After cooling off from the chaos that ensued on the Oscar’s stage on Sunday night, I want to ask how the hell did ‘La La Land’, a film with 14 nominations, 6 Oscars, 7 Golden Globes (more than any other film in history), numerous BAFTAs etc, lose Best Picture. And therefore, what pushed Moonlight to win the top prize?
Such an upset is totally unprecedented. I made a comment on Twitter earlier asking which other upsets from earlier years rivalled this. A friend (@theLupeXperienc) replied highlighting Crash’s win over Brokeback Mountain, Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump over The Shawshank Redemption. Many of these are debatable. Besides Crash, every eventual winner here had either won a Golden Globe, BAFTA, Guild Award or multiple. While Moonlight did win the GG Drama Award (La La Land got the comedy/musical equivalent), this was it’s only award before the big Oscar surprise.
So lets break it down. This is a collection of my personal beliefs, along with a few points made by other commentators (particularly the people over at Gold Derby and other Hollywood trades/staples).
- La La Land was too big: The idea that a musical film being too big for itself is just as crazy as the fact that La La Land lost. La La Land has been seen as the Oscar Best Picture frontrunner for over 6 months now, following the scandal that broke out regarding Nate Parker. His film, A Birth of a Nation, was previously seen to be the frontrunner but it got caught up in its director’s controversy. With La La Land winning Golden Globe after Golden Globe, BAFTA after BAFTA, PGA, DGA and Critic’s Choice, it really was a shock it didn’t win. But everyone loves an underdog, and when the film started winning all these awards it went from a nice little musical to the hottest film on the planet. It began getting judged against other ‘greats’ and the experience of watching the film was in conflict with the expectation it was 2016’s Best Picture. I’ll speak further on this soon, but La La Land was a film that you either loved or just didn’t get the hype about. It wasn’t like other nominees like Moonlight where you could just like the film, but respect it as a masterpiece. This is ultimately what bit La La Land in the butt. While Moonlight coasted along, consistently adored (but often never loved) by voters, La La Land got all the awards, but some just didn’t understand it. They wanted to see the underdog win, and that’s exactly what happened.
- The Academy’s system of voting: So unlike most award shows, the Oscar for Best Picture is determined through a preferential voting system. It is a system that doesn’t take kindly to the ‘big’ films or the ‘frontrunners’ because it awards consistency over magnitude. Last year it hurt The Revenant, something I alluded to in my predictions last year, and this year it hurt La La Land (though The Revenant losing was no way near as big an upset as this). The preferential voting system awards the first film to gain 50% of the votes. By ‘first film’ I mean the first to get 50% under the process the Academy takes. Voters rank the film 1-9, and those counting the votes then go through each rank in order. Firstly, they count which film got the most first place votes. We all suspect this would have probably been La La Land, with maybe Hacksaw Ridge coming in second. This is because La La Land, as noted, is a film that received incredible hype. Some people absolutely adore it. Hacksaw Ridge has the same support (though at a much more muted level), especially from Republican voters. But those who don’t love La La Land, are probably not going to put it as number two either, or number three or number four. This is because La La Land is such a unique film that if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. There is very little middle ground. From reading reviews, to talking to friends, to listening to analyses, I have yet to meet, or hear from, someone who hasn’t either loved or really disliked the film. Similar to Hacksaw Ridge, it appeals to specific demographics (who we all thought would be in the majority), and didn’t appeal to others. Because of this, La La Land was likely either number one on a voters list or somewhere between 5 and 9. This is crucial to understand. Once all first place votes have been tallied, the counters go to second place. This is likely where Moonlight dominated. While it would have picked up a fair number of first place votes, Moonlight was a lot of people’s second choice in runner up to La La Land. Moonlight is liked by pretty much everyone, it just had fewer people loving it. This would have resulted in a very large number of second and third place votes. So as each film’s votes were tallied Moonlight likely got to 50% quicker than La La Land, due to La La Land’s lack of middle ground votes. So why didn’t we pick up on this trend before the show? Well La La Land just had such incredible momentum, that films like The Revenant didn’t, that it seemed unstoppable. We believed that even though it probably wouldn’t get those second and third place votes, the number one voters would outweigh Moonlight’s second and third. It’s a complicated system, and one we can argue about. But awarding a film for appealing to a wider audience over one who appeals (extremely well) to just a selection, seems logical. It also explains why La La Land could win 6 Oscars and not win Best Picture. Unlike Best Picture, all other categories do not use the preferential vote.
- The Actor’s Branch: The Academy is split into ‘branches’ or groups, with voters split depending on what field they are notable for. These branches often reflect the guilds, so for example, the actor’s branch is mostly made up of actors from the Screen Actor’s Guild. This is significant as it highlights how important the guild awards are in predicting their respective Oscar counterparts. But they are also important in showcasing how much support each guild has for a film as a whole. When trying to understand how La La Land lost even though it obviously had the support of the Music Branch, Production Design Branch, Cinematography Branch etc. it is vital to remember that the film was not nominated for the Acting Guild’s top award at their individual award show. The SAG doesn’t have a ‘Best Picture’ category, but instead honours the ‘Best Ensemble’. When La La Land was not nominated for this award, many (including myself) believed it was because the film only has two main characters. La La Land is the Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone show, as opposed to Hidden Figures, that won the award, which has three leads and multiple supporting characters. Not having a large ensemble seemed to be the logical reason why La La Land may not be nominated for the ensemble award, but was there more to this than we initially suspected? While Gosling and Stone did both get nominations at the SAGs and Oscars (with Stone winning both), did the actor’s guild simply not love La La Land as a whole film as much as the other guilds did? This raises the question of how much influence the actor’s guild had over the Best Picture loss. As the actor’s branch is the largest branch, it seems logical to conclude that it has a greater influence over the awards than say the Music branch. Does this bring forward the argument that whatever film has either the largest, most well-known or most nominated cast has the best chance at Best Picture? It is not as simple as that. Moonlight only featured 2 ‘mainstream’ actors, and that’s pushing it. But it does have a large, mostly black cast of varying ages. Giving the award to Moonlight could be a statement against the OscarsSoWhite controversy of last year. So if Moonlight got the support at the Oscars, why didn’t it win the SAG Best Ensemble award? Well as I will discuss further on, La La Land is an incredibly vivid, happy film, something that contrasts with Moonlight’s realism. With La La Land not nominated for the Best Ensemble, those voters who disliked Moonlight’s realistic portrayal of society and loved La La Land chose another film that celebrated achievement and having a dream ‘Hidden Figures’. Whatever the reason, the actor’s branch most certainly influenced the Best Picture category.
- Politics: Politics loomed over the Oscars like never before and certainly influenced people’s votes. While I have mentioned that the OscarsSoWhite controversy could have affected the Best Picture category, it is also important to note that the idea of a film about a black gay man attempting to live his life and overcome adversity winning Best Picture is monumental. Not only is it significant during this time of political divide, but it also shows that black films that win Oscars do not always have to be about slavery. That statement in itself is massive and you would be stupid to not think that it had some influence over how people voted. There was also some conflict in ideas between what is showcased in La La Land compared to what was shown in Moonlight. While La La Land went for an exploration of dreams and optimism, Moonlight was grounded in reality and highlighted the trials of POCs and homosexuals in America. La La Land may have picked up some support for breaking the ultra tense and pessimistic mood in America at the moment, but many would have seen its promotion of optimism as irresponsible in this age where reality is not so sweet. Considering the Oscar’s reputation for being traditional, Moonlight was a film that both reflected the Academy’s love for dramatic gritty film, as well as pushing the boundaries of its ususal social awareness.