As it stands now, the blame for the debacle at the Academy Awards has fallen on the shoulders of one Brian Cullinan, who has suddenly become one of the most prominent figures in Hollywood. Mr. Cullinan, a senior auditor for PwC, formerly Price Waterhouse, allegedly gave presenter Warren Beatty the wrong envelope for the Best Picture Winner and then failed to correct the mistake promptly. Reports suggest Cullinan might have been distracted because he was doing a little backstage tweeting right before the Best Picture presentation.
For all you motorists out there, especially you milennials, this was perhaps a brief teachable moment on social media distraction, but it will likely be a life-changer for Cullinan, a 32-year veteran of PwC. No mere petty misdemeanor like a messed-up tax return, this was the gross felony of humiliating the motion picture industry before millions of television viewers worldwide; such offences are commonly punishable by death, at least metaphorically speaking. Mr. Cullinan may well lose his job, whether through forced retirement or sacking. And he should probably not expect a gold watch from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
But in Hollywood, capital punishment rarely ends there.
If Brian Cullinan is ultimately deemed the Oscar culprit, his Hollywood persona will assume mythic proportions, something akin to that of the Flying Dutchman, the ship in maritime legend that haunted the seas around the Cape of Good Hope, fated to sail forever luring sailors and ships to their destruction. In Cullinan’s case, consider that his name and ignominy may forever be synonymous with epic failure in the Los Angeles accounting community - he is destined to become to West Coast accountants what Steve Bartman is to Chicago Cub fans. Of course in no Hollywood restaurant will he ever again be safe from the censorious glances and reproachful whispers from his fellow diners, who will avoid him more than if he had Ebola.
And on the day he dies, his obituary, which might otherwise have been a small footnote in the Los Angeles Times, will probably instead be a major entry, complete with a retelling of the whole sordid 2017 Academy Award affair. His death may even make it across the country to the obit pages of The New York Times and Washington Post, with a fitting headline, something like “Accountant Responsible for Academy Award Fiasco Dies.” At least for that brief moment, he will once again be one of the most talked about people in Hollywood, more so than any of the stars involved in the proceedings.
But what of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the presenters and once-young stars of “Bonnie and Clyde”, the epic movie from fifty years ago? By any honest reckoning, they should share in the culpability of the Academy Award disaster - at least Warren. He was given an envelope that was presumably marked as being other than that for the Best Picture. He certainly must have noticed when he opened it onstage that it was not the right envelope.
Yet what did Warren do? Did he call a time-out, and ask someone for help? Nope, he gave it to his co-presenter, and under the bus went the unsuspecting Faye Dunaway, left on her own to announce the name of the only movie she saw on the card. In front of the whole world. Warren was a whole lot more chivalrous to poor Faye on the screen back in 1967 when he played Clyde Barrow to her Bonnie Parker.
Meanwhile, immediately after their misadventure onstage Faye beat a hasty retreat from the premises. Exercising more discretion than her cinema alter ego Bonnie Parker, Faye disappeared and has made herself scarce in public since.
It’s easy to forget, with their fancy clothes and masked facies, that both Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are approaching 80 (she’s 76, he will be 80 this month), making them among the oldest Best Pictures presenters in Oscar history. At that age it must not be easy to ad-lib onstage in front of a live audience, particularly for movie actors accustomed to reading lines written by others, and with the opportunity to do multiple retakes. In reality, neither Warren nor Faye was ever in much danger of being blamed for the snafu. Hollywood closes ranks quickly and rarely chastises its elite, unless it’s for something really outré, like supporting Donald Trump.
So as Humphrey Bogart said of Elisha Cook Jr. in “The Maltese Falcon”, “We need a fall guy.” In this case it’s left up to the hapless Brian Cullinan to play the fall guy for the infamous Academy Award Disaster of 2017. He is the unfortunate victim of the irony that, while many come to Hollywood to find the spotlight and fail, occasionally the spotlight finds you. You have to feel a little sad for him. On second thought, maybe the whole thing would make for a good movie. Someone find out who his agent is.
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