If you haven’t been following the biggest Oscar drama of the season (but if you’re here, you must be) then you know that one of the wildest and most audacious campaigns in years paid off when the very little-seen independent film To Leslie, which premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival to rave reviews, suddenly became the cause célèbre for dozens of A-listers who championed the versatile independent film actress Andrea Riseborough all the way to a surprising (or not so surprising) Oscar nomination for Best Actress on January 24.
From her co-star Allison Janney to social media shy Edward Norton to Cate Blanchett in her own Critics’ Choice Best Actress-winning speech, the support became so loud and insistent and the social posts so unavoidable that the Academy itself took note, so much so that it warranted an internal investigation and a meeting today of the Academy’s Board of Governors. While the Academy’s initial comments last week did not highlight To Leslie directly, the result of the meeting today, as follows below, did.
“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 The Academy has determined the activity in question does not rise to the level that the film’s nomination should be rescinded.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,” new Academy CEO Bill Kramer said in a statement.
“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.
That is good news for Riseborough, whose response to the campaign and nomination itself was affable and one of shock but also of reverence, and who has largely remained on the sidelines of the peripheral storm not of her making but that she’s suddenly in the eye of.
“I’m astounded,” Riseborough told Deadline in reaction to her nomination.
“It’s such an unexpected ray of light. 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,” she continued.
Riseborough told The New York Times, “The thing that feels most exciting is being acknowledged by your community. It’s a marker by which we measure ourselves in so many ways — by those we aspire to be like, or those we admire. So it’s huge.”
The all-star campaign by Oscar-winning actors and screen veterans paid off, she got in, but at what cost? The ‘paid off’ is a big part of this equation, who actually paid for her campaign and e-blasts to the Academy and all of the other “grassroots” elements that bore fruit? By most estimations, actress Frances Fisher and actress Mary McCormack (wife of To Leslie director Mark Morris) – and maybe PR firms Shelter and Narrative – might have violated Academy campaign rules and did so in a way that was too obvious for AMPAS, exposing the cracks in campaign coercion and rule-breaking that have been one of many of Hollywood’s unspoken secrets for nearly 100 years. Extreme campaigning for the Oscars isn’t a new thing; from the legendary personal grassroots campaigns by Sally Kirkland and Diane Ladd (both of whom earned nominations) to the more diabolical history of the Harvey Weinstein era having the entire city under his thumb, the rules of campaigning have changed dramatically over the years (at least on paper) and they’ll change again as a result of this, if ever so slightly.
One of the initial, and unavoidable, takeaways from Riseborough’s nomination was not just her inclusion for her fantastic performance but the exclusion of Viola Davis in The Woman King and Danielle Deadwyler in Till. Both actresses had been in several pundit predictions with winner and four-time nominee Davis having secured Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, SAG and BAFTA nominations leading up to Oscar voting. Deadwyler, not an unknown but new the awards race, earned all but a Globe nomination and won the Gotham Award over some of her Oscar-nominated competition. The scrutiny that the Academy has been under, not just since the #OscarsSoWhite reckoning in 2015 that spurred the org to double its membership size, but its lack of acknowledgement of Black women in Best Actress (Halle Berry is still the only Black winner ever in 95 years and that was 21 years ago) put this category, this campaign, under a microscope. But to be clear, as Robert Daniels pointed out in his piece in the L.A. Times last week, it’s the entire eco-system of the awards season, not Riseborough herself or even her supporters, that are to blame. After all, Riseborough is just one person, there are four other nominees here. But it does shine a light on how some Hollywood stars, white stars, wield their perceived power, their voice and their activism within their own industry, which even as a microcosm of the world feels like a true-to-life example. You might post a black box on your Instagram but in the voting booth, in secret, you’re keeping the status quo and your own existence in it alive and well.
In the aftermath of this troubled crusade, there’s still just over a month until Academy voters get to submit their ballots for this year’s Oscars. But while getting the nomination was a big obstacle, can Riseborough beats the odds once again and win? Well, it’s a whole new battle. Getting the nomination required far less support (218 number one votes at the most and only if the entire acting branch casts a ballot) and interestingly, it’s been all quiet on the western coast from her supporters who got her here. But now the entire body of nearly 10,000 members will have their say. How much will they care about the controversy? Will it drive votes towards her or away from her (or Blanchett or Michelle Williams or Ana de Armas, for that matter) to support someone like Michelle Yeoh (which would be a history-making win for an Asian performer) as a response to the Davis and Deadwyler snubs? For most voters, that level of strategy isn’t a part of their decision making. Passion still tends to drive most voters, along with the pats on the back they enjoy receiving after bestowing crumbs to non-traditional winners, but for now the Best Actress race remains more or less open. There will be a second round of campaigning, of advocacy, if probably more muted and modulated after today. More dinners and awards shows, screenings and Q&As and choices will be made. Based solely on the artistic and technical merits of the eligible films and achievements, of course.
Oscar nomination voting begins on March 2 and goes through March 7. Before that, BAFTA (February 19) and SAG (February 26) will have their say with the 95th Academy Awards taking place on March 12.