaret” & “The Godfather” split of 1972. This is all not to take anything away from “La La Land” and its six wins. It deserved each of those wins and maybe Jimmy Kimmel was right. Maybe the two films deserved to share the Best Picture award. Either way, no matter how you look at it, history was made, both from an awards stats perspective and from a historical perspective. No one will ever forget this moment and where they were when “La La…” excuse me, “Moonlight” won Best Picture. You can follow Matt and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @NextBestPicture

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Matt Neglia
Matt Neglia
Obsessed about the Oscars, Criterion Collection and all things film 24/7. Critics Choice Member.

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