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A Shocking Ending Caps A Big Oscar Night For 'Moonlight'

Barry Jenkins accepts the Academy Award for best picture for <em>Moonlight</em>.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images
Barry Jenkins accepts the Academy Award for best picture for Moonlight.

Well, excuse me while I throw away my first draft, won't you?

For quite a while, Sunday night's Oscars seemed fairly tame. La La Land, the retro musical with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, came into the Oscars as a favorite, having tied the nomination record with a total of 14. It took a while for it to get going, as the early awards were spread out across a variety of nominees. But indeed, by the time they prepared to announce best picture, La La Landhad gone on a late run and nabbed six awards: for production design, cinematography, best original score, best original song ("City Of Stars"), best actress (Stone) and best director. Its path to best picture seemed clear.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty took the stage to announce best picture and Beatty looked at the card and paused. And then he paused more. He handed it to Dunaway, and she read the card: " La La Land." The producers and cast of the heavily favored film took the stage, and several of them spoke. But then, with the throng still onstage, producer Jordan Horowitz — who had already given his heartfelt thanks — returned to the microphone and announced that there had been a mistake. In fact, best picture had not been won by La La Land, but by Moonlight, a beautiful, moving and very inexpensive independent coming-of-age drama. Beatty, still onstage and trying to explain while surrounded by shocked producers and actors, blamed it on confusion with the card from the previous award: Emma Stone, in La La Land. But either way, the Moonlightproducers stepped up and took an award that many in the room and many watching at home were already irate that they hadn't won.

It hadn't been all that unexpected an evening until then. The Oscar telecast hadn't begun with a cornball movie-themed musical number, but with Justin Timberlake performing "Can't Stop The Feeling," his nominated song from the animated movie Trolls. After guiding an auditorium full of celebrities through some very awkward dancing, Timberlake yielded the stage to first-time host Jimmy Kimmel.

Kimmel's monologue was about average for such things, laced with politics as you might expect (Kimmel thanked President Trump and said, "Remember when it seemed like the Oscarswere racist?") but also heavy on the kinds of jokes that would be B-minus jokes on an average late-night monologue (for instance, his quip that if Amazon won an Oscar for Manchester By The Sea, it would be delivered "in two to five business days").

Once the awards got underway, though, they started to go in interesting directions in a hurry. Mahershala Ali won best supporting actor for his performance in Moonlight — a win that few would have imagined last year at this time. Ali gave a very emotional speech and offered a shout-out to his wife, who had a baby four days ago. Ali was also the night's first first, as it were — specifically, the first Muslim actor, as far as anyone seems to know, to win an Oscar.

There were other milestones: Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician Taraji P. Henson played in Hidden Figures, joined the actresses from the film onstage to present the award for best documentary feature to Ezra Edelman for O.J. Made In America, the ESPN TV miniseries (which also played in theaters and at film festivals with an eye on Oscar qualifications). In winning, it became the longest "film" to ever win an Academy Award, given that it was produced as a 467-minute, multipart (and totally brilliant) TV miniseries.

Viola Davis won best supporting actress for Fences.With an Emmy, an Oscar and a Tony, she's only a Grammy away from precious EGOT status. (Narrate that audiobook, Viola Davis!) She saluted the writer of Fences, both play and screenplay, recognizing "August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people."

The Oscars for original screenplay and adapted screenplay went, respectively, to the scripts for Manchester By The Seaand Moonlight. Manchesteralso won best actor for Casey Affleck.

Politics, which had been a big question mark hanging over the ceremony ahead of time, showed up in a few ways. Absence, in at least one case, spoke as plainly as presence. Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi won best foreign language film for The Salesman, but he was not present (as he had announced he wouldn't be). In a statement read on his behalf by Iranian engineer and space traveler Anousheh Ansari, Farhadi said that he wasn't present out of respect for Iranians and those from the other six countries included in the travel ban issued in late January.

On a much lighter note, Kimmel tweeted directly at Trump at one point, asking him "u up?" and adding "#merylsayshi" in a nod to Trump's displeased reaction to Meryl Streep's speech at the Golden Globes. And, sometimes, even silent statements emerged: there were red-carpet pins showing support for the ACLU, GLAAD and Planned Parenthood.

As for Kimmel himself, he remains utterly convinced that everyone wants him to play his late-night hits — even on the Oscars. Thus, you get Mean Tweets, and you get endless riffs on his supposed feud with Matt Damon. You get a weird stunt — in this case, a bit in which Kimmel brought in a bunch of tourists from a bus who didn't know they were being surprised with a visit to the ceremony. There didn't seem to be much of an exit strategy for the bit, so once they brought the tourists in — perhaps getting less squealing and more confused milling than they expected — it was tough to put any kind of a button on it, so it kind of went on and on until it petered out.

It really wasn't a terribly surprising Oscar night, right up until the unimaginable happened and someone had to give back a best picture trophy that he already held in his hand.

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Corrected: February 26, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
The original version of this post incorrectly referred to Jordan Horowitz as Justin Horowitz.
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.