It’s only because it came hot on the heels of one of the biggest shocks in the near-90 year history of the Academy Awards — that the wrong name was read out, and “La La Land” had not, in fact, won Best Picture — that “Moonlight” taking the top prize last night isn’t being appreciated as the biggest Oscar surprise in over a decade.
A tiny indie from a director who was mostly unknown to the wider world six months ago, a movie less expensive than any Best Picture since “Rocky” (and that was forty years ago), a film that has taken a fraction of the box office of its biggest rivals, a movie with an almost entirely African-American cast (only the second such film to win Best Picture after “12 Years A Slave”), a film about LGBT identity (another absolute rarity when it comes to Best Picture), a love story about two black men. A film that had consistently trailed “La La Land” on the precursor circuit, that almost no one predicted was going to win (*almost* no-one, he said, smugly), a film up against a movie that had tied the record number of nominations.
So WTF happened? Below we’ve taken a shot at some possible explanations, though the answer is likely to be a combination of all five (and of course, the time-honored explanation “More members of the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences voted for it than the other movies — yes, kids, sometimes the thing with more votes actually wins, though that’s hard to believe after recent history, we know). And for more Oscar-related stuff, here’s Best & Worst of the ceremony last night.
The Strength Of “La La Land” May Have Been Overstated
Throughout the season, “La La Land” more than made its case the clear frontrunner, taking key prizes like the Best Film BAFTA (a ceremony where “Moonlight” was shut out entirely), the PGA prize and the DGA award for Best Director. Only 2 of prognosticator site Gold Derby’s 30 experts predicted it would lose. It had fourteen Oscar nominations, and “Titanic” and “All About Eve,” who went into their respective ceremonies with that many nods, took home Best Picture. But I’d always suspected that its strength might have been slightly overstated. At BAFTA (which increasingly mirrors the Oscars below-the-line at least), it failed to sweep, and it didn’t pick up the SAG Ensemble Award, which went to “Hidden Figures” instead. Ultimately, I’d predicted “Moonlight” based mostly on a last-minute hunch (and some entirely anecdotal evidence) that “La La Land” wasn’t as strong with older audiences as most had assumed. For all the film’s nostalgia and throwbacks to classic movie musicals, it seemed to strike some movie musical fans as not quite the right deal — not lavish enough, not dazzling enough in its singing and dancing. Perhaps more importantly, and not surprisingly given the age of its writer/director, it seems to strike more of a chord with a younger audience, where its issues of career vs. romance and pursuing your dreams are more life-and-death. And with the average age of the Academy still very high, that could have made all the difference. We’re sure it racked up plenty of votes with older audiences, but they were likely spread across more movies, like “Hidden Figures” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” allowing the gap to be narrowed.
“Moonlight” Caught The Political Mood
In a politically tumultuous time, “La La Land” was not a very political movie. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that — cinema is a broad church with room for all kinds of movies — and its escapist nature is in part what’s made it a box office phenomenon. But in the wake of Trump’s election, Academy members may have felt that they wanted their vote to feel like it mattered (see the win for Asghar Farhadi‘s “The Salesman,” for example). And highlighting a movie about a poor, gay African-American man was a pretty good way to do that. Furthermore, there may have been a consciousness from at least the more woke of the Academy members (i.e. not the ones who do those Hollywood Reporter honest voter ballots), in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, to go for a movie that reflected the kind of diversity that AMPAS would like to display. This is no way to suggest that votes for “Moonlight” were entirely political — it won glowing reviews and topped countless year-end lists. But more that, perhaps, some voters who might have skipped the film otherwise, ended up checking it out in an attempt to assuage their own guilt.