SXSW: Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs Relives the Oscar-Night Disaster

At the SXSW festival, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs talks lessons learned from the Oscar night gaffe, the push for diversity, and her experience as a woman in the industry.

Jason LaVeris/Getty

There’s a phenomenal photo that captured the celebrities in the audience of the 2017 Oscars ceremony at the very moment it became clear that Faye Dunaway had announced the wrong Best Picture winner and the La La Land producers would have to evacuate the stage to allow room for the shell-shocked Moonlight team to deliver their thank yous.

Amidst a bewildered Meryl Streep, a shocked Matt Damon, and quizzical Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sits Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Never before has a facial expression so clearly read one thing: “Oh f***.”

For Isaacs, the night should’ve been a victory lap. Following two consecutive years of outrage and a questioning of the Academy’s relevance with no actors of color receiving nominations that they objectively deserved, the controversial and—some say—aggressive measures she put in place to address those institutional failings seem to be doing the trick.

Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali counted themselves as acting winners and, on top of that, Moonlight, a film that poignantly and artistically explored one young man’s struggle with his black, male, masculine identity had unexpectedly triumphed over the traditional, industry navel-gazing (and, some say, problematically “white”) frontrunner, La La Land.

Yet here she was, instead watching the most violent train wreck to ever occur at the Oscars, ostensibly the world’s biggest and most important entertainment event, unfold before her.

“It was a shock,” Isaacs laughs, recounting the night during a talk at Austin’s SXSW Festival. “It was a shock, as you know if you’ve seen that photo, which was everywhere.”

As has been documented with the kind of tick-tock diligence typically reserved for botched SEAL rescue missions, presenter Warren Beatty had mistakenly been given the wrong envelope, a duplicate for the Best Actress category that had Emma Stone’s name printed as the winner for La La Land. PricewaterhouseCooper, the accounting firm that secures the Oscar results, keep two envelopes for each category as a security measure.

Looking clearly confused after reading “Emma Stone for La La Land” on what was supposed to be the Best Picture envelope, Beatty handed the envelope to co-presenter Faye Dunaway, who announced La La Land as the winner. It took several minutes, during which La La Land producers were already delivering speeches, for the mistake to be rectified. The rest is history.

Disastrous history.

In a previous statement on the gaffe, Issacs announced that the PricewaterhouseCooper accountants—one to blame for handing presenter Warren Beatty the wrong the envelope, the other responsible for not following protocol to correct the mix-up immediately—would be reprimanded. “Rest assured changes will be implemented to ensure this never happens again,” she said.

But she hasn’t yet expounded on that fateful night the way she did Austin.

In a conversation moderated by Allison Schroeder, who was an Oscar nominee for her adapted screenplay for Hidden Figures, Isaacs revisited the frustrating irony that the blunder took place on a night that saw several crucial initiatives she helped enact actually pay off.

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“The last years with the Academy have been very...interesting, to say the least,” Isaacs said. “It really motivated us in a way that we were already motivated, certainly, a year ago. We’d already been very much involved in the organization’s evolution, if you will.”

She mentioned changes that were put in place in terms of the Academy’s membership, including a motion to give members non-voting emeritus status if they’ve been inactive in the film industry for an extended period of time—a move that angered many Academy members, but others felt was crucial to keep the organization relevant.

Isaacs specifically mentioned the A2020 Diversity Initiative, a five-year effort to scrutinize practices within the Academy and make an aggressive effort to improve diversity by bringing new voices into the organization, specifically in terms of age, gender, race, and national origin.

She did claim, however, that pushes like this were already in the works before #OscarsSoWhite dominated two years of Academy Awards conversation.

“It was a lot of work for us, but work that we were already committed to doing and wanting to do, which is why we were able to, it appeared to the outside to act quickly, but it wasn’t really,” she said. “We just became more vocal about it outwardly about the process.”

Unsurprisingly, then, in recounting the shock of 2017’s Oscar night, she chose to focus on the fruits of that labor—the diverse slate of nominees and the otherwise positively reviewed telecast—instead of the repercussions of the one moment that was out of her control.

That big moment, she said, shouldn’t be remembered for its mistake, either.

“What I thought was so important was how in a matter of minutes you saw a humanity and a respect and a graciousness from the La La Land filmmakers and the Moonlight filmmakers in a way that I thought was very special and very different and showed a Hollywood that we know, that for all of our challenges in this very complicated business there is a lot of that,” she said. “It all came together on a beautiful note and a beautiful ending.”

Throughout the conversation, Isaacs talked about her own experience in the film industry and how it affected her goals as a longtime member of the Academy.

Her career started in marketing, landing her first job in 1977 doing publicity for the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Desperate to break into the business, she would make cold calls pitching herself. Often people on the other line would assume she was Pat Boone’s daughter. “I played along a little bit,” she laughed. “Until I showed up and that got a, “Hmm…”

(Isaacs is the Academy’s first female black president. Boone’s whiteness as an entertainer in the ‘50s is routinely mocked.)

Especially because she was in conversation with the female writer of Hidden Figures—which astonished audiences with a story about three African-American women who worked for NASA and changed history, but whose contributions haven’t been given their proper due—she discussed the importance of elevating the work of women in the film industry.

There are three words she said are key: the hiring, the mentoring, and the promoting.

“I have seen this door open a few times in my career,” she said about the recent increased volume of the conversation surrounding the need to give women more opportunity in the industry and telling more of their stories. “A goal of mine is that we don’t let this door close this time.”

She recalled the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when women were prominent in all fields at Paramount, where she worked. “I thought, ‘Oh good! Here we go!’” she said. “It didn’t quite stay there. Each time it’s more. This time, though, I think we’ve got enough push across the board, across all disciplines, to keep this moving. It’s the right thing to do.”

But she was also clear that women are still going to have to fight to achieve what they want.

“There have been many times in my career that I felt I had been mistreated or not appreciated for the contribution, so I would storm out of my office and walk around the lot,” she said. “And if it was really bad I’d have to walk around twice and get over it. Because what is important is staying in the game and seeing a progression for myself and challenging them and meeting them and keep moving. Not that somebody would upset me so much that I would quit.”

Isaacs’s tenure as Academy president is winding down. So, too, some arts critics argue, is the popularity and importance of film, losing its ground to all the other forms of media distracting attention. It’s a notion she refuses to believe.

“When you see a good movie, what do you want to do next?” she asked. “You want to go see another one.”