2017’s Oscars flub was terrible. Moonlight was robbed of their moment, and La La Land was sucker-punched. It was a failure. A failure for PricewaterhouseCoopers, a failure for The Academy, a failure for La La Land, a failure for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, and a failure for all the other Best Picture nominees.
But—it was a triumph for camp.
All the essential players for a campy story were present as the Best Picture presentation began. There was the favorite in La La Land, the underdog in Moonlight, the straight man in Beatty, and one of the grand dames of camp—our living relic of Joan Crawford—Mommie Dearest’s Faye Dunaway.
La La Land—the favorite—embodied old school camp, a camp that emerged in the twentieth century as a subversive response to the absence of overtly queer narratives in media, a camp about power and representation. In Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’,” she argued that “the whole point of Camp [was] to dethrone the serious.” Camp was a mode of resistance—a way protesting kings and queens and seizing power back from straight society.
Camp accomplished this power grab by redefining the derided cultural expertise of queer people (particularly gay men), which straight society deemed to be “too feminine.” In camp, this expertise was not shameful; instead, it was a source of pride, a way of being better than the others. There was a complicated nuance to this brand of cultural mastery. Camp was not concerned exclusively, or even primarily, with high art. Camp concerned itself instead with failed art, the tales of the underdog, and over-dramatic attempts at redemption.
These themes reflected the realities of queer people—people who were often kicked out of their families, mocked on the street, and denied employment. Camp provided a way for this community to laugh at the absurdity of their situation rather than wallow in self-pity. Camp was a way of evading reality, but its stakes were real. As part of its evasion, camp concerned itself with style rather than content, displacing or transcending the tragic content of countless queer lives.
A focus on style was also a way to disregard the exclusively heterosexual content in film, and to replace it with one’s own, imagined queer content. Joan Crawford in 1945’s Mildred Pierce became a frustrated gay man rather than a downtrodden housewife. Dorothy in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz became a queer Kansas kid dreaming of a world or time where they might belong. Through camp, queer people could celebrate the what if—the possibility of loving whom they wanted to love, of not having to sacrifice their careers or reputations for it.
But camp was always temporary. Every what if was followed by a but we’re not there yet. Movies ended and the credits rolled as a reminder of who really played whom; drag queens removed their Joan Crawford makeup after performances, and Dorothy returned to Kansas after her trip to Oz. Camp provided a hopeful lens, but it could never be fully divorced from its predominantly straight contexts. Camp was about reading queer stories into a straight world—it was not about creating original queer stories.
La La Land is a straight (heterosexual) musical. There are no gay characters. But, by applying the camp lens, La La Land can become queer.
The opening sequence begins with the familiar—Angelenos sitting in traffic—but it becomes extraordinary. People exit their cars and perform a masterfully choreographed number. The dancers leap over medians, flip over cars. There’s a band in the back of a truck and an impromptu dance circle. We’re invited to imagine this world—the world of musicals where reality is suspended and where we have culturally inclusive dance parties on the freeway. It’s a world that seems the natural habitat of drag queens, a world of excess, drama, and performance.
But then the number ends. We’re snapped back to reality—our reality. In our reality, such dance numbers are, sadly, inappropriate and ticket-worthy offenses.
In La La Land’s celebrated final montage, Mia and Sebastian imagine the lives they could have had together—they’d have their love, a thriving jazz bar, and Mia’s acting career. It’s an exploration of “what if.” But—the montage ends on the reminder that this imagined world remains an impossibility. You can’t have it all. You can’t spend your life with your soulmate and have your career.
Moonlight—the underdog—embodies something utterly different from traditional camp: a genuine queer optimism. Moonlight is aware of its tragic contexts, and expounds a message of hope in the face of them. Moonlight does not suspend or imagine a new reality; it addresses reality. Moonlight gives us complex, overtly queer characters and stories.
In the opening act of the film, we join young Chiron through his discovery of his queerness. We see him walk away from the other boys as they play soccer, and we hear him as he asks his adopted parents—Juan and Teresa—if he’s “a faggot.” To a queer audience, these moments of discovery are familiar and real. There’s no need to close one’s eyes and dream up a new narrative.
Perhaps the most striking moment of Moonlight occurs midway through the film on a beach lit by—you guessed it—moonlight. Chiron and another boy, Kevin, discuss when and how often they cry. Kevin and Chiron kiss, start fooling around, and Kevin brings Chiron to climax. Previously, queer people have had to imagine this moment of queer intimacy, but Moonlight presents this moment onscreen. Queer people keep our eyes open, and we see ourselves.
The film concludes with another moment of queer onscreen tenderness. Chiron is an adult now, and he longs for Kevin. It’s an all-too familiar queer story—I like him but is he (still) queer like me? The answer comes with an exchange of smiles, and then a shot of Chiron resting his head on Kevin’s shoulder. We cut to a child Chiron back on the beach. He’s looking away—turned to the water—but then he turns around, toward the camera. We make eye contact, and—again—we see ourselves. There may be no definitive “happily ever after moment” at the end of Moonlight, but at least Chiron and Kevin’s relationship isn’t just a dream.
On Oscars night, as Dunaway walked onto the stage with Beatty—whom she was reportedly already peeved at—tipsy viewing parties at gay bars around the country erupted with cheers and quotes from Mommie Dearest. The Best Picture montage played, and we saw the faces of the anxious nominees. Warren Beatty opened the red envelope, read the card, and checked to see if there was another card. Faye Dunaway threw a playful glare. Beatty began to make the announcement, and checked again. He flashed the card to Dunaway—it was, as we later learned, the Best Actress card for Emma Stone. She snatched it, disregarding Beatty’s hesitation. She announced La La Land. She sounded like her portrayal of Joan Crawford because she was annoyed. The orchestra played La La Land’s finale score, and Damien Chazelle and company stormed the stage.
Then it happened—that drag queen tear-away reveal moment. Oscars producers—a final failsafe for this sort of crisis—swooped in to correct the error but only after a string of La La Land acceptance speeches. La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz announced the mistake into the microphone. We wondered if this was an Adele and Beyoncé moment a la The Grammys, but then we saw the card. The well-oiled PwC and Academy machine shattered: Moonlight won Best Picture.
For a moment, La La Land imagined their victory. In classic camp fashion, they experienced the “what if”—only to have it ruined by reality. On the Hollywood stage—amidst gasps, jaw drops, and pearl clutches—we witnessed one final, beautifully coded failure and an over-the-top dethroning of the serious. It was camp’s grand finale.
Barry Jenkins and the Moonlight team walked on stage. Beatty explained what happened, and eventually Barry Jenkins spoke, “Even in my dreams this could not be true. But to hell with dreams. I’m done with it because this is true.”
Many camp films have won Best Picture—Gone with the Wind, All About Eve, Titanic. But with Moonlight’s victory, a queer film has won Best Picture for the first time. La La Land presented a time capsule—a fossilized version of queer aesthetics. Moonlight illustrated the queer optimism of today. The Oscars provided a stage for an homage to old camp, but also a literal passing of trophies—a Madonna kissing Britney moment—to a new queer aesthetic, a queer optimism.