How Andrea Riseborough’s A-list Oscars campaign backfired spectacularly
Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress Oscar nomination for the tiny indie film To Leslie – which members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had never even heard of until a few weeks ago – will stand. The guerilla campaign behind it – which has dominated headlines for the past week and involved Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and a whole host of other A-listers – did not violate any official rules, an internal Academy review concluded late on Tuesday.
But just the fact that the question had to be asked has thrown some shady disrepute over what ought to have been a shining moment for one of our most talented actors. Instead, it’s now the awkward fuel of memes and future jokes by presenters. Host Jimmy Kimmel is bound to have a crack or two come Oscars night, on March 13.
What’s worse is that the general embarrassment of this exposure could hardly have happened to a more publicity-shy person. Chatting at the bar with the open, friendly Riseborough at a British film awards bash one year, I only needed to mention being a member of the press for her to seize up and run for the hills. My adjacent friend, who’s obsessed with her as an actress, didn’t even recognise her up close. This is Riseborough – an inveterate shape-shifter and, by her own confession, a “natural recluse”.
Thanks to an awful lot of enthusiasm drummed up for her performance – deservedly, in fact – by celebrities other than herself, Riseborough succeeded in Best Actress this year where a ferocious Viola Davis (The Woman King) and a stunning Danielle Deadwyler (Till), both black and both thought to be sure things, failed. This has racialised the controversy to a sharp degree. Accusations of cronyism have bedeviled her nomination, even though she admitted in January that she was “astounded” that it actually came off.
The Newcastle-born actress has never come near an Oscar before, despite an impressively diverse array of acclaimed roles, including in the horror films Mandy and Possessor, a top-drawer contribution to Black Mirror, and supporting work in the likes of Never Let Me Go, Made in Dagenham, The Death of Stalin and the 2015 Best Picture winner Birdman. Most recently, she was a gorgon-ish Mrs Wormwood in Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical.
She’s long been a low-key critics’ darling, but also an actors’ actor, with that magically chameleonic quality – we’ve never seen the same performance from her twice. On the whole, her body of work has not been loudly touted for such overdue recognition – least of all by her – though she did scoop some plaudits from several awards groups for her fascinating turn in James Marsh’s IRA thriller Shadow Dancer (2012).
On paper, To Leslie hardly looked like her ticket into the Oscar nominees’ club. The promising film debut of British TV veteran Michael Morris, this grungy redemption drama was shot for under $1 million, on a schedule of just 19 days, with a supporting cast featuring the dependable Allison Janney and the comedian/podcaster Marc Maron. Riseborough’s Leslie is a deadbeat, alcoholic single mom, who won a lottery payout of $190,000 six years before the movie begins, a windfall that’s long since been spent; we learn that this skittering wreck of a human abandoned her son (Owen Teague) in the process.
Despite some excellent reviews, especially for Riseborough herself, the film came and went with zero fanfare on its theatrical bow: released in a handful of cinemas, both here and in the US last autumn, it amassed a grand total of $27,322 at the box office before being shunted to streaming. (It’s available to rent in the UK on Amazon Prime.)
But then the call-to-arms began. Momentum, the film's distributor, had no money to pay for the kind of conventional ballyhoo that The Woman King (released by Sony) and Till (United Artists) were getting. Riseborough herself was never likely to mastermind her own campaign.
It took concerted efforts by those close to the film – especially Morris’s wife, the actress Mary McCormack, and talent manager Jason Weinberg – to stoke awareness for Riseborough’s performance, which had already been singled out for glowing praise by the handful of critics who’d seen it. Maron, her co-star, even devoted an episode of his own podcast to interviewing her about getting To Leslie made.
The first sign that this was paying off came on November 22, with her nomination for an Independent Spirit Award – a speciality event, where the entire red-carpet journey for films like To Leslie often begins and ends. Between that time and the Oscar nominations, Riseborough scored zero love from any other body – not the Golden Globes, not the Baftas, and not the Screen Actors’ Guild awards, usually seen as the most reliable bellwether for who’s making it all the way to Oscar night.
But it was in the final weeks of Oscar voting that the campaign went into overdrive. Members of the actors’ branch of the Academy throughout Los Angeles were lobbied into seeing the film, giving Riseborough a push on their social media channels, and hosting screenings for their contemporaries. The film’s A-list fan club grew and grew, netting the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Edward Norton, Charlize Theron, Mia Farrow, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Amy Adams, Sarah Paulson, Melanie Lynskey, Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt, Rosie O’Donnell, Howard Stern, and Jane Fonda.
