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Wily Warren Beatty and the universal art of ass-covering


Warren Beatty and host Jimmy Kimmel on stage at the Oscars after the mix-up. Photo:  Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Warren Beatty and host Jimmy Kimmel on stage at the Oscars after the mix-up. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Warren Beatty and host Jimmy Kimmel on stage at the Oscars after the mix-up. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Like many of you, I initially put it down to Warren Beatty's legendary alleged vanity. It wasn't just the way he examined the card for a moment before passing it off ungallantly to Faye Dunaway so that she would be the one to make the wrong announcement. It was the way he then hogged the mike to explain, exactly and forensically, why it wasn't his fault. The Moonlight people had already been denied their moment in the sun, and now Beatty seemed to be compounding it by stealing their moment again to cover his ass.

But then you heard afterwards that Beatty had refused to hand over the wrong card they gave him. And you realised that Beatty was not just being vain here. Beatty was being sharp. This ain't Beatty's first time at the rodeo. Beatty knows the game. Beatty knows how the world works. And Beatty wasn't going to be caught on the wrong side of this thing. Beatty knows that if he handed over the card, there was a strong likelihood that someone would be telling him five minutes later that he wasn't in fact given the wrong card. Beatty didn't come down with the last shower, and he knows that neither did the notion of alternative facts. Most of all, Beatty knows that in the world we live in, the most important thing is not what went wrong but whose fault it is.

After all, this is a man who didn't work again for a decade after the 2001 disaster that was Town and Country, even though he wasn't even the director. Then again, it is thought that Beatty effectively wrestled control of the movie from the actual director after getting in a fist fight with him. He would have had him fired only he had done that on his previous movie - another disaster, Love Affair - so he didn't want anyone to see a pattern. So Beatty knows what it's like to get the blame. And he avoids it at all cost. This is a man who hired his own editor to edit his own cut of Ishtar (he was not the director of the movie), only acceding to the director actually cutting the film because he was worried she was spreading malicious stories about him.

So yes. You could say that Beatty knows how the world works. And he knows what is important in these situations. He will only have been more convinced he did the right thing as the Oscar debacle played out over the next few days. Two massive powerful bodies -PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Academy - needed a scapegoat, a head on a plate that meant they could continue on their merry way of power and profit unhindered. And so they started the pincer movement on Brian Cullinan.

Cullinan was a perfect fall guy. He fitted the narrative in many ways. He clearly enjoyed the bit of limelight. There were plenty of pictures around of him looking pleased with himself and plenty of interviews with hostages to fortune in them. Questions like: "What would you do if you gave someone the wrong card?" We learned that he was vain too, priding himself on looking like Matt Damon. And of course the tweeted picture of Emma Stone, tweeted at exactly the moment that Warren was trying to wriggle out of what was now officially known as "the greatest cock-up in Oscar history", was the clincher.

The narrative was perfect. Cullinan was a guy who got too high on his own supply. A vain man, he liked to go around boasting about his Oscar job and he liked being in the proximity of the celebs that bit too much. And all this pride and folly would lead to his demise. He was busy being starstruck when he should have been focused on the job at hand. It was his fault. And no one else's fault. And he deserved it, when you looked at his general behaviour.


Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Photo AFP/Getty

Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Photo AFP/Getty

AFP/Getty Images

Except, the Academy didn't hire a mere mortal like Cullinan. They hired PwC, who are supposed to have a reputation for thoroughness and propriety that is beyond reproach and who presumably were expected to put in a bulletproof strategy to make sure there were no cock-ups. But it's not PwC's fault somehow. It is Cullinan's fault. The important thing is that the system, the corporation, is not at fault. Only one man is at fault. PwC took full responsibility and then dumped it all on Cullinan. So he is the one now receiving death threats.

And Warren, who has probably been privy to a few of these witch hunts in the past, as movies bombed, had the agility of mind and experience to know, even as the greatest cock-up in the history of the Oscars happened, to know what was coming, and he knew the only position to assume at that point was to cover your ass fast, and to hell with the Oscar winners behind him who were supposed to be having their moment.

But this was all more than just a showbiz or entertainment story. This was somehow a story that resonated with everyone everywhere who had any passing acquaintance with the corporate or political world.

So what was it that we took from this story, apart from the sheer entertainment of seeing the confusion? Firstly, of course, there was just the joy in having it confirmed to us, that all people, at all levels, are incompetent, and that even the people who put on the biggest show in the world make the most basic cock-ups.

At some point the world of work for most people turned into a place that was not about doing the job effectively, but ticking all these boxes so that the corporate machine of meetings and reporting could continue to justify itself by confirming that the boxes had indeed been ticked. Indeed, at some point in all of this, people actually ceased to speak to each other in English in the workplace. English was substituted instead with this weird corporate speak that instead of making communication clearer actually made it completely meaningless. So people could spend hours of their time talking complete gibberish about the most basic things at meetings. And when the meeting ended the thing might never get actually done because nobody understood who was meant to do it. So the system grinds on but nothing gets done. Sometimes this thing that doesn't get done can be a small bit crucial like handing out the envelopes.

The next step then is that everyone speaks to each other in gibberish about why it was not their fault. Given that they are not speaking English, no one actually has to present any concrete reasons why it is not their fault. They just say enough gibberish that everyone else gets worn out from trying to get any sense out of them and moves on. The person who is slowest out of the traps with the gibberish is usually blamed for the cock-up. This will often be after a long period of reporting and soul-searching by the system, which is only too delighted to have more boxes to tick. The system will usually conclude that the system itself, or the company, is not at fault, though there may occasionally be "learnings" and "takeaways" to be got from the incident. The assigned blamee will then be moved sideways, and possibly compensated in case he kicks up. And life will go on. The system will prevail.

We have all seen this in action in our own lives, so it was nice to see it can happen in Hollywood too.

It struck a particular note in this country where it has now been firmly established that we can't do the most basic things right. Our only question about the greatest cock-up in Oscars history was how they got to the bottom of it so quickly. In Ireland, there would have been years and years of a tribunal and billions in legal fees before they came up with a meaningless explanation of events. Then that would have been overturned in the courts. Or there may have been an investigation into it which released a heavily redacted report, at which point we decided we needed a full public inquiry.

This country has now ground to a halt on doing anything new as we spend all our time and money looking into the cock-ups and the cocked-up investigations from the past. Soon we will be exclusively running investigations into investigations.

And the other great take-away from it was that the only thing that matters in the world is to cover your ass as soon and as elaborately as possible. Don't give a damn what anyone thinks of you at the time, the record is what counts. And watching Beatty was watching a master at work. He didn't give a damn about the fake winners, the real winners, the millions of people watching, or even Faye Dunaway lying under the bus where he had thrown her. Beatty wrote the first draft of history, and let the record state, for posterity, that whenever people remember the biggest cock-up in Oscar history, they will always remember that it wasn't Warren Beatty's fault.

Sunday Independent