Michael De Luca was just popping the tab on his third Diet Coke of the evening backstage at the Dolby Theatre when the inconceivable happened: The wrong movie was named best picture at the Oscars.
“I heard [fellow producer] Jennifer Todd next to me,” says De Luca in his first comments about the most infamous moment in Academy Awards history (he spoke exclusively on KCRW’s The Business radio show, set to air March 2). “It was like the Hindenburg report. I literally heard, ‘Oh my God! He got the wrong envelope!’ And then it was slow motion. You perceive things slowly as the adrenaline rises and the cortisol floods your system.”
De Luca, 51, rushed to the hotline that linked producers and key staff. “We have a producers’ table backstage, and that’s where Jen and I were,” he continues. “It’s where we watched the whole show. My concern was getting [host] Jimmy [Kimmel] up there and saying, ‘Goodnight, everybody.’ But to Jimmy’s credit, he was already on the way. He was sitting with Matt Damon to do the scripted final bit — it was going to be a kicker with Matt — and he saw what was happening and jumped onstage.”
In the subsequent chaos — the two minutes and 30 seconds from when presenter Faye Dunaway announced, “La La Land!,” to La La producer Jordan Horowitz stepping forward and revealing, “This is not a joke,” and that Moonlight was the winner — backstage players quickly understood what had gone wrong: An envelope containing Emma Stone’s name as best actress had been given to presenter Warren Beatty instead of the one with best picture.
Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs — facing a second storm of criticism following the previous two years’ #OscarsSoWhite outcry — immediately came backstage with Academy CEO Dawn Hudson to gather a team to answer questions. “After it was over and everyone was crowding backstage, I ran into the theater to scoop up my wife and kids and brought them back to my production office,” says De Luca. “By the time I went back to the green room, Dawn was already in midconversation with the players, just trying to figure out what happened. Everyone was a little shaken. Everybody looked white-faced and the blood was just drained from [them].”
That blood-draining has cast a pall over the Oscars and especially over the reputation of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Academy’s accounting firm for 83 years, as well as its managing partner, Brian Cullinan, whose “human error” was cited as the reason for the mix-up. The fiasco was unprecedented in 89 years of Oscar history and immediately overshadowed such notorious moments as Sacheen Littlefeather’s surprise appearance in 1973 to decline Marlon Brando’s award for The Godfather or the streaker who tried to upstage David Niven in 1974.
In the immediate aftermath of the event, much to Boone Isaacs’ and Hudson’s fury, nobody was prepared to accept blame, which instead seemed to accrue to Beatty and Dunaway. Beatty himself seemed upset in an email to THR two days after the show: “Rather than for me to respond to questions from the press about the Academy ceremony,” he wrote, “I feel it would be more appropriate for the president of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, to publicly clarify what happened as soon as possible.”
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SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter, Gregg Kilday and Kim Masters