Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Who we are in the moment

with 59 comments

Jordan Horowitz and Barry Jenkins

By now, you’re probably sick of hearing about what happened at the Oscars. I’m getting a little tired of it, too, even though it was possibly the strangest and most riveting two minutes I’ve ever seen on live television. It left me feeling sorry for everyone involved, but there are at least three bright spots. The first is that it’s going to make a great case study for somebody like Malcolm Gladwell, who is always looking for a showy anecdote to serve as a grabber opening for a book or article. So many different things had to go wrong for it to happen—on the levels of design, human error, and simple dumb luck—that you can use it to illustrate just about any point you like. A second silver lining is that it highlights the basically arbitrary nature of all such awards. As time passes, the list of Best Picture winners starts to look inevitable, as if Cimarron and Gandhi and Chariots of Fire had all been canonized by a comprehensible historical process. If anything, the cycle of inevitability is accelerating, so that within seconds of any win, the narratives are already locking into place. As soon as La La Land was announced as the winner, a story was emerging about how Hollywood always goes for the safe, predictable choice. The first thing that Dave Itzkoff, a very smart reporter, posted on the New York Times live chat was: “Of course.” Within a couple of minutes, however, that plot line had been yanked away and replaced with one for Moonlight. And the fact that the two versions were all but superimposed onscreen should warn us against reading too much into outcomes that could have gone any number of ways.

But what I want to keep in mind above all else is the example of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, who, at a moment of unbelievable pressure, simply said: “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” It was the best thing that anybody could have uttered under those circumstances, and it tells us a lot about Horowitz himself. If you were going to design a psychological experiment to test a subject’s reaction under the most extreme conditions imaginable, it’s hard to think of a better one—although it might strike a grant committee as possibly too expensive. It takes what is undoubtedly one of the high points of someone’s life and twists it instantly into what, if perhaps not the worst moment, at least amounts to a savage correction. Everything that the participants onstage did or said, down to the facial expressions of those standing in the background, has been subjected to a level of scrutiny worthy of the Zapruder film. At the end of an event in which very little occurs that hasn’t been scripted or premeditated, a lot of people were called upon to figure out how to act in real time in front of an audience of hundreds of millions. It’s proverbial that nobody tells the truth in Hollywood, an industry that inspires insider accounts with titles like Hello, He Lied and Which Lie Did I Tell? A mixup like the one at the Oscars might have been expressly conceived as a stress test to bring out everyone’s true colors. Yet Horowitz said what he did. And I suspect that it will do more for his career than even an outright win would have accomplished.

Kellyanne Conway

It also reminds me of other instances over the last year in which we’ve learned exactly what someone thinks. When we get in trouble for a remark picked up on a hot mike, we often say that it doesn’t reflect who we really are—which is just another way of stating that it doesn’t live up to the versions of ourselves that we create for public consumption. It’s far crueler, but also more convincing, to argue that it’s exactly in those unguarded, unscripted moments that our true selves emerge. (Freud, whose intuition on such matters was uncanny, was onto something when he focused on verbal mistakes and slips of the tongue.) The justifications that we use are equally revealing. Maybe we dismiss it as “locker room talk,” even if it didn’t take place anywhere near a locker room. Kellyanne Conway excused her reference to the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre by saying “I misspoke one word,” even though she misspoke it on three separate occasions. It doesn’t even need to be something said on the spur of the moment. At his confirmation hearing for the position of ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman apologized for an opinion piece he had written before the election: “These were hurtful words, and I deeply regret them. They’re not reflective of my nature or my character.” Friedman also said that “the inflammatory rhetoric that accompanied the presidential campaign is entirely over,” as if it were an impersonal force that briefly took possession of its users and then departed. We ask to be judged on our most composed selves, not the ones that we reveal at our worst.

To some extent, that’s a reasonable request. I’ve said things in public and in private that I’ve regretted, and I wouldn’t want to be judged solely on my worst moments as a writer or parent. At a time when a life can be ruined by a single tweet, it’s often best to err on the side of forgiveness, especially when there’s any chance of misinterpretation. But there’s also a place for common sense. You don’t refer to an event as a “massacre” unless you really think of it that way or want to encourage others to do so. And we judge our public figures by what they say when they think that nobody is listening, or when they let their guard down. It might seem like an impossibly high standard, but it’s also the one that’s effectively applied in practice. You can respond by becoming inhumanly disciplined, like Obama, who in a decade of public life has said maybe five things he has reason to regret. Or you can react like Trump, who says five regrettable things every day and trusts that its sheer volume will reduce it to a kind of background noise—which has awakened us, as Trump has in so many other ways, to a political option that we didn’t even knew existed. Both strategies are exhausting, and most of us don’t have the energy to pursue either path. Instead, we’re left with the practical solution of cultivating the inner voice that, as I wrote last week, allows us to act instinctively. Kant writes: “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.” Which is another way of saying that we should strive to be the best version of ourselves at all times. It’s probably impossible. But it’s easier than wearing a mask.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2017 at 9:00 am

59 Responses

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  1. So well said, Sir!!!!! Bravo!!!!


