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.”
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.”
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.