The Best Picture Project — Moonlight (2016) Dir. By Barry Jenkins

Moonlight (2016 film).pngDirected By Barry Jenkins 2016)

Screenplay by Barry Jenkins, Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, based upon the unproduced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”

Starring Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali.

In 1993 Marissa Tomei was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her broad, yet smart, take on a goomba’s-girlfriend in My Cousin Vinny.  It was a bit of a left-field nom, to be sure, given the film was basically comedy built on cliché, a type of film the Academy rarely has time for,[1] and she didn’t even manage a Golden Globe nom for the role.  Plus, her opposition was the type of nominees, in the types of films, that normally got academy affection – Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives, Joan Plowright in Enchanted April, Vanessa Redgrave in Howard’s End and Miranda Richardson in Damage.  No surprise that the race shaped up with Davis and Redgrave as front-runners.  Come Oscar night, though, when Jack Palance opened the envelope and read Tomei’s name as the winner, it was a literal twist-ending.

Image result for tomei oscarBecause Tomei was such a left-field choice, there was long a sneaking suspicion that Tomei hadn’t actually won the Oscar, but had been given the Award because a drunk/stoned/senile Palance screwed up and rather than read the name of the winner inside the envelope, he simply repeated the last listed nominee – Tomei.[2]  Then, to spare everybody involved the humiliation of correcting Palance’s alleged-boner, and in a fit of amazing generosity, the Academy let it ride.  Over the years this story picked up steam and is now a bit of an urban legend.

Of course, the Academy denied a screw-up occurred, insisting Tomei was the winner.  More than that, though, the Academy swore if such a thing ever occurred – a presenter going rogue, as one example – there were procedures in place to correct it.  Specifically, the accounting firm Price Waterhouse Cooper, who handles the tabulation of the votes and the envelopes, are supposed to come out on stage and correct the mistake in a very immediate and embarrassing way.  Because PWC did not do so at the 1993 Oscars, the safe assumption was no mistake had occurred.  Lending further evidence to this being a non-mistake?  Tomei later scored two additional noms for her supporting turns in In the Bedroom and The Wrestler, showing herself as a more-than-worthy dramatic actress.

That said, until PWC actually had the chance to correct a mistake on the big stage, there would always be the lingering notion that an undeserving victor could, and had, benefited from some sort of error like a misread card.

Image result for jordan horowitzWell, finally, the 2016 Oscars showed us something we’d never seen before.  When La La Land was announced as the Best Picture winner by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, PWC and Academy producers took some slow-to-materialize steps to correct the error, though, eventually did get it right,[3] thanks to the help of La La Land Jordan Horowitz , who should be given an Oscar for nothing more than seeing the problem and taking gracious – and decisive – action to fix it in the midst of shit-sandwich.

So, now that we know for sure that procedures are in place to fix errors like this – even ones that leave a little to be desired – can we finally put to bed the notion, once and for all, that Tomei did not actually win her Oscar?

Image result for moonlight

Trevante Rhodes as Adult Chiron

What’s It About

Moonlight is the story of Chiron, a black man from the Liberty City projects in Miami, raised without a father by his crack-addicted mother.  Told as a triptych we see Chiron at three different times in his life:

  • Young Chiron, taken under the wing of Juan, a drug dealer, and making a surrogate family with him and Juan’s girlfriend Theresa.
  • High school Chiron, a slender, shy boy coming to grips with his own sexuality.
  • Adult Chiron, fully buffed and seemingly put together on the outside, while inside he’s still trying to figure out who he really is.

In one sense the film is incredibly specific to its time, place and circumstances – on the surface, it’s hard for a white man like me from lower-middle-class Michigan, to find much common ground with a black kid from the Florida projects.  But on the other hand, the key to universality is in specificity.  In looking at the specific story we see the timeless themes and can relate to them – we see our desire for a strong role model and parental validation; the struggle with adolescence and sexuality; and that, even as we reach adulthood, we are never complete – we are always a work in progress.

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Ashton Sanders as Teen Chiron

The Good

To be blunt, Moonlight might be one of those rare times when a movie is just about perfect.  The direction is sensistive and incisive, the writing is unfussy and economical, the score and cinematography are superb.  Nothing calls attention to itself – it just is.

But, as good as those elements are, the performances really make the movie sing.  Certainly Mahershala Ali deserved the Oscar he won – he crushes it – and Naomie Harris stands out as well, even as she’s a touch too-clichéd at times.

But really, the entire cast is Oscar worthy.  Each and every one of them deserved recognition, particularly Ashton Sanders as teen-Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as adult-Chiron.  It is Sanders who has to portray the confusion and sexual awakening of teenage boy, all the while suppressing a real rage for his surroundings.  At every turn he is convincing and, in the end, his performance is simply heartbreaking.

Rhodes is just as magnificent and has what might be the toughest task in the show, having to draw the various threads of Chiron together into the adult, showing him as a man both intensely confident and good in his work, but also one who will never be more than that frightened little boy.

A special note must be made for Janelle Monae – between her performance here as Theresa, and her turn in Hidden Figures, she proves herself an honest-to-goodness star.  Hollywood should go ahead and build a movie around her, not around Emma Stone’s less-than-interesting character in La La Land.

Image result for jenkins mccraney oscar

Jenkins (left) and McCraney (right)


The screenplay for Moonlight won Best Adapted Screenplay, which is usually reserved for films adapted from previously published or performed material.  In those cases, the screenwriter gets an Oscar and the originator gets nothing, unless he or she works on the script.

Because it was based on an unproduced/unpublished screenplay by Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight should rightfully been treated as an Original Screenplay, with the screenplay credited to Jenkins, a story credit to McCraney, and an Oscar for both.

Mystifyingly, the screenplay wound up in the Adaptation category, and more mystifyingly, McCraney was given a ‘Story By’ credit, which the Academy doesn’t typically do in the Adaptation category, given the original work is the story.  Still, this meant McCraneye wound up with an Oscar for his troubles.  It’s nice that, in the end, justice was done, even if there was no need for the Academy to go goofy with it.

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Gardner with the 12 Years  A Slave producing team


Dede Gardener picked up an Oscar for Best Picture for producing Moonlight –her second Oscar, having previously picked one up for 12 Years A Slave.[4]  She’s certainly not the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Picture – that was Julia Phillips for The Sting.  But, she is the first woman to do it twice.


Please Read/Buy…

See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.

Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.


[1] This is notwithstanding Palance’s own Oscar the year before for his broad turn in City Slickers, which was truly more a career-honor than for the given role, or the Oscar for Kevin Kline in a Fish Called Wanda a few years before that, who won for showing range.

[2] The strange thing is that, if you watch the clip of that award, you’ll see Palance clearly reads the name off the card and never looks at a teleprompter, etc.

[3] In fairness, it was going to be tough to quickly fix this screw-up in the moment, given a scrum of producers, actors and other crew for La La Land immediately traipsed to the stage to be part of the moment and surely the confusion over that slowed the process down.

[4] In all, she has five noms for Best Picture, including The Tree of Life, The Big Short and Selma.

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