    February 28, 2017 at 2:11 pm

  2. I too thought the producer handled the situation with grace and humility. To have those qualities come out under pressure tells us a lot about his character and integrity.

    Disneyland Insider

    February 28, 2017 at 2:16 pm

  3. Horowitz handled it so well by taking charge, staying calm and doing the RIGHT thing.
    It takes a lot to think clearly in the moment and people in the spotlight have it a lot harder than us ordinary folk.


    February 28, 2017 at 2:51 pm

  4. Well-said! You have articulated what I felt but could not have expressed better.
    To summarize our shared philosophy–If we become truly kind, magnanimous, generous–we can have true grace which will always show under pressure. If we can be good, then we can embrace our true selves. What great examples those talented people set for us all!
    You also made some excellent observations about the other side of that coin–those who don’t or wouldn’t know authenticity if it bit them in the tail. Being two-faced means that at least one of those faces is undesirable or false.
    How much better to have only one?


    February 28, 2017 at 3:12 pm

  5. So true. He handled it with such class and grace. Unlike the other producer who went on to give an acceptance speech even after he knew that they had lost.
    Great post. Well written

    Shweta Suresh

    February 28, 2017 at 3:18 pm

  6. Nicely written. Am I wrong, or is it true that actions like those made by Horowitz are getting fewer and farther between?


    February 28, 2017 at 3:47 pm

  7. Right


    February 28, 2017 at 3:52 pm

  8. I hate to like something and not comment but I didn’t watch the Ocars and now I feel like I miss something..


    February 28, 2017 at 3:54 pm

  9. Good


    February 28, 2017 at 4:39 pm

  10. The last two lines, they summed up every good deed ever done. I think


    February 28, 2017 at 5:43 pm

  11. Love it!


    February 28, 2017 at 7:03 pm

  12. Amazing


    February 28, 2017 at 7:03 pm

  13. Great post – totally agree. So good to see an act of graciousness applauded – and that act supported by others. Your words were both kind and insightful. Thank you


    February 28, 2017 at 7:17 pm

  14. Awesome article society has built up ridiculous expectations of another person and wonder why their left with such a bitter taste in their mouth at the end of the day 👌👌👌

    andrew pickering

    February 28, 2017 at 9:45 pm

  15. Absolutely spot on. Jordan Horowitz’s response is the stuff on which crisis management seminars are based. We are all the more impressed by his humility because, thanks to the tone of the new administration, the airwaves have been flooded with so much defensive, mean-spirited banter. His display of graciousness was like a cleansing breeze that blows stink from a room filled with hot air. Thanks, so much, for your words.

    Wilma Hollis

    February 28, 2017 at 10:08 pm

  16. I guess no one noticed how viciously he snatched the card from Beatty’s hand. While he was being so honorable and gracious to his friend–and that was great–he was also very rude and disrespectful to his elder and an industry icon.


    February 28, 2017 at 10:29 pm

  17. Agreed that Horowitz did the job that neither Jimmy Kimmel nor Warren Beatty seemed able to do. He was the classiest person onstage, even if he did snatch the card away from Beatty a little violently. Some good insight in this post, and very fair and balanced I’d say. Well said.

    walt walker

    March 1, 2017 at 12:48 am

  18. Really well written! Maybe just out of sheer length or if I missed it as an oversight, but with your details about reactions I’m surprised you didn’t mention Beatty? Awesome take on the Oscars blunder


    March 1, 2017 at 2:52 am

  19. Always be the best we can be!


    March 1, 2017 at 4:16 am

  20. Well said awesome


    March 1, 2017 at 4:30 am

  21. Well very written. 😀


    March 1, 2017 at 5:59 am

  22. Great Job 😍😍 hope you like my blog


    March 1, 2017 at 6:06 am

  23. Kant set an impossible standard in many respects. And he never really left home. To live as he suggested would also mean exposing innocent people to certain harm. Tough way to exist – but some of your examples are not of temporary lapses in grace under pressure – they are deeply embedded character traits of which we get a momentary glimpse. And even then, forgiveness may be the only absolution.


    March 1, 2017 at 6:56 am

  24. Thank you


    March 1, 2017 at 9:10 am

  25. I thought I was with you on this until I got to the last line, “It’s easier than wearing a mask.” I honestly don’t understand what you are saying in that line, can I ask you to clarify?

    Check it out..Comments are appreciated


    March 1, 2017 at 10:14 am

  27. Very honest and thought provoking essay. Imagine if all of us really made the effort to be the best version of ourselves each day. It’s a pipe dream, I know, but it would be so fantastic.


