What the World Needs Now or How the Academy Awards Illustrated Everything
Growing up with parents who were vaguely Freudian in everything they understood, I spent my childhood believing that when it came to big mistakes, the unconscious, in its ability to act out and express itself in the most shocking of ways was, for lack of a better way of describing it, on fire.
So in this moment I offer my expertise as someone who recognizes the smoking entrails of a Freudian slip when she sees it. Or, to put it another way, what could be more of an example of the unconscious at work and the ego acting out then the accidental announcement of the wrong winner at the Academy Awards Sunday (February 26, 2017) night?
In truth, since the moment the wrong winner was announced and the accountants from PriceWaterhouse raised the flag and publically corrected their mistake, I have been waiting for someone to do this analysis. There are so many candidates with a quiver full of arrows to address this target, all of whom are far more up-to-date on their ability to hone in on the bulls-eye then me. But many hours later I have grown tired of waiting to hear the psychologic or semiotic action heroes raise their voices in the woods. So I will raise mine.
To begin: Was there ever another Academy Awards where the wrong film was announced as the winner of the Best Picture of the year? And then in keeping with the theme of this inquiry, regardless if the answer is no or yes (and it is yes) is it possible that there is an aspect of the unconscious at play here, that the announcement of the wrong winner was not a simple accident? Or even if it was a simple accident, given that it happened as an event with consequences to all involved, do we treat it that way? (Does the question give away my bias?)
On the one hand there is La La Land, the film that many expected to win not only because it was wonderful, and musical, pushed the boundaries of what audiences will give their hearts to, today — both transgressive and safe — but also because it offered a technicolor (beautiful) vision of life where love, romance, commitment, and dancing (or the power of art) transforms everything — where, as Jimmy Kimmel put it, ‘a white guy saves jazz’ (which we know from history is not true) but still.
And on the other hand, there is Moonlight, a nearly magical coming of age story (a bildungsroman for the 21st century) but with transgressional characters who are not only slippery in terms of gender but are non-traditional in terms of the tropes by which we who inhabit the most familiar Hollywood story live. That is, they are black.
Finally, there is the announcement by Faye Dunaway (after Warren Beatty essentially passes her the buck) of the winner of the Best Picture of the Year. She says the words “La La Land.” But that is not the winner of the best picture. That is the name of the movie printed on the card she is reading which does not belong there in her hand, does not belong there on the stage and, for the first time ever, (as we later learn) somehow is the wrong document although it is the one that Beatty hands to her.
Parsing his actions with the benefit of a multitude of video that delineates every strange and uncomfortable minute, it is clear that when he opens the envelope he knows something is wrong. He does a double take. He looks inside to see if there is something contained in the envelope that he is missing. Perhaps he is the victim of a practical joke. Given that he is Warren Beatty, that is not impossible. Perhaps not even unlikely.
He casts a helpless look at Dunaway. He is suddenly Clyde – again – just before he realizes he and his girl are about to be shot to death. Not too soon after, he and the audience realize he is less of a man then he wishes to be, and that his gun (that is, his public persona) is more potent than his actual physical self. Thus, he does not behave as a more confident man might. He does not do the simple thing (then as Clyde or now as Warren.)
He does not give voice to the fact that if something is not clearly wrong, then at least it is not in the realm of his understanding. Instead, he sucks it up as men (and Clydes) often do, and he hands the envelope with its unfinished message over to the woman who is standing beside him, who will share in his/this moment that changes everything. She is the one who reads the words as the audience waits to know who is the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. “La La Land,” she says. And the winner is “La La Land.”
Imagine though, if you would for a minute, if Beatty had the presence of mind to ask for help. If he had stopped the action and said “Can I get some clarification here? I know this is live television, but I am out here on my own, in front of God and country and something doesn’t make sense to me.”
Imagine if he had spoken out loud what his body language was clearly communicating. Would it not have been likely that the producers of the Academy Awards show would have stopped for their Star, paid attention to his distress and created a moment of space to determine what was going on? That they would have intervened and the true winner would have been recognized and announced without the forever memory of losing first and then…only then, in the midst of mess and confusion, being recognized?
So, blame it on Beatty. And at what cost? After all of his historic moments that nudged our perception of movies, stardom, story-telling, masculinity. From Splendor in the Grass to Shampoo to Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Heaven Can Wait, Bulworth, even perhaps to being the infamous subject of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, and finally, after a catalogue of lovers including Julie Christy and Diane Keaton that somehow defined or redefined the notion of a man of sexual power and an amazingly stable marriage to the great Annette Benning, imagine that the Academy night faux pas will be the social construct he is remembered by.
And then, there is always the Freudian fact. Or the great question of the Jewish holy days of Passover, “Why on this night,” instead of all of the other nights? Why on this night when a movie from a novel by a black writer, with a black cast, a Muslim lead and directed by a black director is on stage? Why with this film? Why for the first time in Oscar history? Why was there a mess-up unprecedented in all of the eighty-three years since PriceWaterhouse has been flawlessly counting and managing the ballots for the Academy Award?
Or perhaps, to quote another of Hollywood’s Magnificents, only the Shadow knows.