Gary Natoli, the veteran Oscars stage manager who was in the midst of the chaos on Sunday night when “La La Land” was mistakenly announced as Best Picture, told TheWrap on Wednesday that the two PwC accountants entrusted with the envelopes “froze” when things went wrong.
“I’m sure they’re very lovely people, but they just didn’t have the disposition for this,” Natoli said. “You need somebody who’s going to be confident and unafraid.”
Making matters worse, Natoli said that he and stage manager John Esposito, who stood in the stage-right wings next to PwC partner Brian Cullinan, had a conversation with Cullinan the day before the Oscars about the protocol if an incorrect winner is announced.
“We don’t usually talk about that,” Natoli explained. “But I guess Brian had done an interview where he was asked about it, so he came up to John and me and told us that in the interview, he said, ‘Well, we would tell the stage managers and check with each other and react.’ And then he said to us, ‘Is that what we do?’
“I said, ‘If you know who the winner is, you don’t need to check with each other. You need to immediately go out and rectify the situation, ideally before the wrong winners get to the mic.’ And he said, ‘OK, good, that’s what we thought.’”
Natoli was the lead stage manager on the 2017 Oscars show, and spent most of his time stationed in the stage-left wings with host Jimmy Kimmel. PwC had one of its balloting leaders in each wing: Cullinan stage right, where most of the presenter entrances came from, and Martha Ruiz stage left, which saw less traffic.
Each PwC partner had a complete set of envelopes, and each was supposed to have memorized the winners in each category. Leonardo DiCaprio, who presented the Best Actress award, entered from stage left and received the envelope from Ruiz; when it came time to present Best Picture, Warren Beatty received an envelope from Cullinan — but the PwC partner mistakenly gave him the spare Best Actress envelope that bore the name of Emma Stone and “La La Land,” rather than the Best Picture envelope that bore the name “Moonlight.”
Natoli broke down what happened next: “I was in the wings stage left with Jimmy [Kimmel] when they announced ‘La La Land.’ We watched for about 10 more seconds, and during that entire time Martha was no more than five feet away from us. When ‘La La Land’ was announced, she did not try to get my attention, she did not say anything. And she’s supposed to have memorized the winners.”
Natoli and Kimmel walked directly past Ruiz to get to the hallway that leads into the Dolby Theatre lobby, and then went into the audience where Kimmel had planned to close the show with a quick comedy bit involving Matt Damon. Natoli had to tell Damon’s wife about the bit so that she could give up her seat to the host, so they waited until “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz began giving his acceptance speech before making the seating change.
“As I was taking Matt’s wife to the side of the house, I heard John Esposito on my headset say, ‘Brian says he didn’t think they said the right winner. Can you have Martha check her envelope?’ That was the first time I heard anything about it, and it was probably a minute, or a minute and 15 seconds, from the time Faye announced the wrong winner.”
Because Natoli was no longer in the wings near Ruiz, he radioed another stage manager to find Ruiz and have her open the second Best Picture envelope. “She was standing there with the envelope in her hand, very low-key,” he said of Ruiz. “And John Esposito said that Brian was very low-key too, no urgency. But we had Martha open the envelope, and it said ‘Moonlight.’”
Natoli said he immediately told the stage managers in the wings, “Get the accountants out there!” But he said both Cullinan and Ruiz hesitated. “John was trying to get Brian to go on stage, and he wouldn’t go,” he said. “And Martha wouldn’t go. We had to push them on stage, which was just shocking to me.”
Natoli went on stage as well, and immediately looked for the envelope that Faye Dunaway had opened. “At this point I didn’t know that they’d been given the wrong envelope,” he said. “Brian had led us to believe that Faye had just said it incorrectly. So I went looking for the envelope.”
He found that Horowitz had the Best Actress envelope instead of the Best Picture envelope, and then located the correct one, which had finally been given to Beatty. “I said, ‘We have to announce that ‘Moonlight’ is the winner,’” he said. Jordan Horowitz did that more than two minutes after the error had first been made.
“I still do not understand the delay,” Natoli told TheWrap. “Brian should have run out there on his own. Martha should have run out there.
“I didn’t get on the headset and say, ‘Hey, producers, this is what’s happening. What do we do?’ We took our own initiative and got it done — and if we hadn’t done that, we could have been off the air before it was fixed. I’m proud of the way that we handled it, given the lack of response from PwC.”
Natoli calls the fiasco “a confluence of different things. Obviously we know that Brian was taking pictures backstage when he should not have been, and not paying attention. We know they didn’t have the disposition that is necessary for the job. And there was the new design of the envelope, which we had complained about to the Academy a week earlier.”
In fact, he added, the stage crew’s complaints had led to a change in the inserts that went inside the envelopes, which originally had print that was far too small. But they couldn’t do anything about the envelopes themselves, on which the name of the category was not nearly as legible as it had been in previous years.
“I had to look closely to see the category names,” he said. “All they were thinking about was design, not function.”
Looking back, Natoli is glad that PwC has taken full responsibility for the error. In addition, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced on Wednesday that Cullinan and Ruiz would not return for future Oscars. (Cullinan and Ruiz have made no public statements beyond the official PwC apology.)
But Natoli remains bothered that the fiasco has overshadowed an Oscars show that most of the crew thought was good.
“It was very upsetting to us,” he said. “It still is. You work really hard on a show, and then something like that happens. You feel bad about it, even though it’s not your responsibility.”