Andrea Riseborough surprised everyone when she received a nomination at the 95th Academy Awards for Best Actress in the film To Leslie, a movie so indie that no one had heard of it. Surprise nominations aren’t unusual, but the British actor’s nod came so far out of left field that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is conducting a review to investigate whether a “grassroots” campaign actually broke the Academy’s rules. This is Andrea Riseborough’s Oscars controversy explained and why she might get disqualified from the Best Actress category.
To Leslie, directed by Michael Morris, is a drama about a single, West Texas mother who wins the lottery and squanders it all as she battles alcoholism. It only grossed $27,000 at the box office but in the final weeks of voting on the 2023 Oscars, endorsements from some of Hollywood’s biggest names pushed for Riseborough’s consideration as a Best Actress nominee. But while campaigning for awards contenders is part of the game, some critics think To Leslie’s A-lister’s promotion crossed the line. Here’s what you need to know about Andrea Riseborough’s Oscars controversy.
Andrea Riseborough’s Oscars controversy
Andrea Riseborough’s Oscars controversy actually dates back to October 2022 when Howard Stern started talking about To Leslie on his SiriusXM show. He had seen the film in July of that year after it had premiered at South By Southwest in March. To Leslie was shot in just 19 days in Los Angeles during the height of the COVID pandemic.
Then the campaigning began. Director Michael McCormack’s wife, Mary McCormack, who wrote in an email to friends asking them to support the movie and Riseborough’s performance publicly. She even included images and suggested hashtags for social media. “If you’re willing to post every day between now and Jan 17th [the last day of Oscar nomination voting], that would be amazing!” she wrote in one email obtained by Variety. “But anything is helpful, so please do whatever makes you comfortable. And what’s more comfortable than posting about a movie every day!”
Celebrity endorsements started flooding social media in the lead-up to Awards season. Sally Field, Liam Neeson, Jane Fonda, Laura Dern, Catherine Keener, Geena Davis and Mira Sorvino were among those that posted on social media about the film. Cate Blanchett was apparently so moved by Riseborough’s performance that she gave her a shoutout during her acceptance speech at the Critics’ Choice Awards.
“The idea that you need endless resources, I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” Riseborough told Variety shortly after the Oscar nominations were announced. “The people who made sure of that is our community. It feels like the film community rallied around and made a noise.” Speaking with Deadline shortly after the nomination was announced, Risebourogh said: “I’m astounded. … It was so hard to believe it might ever happen because we really hadn’t been in the running for anything else. Even though we had a lot of support, the idea it might actually happen seemed so far away.”
There’s nothing wrong with lobbying Oscars voters to watch a movie by touting its merits, notes the industry publication. Indeed, Los Angeles was flooded with billboards advertising potential award contenders for weeks, like Top Gun: Maverick and Everything, Everywhere All At Once. But some say To Leslie’s efforts used “aggressive tactics” that went too far, causing The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to conduct a “review of campaign procedures”, it confirmed in a statement on January 27, 2023. However, it didn’t specifically mention To Leslie.
“It is the Academy’s goal to ensure that the Awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner, and we are committed to ensuring an inclusive awards process,” the statement reads. “We are conducting a review of the campaign procedures around this year’s nominees, to ensure that no guidelines were violated, and to inform us whether changes to the guidelines may be needed in a new era of social media and digital communication. We have confidence in the integrity of our nomination and voting procedures and support genuine grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances.” While the Academy has received several emails and messages concerning To Leslie’s nomination, no formal complaints have been lodged.
“Let’s be fair during this process,” one Academy member of the Actors Branch told Variety. “It doesn’t look good, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions. One violation isn’t the end for someone, nor should it be, but when you add the other X-factors and rumors to the mix, you have to look into it.” Another member shared: “I feel bad for Andrea. No matter what happens, her reputation is being tarnished, whether her campaign did something or not.”
The Academy’s official rules state that any form of public communication by anyone directly associated with an eligible film that attempts “to cast a negative or derogatory light on a competing film or achievement” will not be tolerated. “In particular,” they add, “any tactic that singles out ‘the competition’ by name or title is expressly forbidden”, and punishable by a one-year suspension of membership for first-time offenders. The organization also said that it was debating “whether changes to the guidelines may be needed in a new era of social media and digital communication.”
This is where To Leslie’s tactics may have overstepped. In a since-deleted tweet from the official To Leslie account, it quoted a review from the Chicago-Sun Times, which stated: “As much as I admired [Cate] Blanchett’s work in Tár, my favorite performance by a woman this year was delivered by the chameleonlike Andrea Riseborough.”
One studio publicist, who asked to remain anonymous, told Variety the industry will try to get to the bottom of what happened. “Our bosses and clients will expect us to go out and get Ed Norton and think that’s all it will take,” they said. “Andrea’s nomination is not normal. It’s a miracle. If it weren’t, many of us wouldn’t have jobs.”
On Tuesday, January 31, 2023, the Academy began its investigation and concluded that Riseborough could keep her nomination but they would be looking into social media campaign tactics used to bring her performance to the forefront. “Based on concerns that surfaced last week around the To Leslie awards campaign, the Academy began a review into the film’s campaigning tactics. The Academy has determined the activity in question does not rise to the level that the film’s nomination should be rescinded. However, we did discover social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern. These tactics are being addressed with the responsible parties directly,” Academy CEO Bill Kramer said in a statement, per Variety.
“The purpose of the Academy’s campaign regulations is to ensure a fair and ethical awards process — these are core values of the Academy. Given this review, it is apparent that components of the regulations must be clarified to help create a better framework for respectful, inclusive and unbiased campaigning. These changes will be made after this awards cycle and will be shared with our membership. The Academy strives to create an environment where votes are based solely on the artistic and technical merits of the eligible films and achievements,” he concluded.
Some celebrities have come out in defense of To Leslie and Riseborough’s nomination. Christina Ricci, for one, isn’t pleased it’s being reconsidered. In a since-deleted Instagram post, Deadline reported the Yellow Jackets star wrote: “Seems hilarious that the ‘surprise nomination’ (meaning tons of money wasn’t spent to position this actress) of a legitimately brilliant performance is being met with an investigation,” Ricci wrote. “So it’s only the films and actors that can afford the campaigns that deserve recognition? Feels elitist and exclusive and frankly very backward to me.”
But the campaign to score Riseborough a nomination is said to have “seemingly pushed out” two actresses of color from scoring the nomination: Viola Davis for The Woman King and Danielle Deadwyler for Till. Both actors “were backed by well-funded campaigns by Sony and MGM/Amazon, respectively, and were widely predicted to score honors, yet presumably do not have access to a network of powerful (and, let’s be honest, white) friends in the Academy to campaign for Oscars on their behalf,” Puck writer Matt Belloni observed.
StyleCaster has reached out to Narrative PR and Shelter PR for comment.
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