Anxiety and the Oscar Night Debacle

Well, I thought I was only going to write one Oscar-inspired blog post this year, but events on the big night generated more material for an anxiety-themed blog than I ever would have expected! So I couldn’t resist making some comments. 

As most of the world knows by now, the wrong “Best Picture” was announced during the climactic moment of Sunday’s telecast. This erroneous announcement was followed by what my friend Taryn poetically described as “a perfect portrayal of anxiety being externalized:” the sudden emergence of people on stage frantically running around, the looks of bewilderment on everyone’s faces. All of which was eventually followed by the correct winner being announced by “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz, and an explanation being given by presenter Warren Beatty (who clearly wanted to make sure no one wrongly blamed him for the incredible gaffe).

As for me, I found the whole incident completely fascinating. As it became clear to me that something very strange was unfolding at the end of the Oscars telecast, I hit record on my PVR. Afterwards, I re-watched the bizarre scene several times, trying to analyze the reaction of each person on screen. I was riveted by the drama, and wanted to figure out exactly what had happened. It does seem a bit odd, I suppose, that someone like me who lives with Anxiety Disorders would find it so exciting to watch an incident that was highly anxiety-producing for the people involved! I guess as long as it’s not me in the middle of the chaos, I find crises quite intriguing – I think human behaviour is always interesting to watch, and we rarely see it play out in such an authentic, intense fashion on live television as we did that night. And of course because my “anxiety brain” is wired to analyze and plan, I spent much of the next day explaining to my husband how I thought each person involved “should” have reacted, and how I would have dealt with the whole thing. It’s entirely possible that I got a bit carried away, but that’s pretty typical for me!

Yesterday I read a bit more about what went on behind the scenes during the Oscar night meltdown. I read an article on entertainment news site “The Wrap,” which included details about the behaviour of the two PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants who were present on Oscar night, Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz. Cullinan and Ruiz were responsible for handing out the envelopes, and they were also responsible for going on stage to correct any mistakes that might happen to occur, which would turn out to be a critical responsibility. According to stage manager Gary Natoli, the accountants simply froze when the moment of crisis came: “John [another stage manager] was trying to get Brian to go on stage, and he wouldn’t go. And Martha wouldn’t go. We had to push them on stage, which was just shocking to me.” Indeed, it took a full two and a half minutes for the mistake to be corrected, and when it finally was, it was “La La Land’s” Horowitz who had to take charge and make the announcement, while Cullinan and Ruiz milled about on stage, appearing almost disoriented (that’s them in the photo above, Ruiz in the red dress and Cullinan right next to her, standing in the middle of the crowd while the action swirls around them).

I reflected on those bungling accountants, who were seemingly incapable of taking action when obligated to do so, while others around them, like Jordan Horowitz, Warren Beatty, and the stage managers, moved with more purpose. When I considered what is known about anxiety and its effects on behaviour, it made some sense to me that this would be how Cullinan and Ruiz reacted. The brain’s anxiety response resides in the part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for detecting and responding to threats. It does so in a fairly primitive way, without much regard for rational thought. And the more anxious you feel, the more your brain just kicks into survival mode, and the ability to think rationally goes out the window.

So it’s easy to imagine the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants immediately being flooded with anxiety as soon as they realized a mistake had been made, because they knew they were solely responsible for that mistake. That wave of extreme anxiety led to their freeze response, and subsequent inability to do much of anything of use on the stage, despite that being their express job. They were simply too busy panicking to do anything else. As stage manager Natoli said, “I’m sure they’re very lovely people, but they just didn’t have the disposition for this. You need somebody who’s going to be confident and unafraid.” Meanwhile, those present who were a bit less anxious (because they knew they hadn’t made the mistake) were able to respond more readily.

Of course for most people, a feeling of panic is a normal response to a highly anxiety-producing event (like realizing you’re responsible for the biggest mistake in Oscar history as seen live by millions of people around the world). For those of us with Anxiety Disorders, however, our amygdala tends to kick in a bit too readily, often in response to things that wouldn’t make other people particularly anxious, like taking an elevator or going grocery shopping. So while we may not quite feel like a panicked Oscar accountant all the time, we do experience that fight-flight-or-freeze response (and accompanying suspension of rational thought) a lot more often than most.


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