Brian Cullinan '82 was a javelin star at Cornell, but it was an envelope handoff that tripped him up at the Oscars on Sunday night.

Brian Cullinan '82 was a javelin star at Cornell, but it was an envelope handoff that tripped him up at the Oscars on Sunday night.

February 28, 2017

Cornell Alumnus Responsible for Oscars Envelope Bungle

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At Cornell, Brian Cullinan ’82 was a masterful javelin thrower whose 250-foot heave is still the longest toss in University history.

At the Academy Awards on Sunday night, it was a simple envelope handoff that tripped him up, leading to the biggest bungle in the Oscars’ 89 years, followed by apologies, befuddlement and sympathy.

The accounting firm tasked with handling top-secret Oscars envelopes since 1935 said the former National Junior Olympic champion had relayed the wrong envelope to presenters, commencing a social media firestorm and less-than-desirable publicity for the firm, PwC.

“PwC Partner Brian Cullinan mistakenly handed the backup envelope for Actress in a Leading Role instead of the envelope for Best Picture to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway,” PwC, formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, said in a statement. “Once the error occurred, protocols for correcting it were not followed through quickly enough by Mr. Cullinan or his partner.”

Brian Cullinan '82

Brian Cullinan ’82

Three La La Land producers had already given acceptance speeches — thanking wives, parents and mentors — before stage managers in headsets ran onto the stage and informed them of the mix-up.

“There’s a mistake,” producer Jordan Horowitz said. “Moonlight, you guys won best picture. This is not a joke.”

Cullinan was on stage, too, looking down at a red envelope before jogging out of the spotlight. The former Cornell track and field star — known as “Spanky” at Chi Phi, according to two yearbooks — did not respond to emails and phone calls requesting comment. A spokesperson for PwC said he was not taking any press inquiries.

In the week before the Oscars, Cullinan said in an interview with The Huffington Post that if any incorrect envelopes were handed to presenters on Sunday, staff members would correct the error as soon as possible.

“Whether that entails stopping the show, us walking onstage, us signaling to the stage manager — that’s really a game-time decision, if something like that were to happen,” Cullinan said. “Again, it’s so unlikely.”

Cullinan '82 was mentioned in the April 30, 1979 edition of The Sun.

Sun Archives

Cullinan ’82 was mentioned in the April 30, 1979 edition of The Sun.

Unlikely as it was, the historic flub was seen by nearly 33 million viewers on ABC and clips of the blunder garnered tens of millions of views on social media.

The Academy issued a statement on Monday apologizing for the lapse and pledging to investigate the incident. Academy staff “will determine what actions are appropriate going forward,” the statement said.

Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman of PwC, told The Wall Street Journal Monday that Cullinan feels “horrible, absolutely horrible.”

But Cullinan has been knocked down before — more than 30 years ago, at Cornell — and he bounced back, setting a school record in the process.

Articles from The Sun archives describe the New Hampshire native as a consistent, “stellar freshman” who was sidelined during his sophomore year because of a knee injury that required surgery. He reinjured the same leg in a car accident while recovering from the operation, The Sun reported in 1981.

By his junior year, however, Cullinan “appeared to be making a strong comeback,” and he would go on to set the all-time Cornell record with a 250-foot-2-inch javelin throw.

  • Peter Asholt

    The real culprit was warren Beatty who could see clearly that the card read for best actress yet chose to go “off script” and read La La Land as best picture. He should have simply said “we have the wrong card”.

    • Vox

      Beaty didn’t read the wrong name… Dunaway did. He shouldn’t have hesitated though. As soon as he saw the wrong card in his hand, he should have spoken up and just said, “It looks like I’ve been given Emma’s card for Best Actress” and swapped it out. Of course it would have still gotten a million mentions in the Twittersphere, but nowhere near the embarrassment of the debacle that ensued.

  • Leetch2

    Unfortunately with firms like PwC that care more about public relations that they do accounting, this guy is going to get the brunt of the blame. He did make a mistake but his name shouldn’t be tossed around the mud like this.

    • Joe Meaney

      In the end, nobody got hurt. Some bruised egos and unfortunate insults – yes, but the gaffe is not earth-shattering. Although, Cullinan is probably done with the Oscars. He didn’t change the course of human events – he just delayed it a bit. “Moonlight” still won and will garner all of the requisite accolades. I would counsel him like Trump needs to be counseled – stop with the effing tweets!

      • Leetch2

        Well, they did announce that he and the other accountant involved won’t be returning next year, and there are some doubts about whether PwC will be involved in the counting after this year. Personally, I could care less and I can’t wait for this silly story to die out. Cullinan is probably keeping his actual job as a partner, and even if his firm gets rid of him I’m sure he has PLENTY of options elsewhere.

  • An old friend from SF.

    Hang in there Brian. This old friend stands by you.

  • so unnecessary/

    Does this really warrant this mans alma mater making him look like he just committed a murder by putting it as the headline story in his college newspaper? The 2 people reading the cards onstage saw an actress’s name and movie on the card. THAT should have raised some question in their heads. No need for this alum to be singled out, and even worse, by his own college. Whomever made the decision to publish this story should think about if they made a mistake like this 30 years from now, where nobody was truly harmed, would they want a non consequential mistake made into a big article at their alma mater? I doubt it. Ridiculous.

    • concerned

      Well you obviously didn’t run this bad idea of an “article” by your Development Teams!! From a Cornell alumni development perspective, this is as bad a PR situation as you are reporting on- only difference, this is mean-spirited and it is NOT simple human error!!! You owe Brian an immediate and public apology!!!

      • Old friend from SF

        I completely agree. And the sooner the better. Hang in there Brian.

        You’really old friend from SF

        • Old friend from SF

          * Your old friend from SF

      • Student

        The Sun is independent of the university and Cornell PR.

  • Bobbi Jameson

    Hang in there Bri! I know Andy Noel is still rooting for you. You are his kind of guy.