Michael De Luca was 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 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.”
Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs — facing a second storm of criticism after the previous two years’ #OscarsSoWhite outcry–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 conversation 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 scandal 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.
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 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.”