    March 1, 2017 at 11:13 am

  28. Great read! Thanks for an articulate view on this.

    Jordan Coriza

    March 1, 2017 at 12:26 pm

  29. Thanks for the post. It was nice to see it the situation handled in the right way, when it every easily could have gone in a bad direction.


    March 1, 2017 at 12:46 pm

  30. @jmpod: That’s a good point about Kant. My favorite Kant story is how he asked the government of Königsberg to cut down the trees across from his house, because they were blocking the view from his window:


    March 1, 2017 at 1:33 pm

  31. 👍👍


    March 1, 2017 at 1:45 pm

  32. great post!


    March 1, 2017 at 3:28 pm

  33. It was a mistake. Nothing more nothing less.


    March 1, 2017 at 10:19 pm

  34. Very insightful. I’ve read a lot of reporting on the Oscars fiasco, but this was refreshingly different. And the message that you want to convey: to live our lives by being the best version of ourselves flows across beautifully through the text.

    Amarjeet Pawar

    March 1, 2017 at 10:38 pm

  35. It is true that we all wear a mask. Hiding our true self and presenting a duplicate malingered personality to the world. But what happened at The Oscars and how the producers accepted defeat so beautifully in such a demeanouring situation is absolutely applaudable and their gentleness is visible in the movie itself. It was so amazing that you highlighted this fact.

  36. Interesting …


    March 2, 2017 at 1:12 am

  37. Very well said 👌

    Aarthi Avinash

    March 2, 2017 at 2:12 am

  38. Nicely written:)


    March 2, 2017 at 5:05 am

  39. smcd41

    March 2, 2017 at 6:31 am

  40. Brilliant!


    March 2, 2017 at 7:05 am

  41. That looks great! Congrats!

    Dave Dally

    March 2, 2017 at 2:06 pm

  42. I just wanted to share with you what influence your article had. This evening my daughter was incredible hurt by a mistake done by her dance teacher. She nearly didn’t want to go to the upcoming performance in her anger. I remembered your article I read tonight and the mistake at the Oscars. I told her about the incredible kind reactions and she her heart melted. She saw that the happiness of her friends are more important than this one stupid mistake. Had I not read your article, I wouldn’t have had the idea.


    March 2, 2017 at 3:15 pm

  43. Apparently, I live under a rock because I did not know this happened. Great article though, and I agree that the producer handled the situation gracefully. Love the reference to Kant at the end. I majored in philosophy.


    March 2, 2017 at 4:37 pm

  44. @respectformyself: Wow—thank you! I have a daughter myself, and I’m glad you shared that story.


    March 2, 2017 at 5:34 pm

  45. This is such an interesting article, and so true! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and really connected with your way of talking about presenting a specific side of yourself to the world. I do that every day, having a customer service job and many online friends, to the point where I’m not sure who the real me is anymore. I guess it’s time for a little self-reflection :)


    March 2, 2017 at 8:04 pm

  46. Great post!


    March 3, 2017 at 11:58 pm

  47. To recognise and keep the ego in check is essential act if you want to know peace. The ego we cultivate is the mask so rather than responding with the best version of himself he responded with his true self. That part of us that has become buried deep down and is not controlled by convention and conditioning. I hope it gave him peace.


    March 5, 2017 at 5:27 am



    March 6, 2017 at 9:35 am

  49. I’ve found myself getting annoyed at a lot of the coverage of this, because I feel like people have been taking it much too seriously. I want to say ‘it’s just an award! It’s not important!’ But this article had a really interesting perspective that made me think it’s actually be worth talking about. Thanks for having interesting things to say!


    March 6, 2017 at 11:43 am

  50. Sad


    March 7, 2017 at 1:26 am

  51. Well written,handing over the Oscar shows the deposition of the producer,
    Good job


    March 7, 2017 at 1:44 am

  52. You articulate so well something I have always believed. The words we say stick with us, and often with others, for a long, long time. When I was a young child, I overheard my aunt say a hurtful thing about me that affected my body image and has never quite left me. While I have no doubt that I have said many things I regret over the years, I agree that it behooves us to take care and try to be the best person we can be in any circumstance.

    Mary Rayis

    March 8, 2017 at 8:34 am

  53. Wow! Beautifully written and quite insightful. It is in our unguarded moments that our real selves shows itself. Not the persona we dress it up in usually.

    March 8, 2017 at 5:47 pm

  54. Needed to read something like this today- thank you!


    March 11, 2017 at 10:59 pm

  55. Very well said!


    March 16, 2017 at 10:45 am

  56. Nice post


    March 19, 2017 at 12:32 pm

  57. I am amazed at the meaningless mistake that has not killed or maimed sometimes I wish we would go blind when we are mean and horrible to other people and we get our sight back every time we care and are kind.


    March 19, 2017 at 7:25 pm

  58. Such a brilliant post right down to the last sentence.

  59. Hey it would be my pleasure if you would check out my blog

    Tanya MacPherson

    June 30, 2017 at 12:37 pm

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