Several used the same phrase – “a small film with a giant heart” – in praise of To Leslie. Kate Winslet went so far as to call Riseborough’s star turn “one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in my life”. Even Cate Blanchett, who was as comfortable a sure-fire nominee as anyone this year, singled out her fellow actress in one of her speeches.
These seemingly frenzied – and, yes, all-white – efforts to get Riseborough through the door attracted their share of derision online, with many Oscar-watchers scoffing that it was all too late, and she didn’t stand a chance. The same people flipped when her name was actually called out last Tuesday, and it was quickly apparent that she’d pipped both Davis and Deadwyler to the post.
If it were Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans) or Ana de Armas (Blonde) pushed out of the category instead – even just one of those two – it’s unlikely the backlash would have been so intense, immediate or in need of urgent Academy redress. Quick to show her displeasure was Chinonye Chukwu, the director of Till (a film about 1950s lynching victim Emmett Till), who posted this response on Instagram: “We live in a world and work in industries that are so aggressively committed to upholding whiteness and perpetuating an unabashed misogyny towards Black women.” The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, in abeyance for the last year or two, came back into play as these galling snubs were processed.
The Academy never reveals who came in sixth, and by how narrow a margin, but it could easily have been breathtakingly thin, by a matter of single-digit votes. The perception of white voters closing ranks is horrible optics for all involved, though, and the campaign orchestrated around Riseborough, no matter how impassioned or deserved, makes this strong-arming look more than usually determined. Even some of her advocates are said to be having buyers’ remorse.
Don’t miss ‘To Leslie’ a small film with a giant heart, directed by Michael Morris with an unforgettable performance by @andreariseborough. What a gem! Bravo @filmbymichaelmorris! and @AndreaRiseborough #ToLeslie 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽 pic.twitter.com/99P3dvsliI
— Mia Farrow🇺🇦 (@MiaFarrow) January 8, 2023
What’s more, and despite the findings of the Academy’s internal review this week, some rules, if not broken, were definitely stretched to within an inch of their lives. Academy regulations banned telephone lobbying years ago – the kind that, according to fable, scored a nomination for Sally Kirkland, when she called around town pestering people about her obscure 1987 drama Anna. It’s impossible to imagine that a few calls weren’t placed by To Leslie’s promoters to get people along to screenings. Per the organisation’s website, too, members of AMPAS are only allowed to be emailed once per week about any given film – a rule that Team Leslie are pretty much known to have breached with their elaborate recruitment drive.
One actress, Titanic’s Frances Fisher, stepped over a line by mentioning Riseborough’s competition in a social media post, referring to Davis, Deadwyler, Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh as “a lock” (50 per cent wrongly, it turns out) for the nominations. The implication was that Riseborough was the one needing first-choice votes to bump her into their company.
The official To Leslie Instagram account also published a quotation from the Chicago Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper, saying “As much as I admired Blanchett’s work in Tár, my favourite performance by a woman this year was delivered by the chameleonlike Andrea Riseborough.” Since this, again, comes close to breaking the dirty-rules ban on not mentioning rivals – or sails near the line, given that it’s a critic being quoted – they subsequently deleted the post.
Riseborough, let’s be clear, is sensational in To Leslie, pulling all her formidable technique under the character’s skin, and doing her utmost to elevate a film that’s good rather than great. It’s debatably career-best work, and as such deserved an above-board campaign, not a sneaky, last-minute, and now deeply contentious guerrilla one. It’s so unfortunate that she has managed to fall foul of a race row in this moment of industry recognition. “No matter what happens, her reputation is being tarnished,” one member of the Academy’s actors’ branch told Variety. (Riseborough herself, true to form, has so far stayed quiet.)
For the reputation of the Oscars at large, though, it’s also not great. There’s no way they could have rescinded her nomination without a spotlight being cast on all the campaigning methods that get used, year after year, and the various ways voters have their loyalties flattered and their attentions grabbed.
After all, it is really much more seemly for millions of dollars to be spent on FYC ads, gala screenings and publicity tours – to play the awards game the way the studios have always insisted on playing it? The mere fact that Riseborough’s promotion was so late and below-the-radar, and seemingly such a shoestring effort for all its A-list support, hardly makes it automatically more craven than the hefty bankrolling of rivals long in the running.
What the Academy least wants, for all its stipulated rules, is a deep dive into who’s actually following them properly, because the Oscars are a sport, and we all know foul play happens off camera. A semblance of propriety, at all costs, must be maintained. And that’s why, for the next To Leslie that comes along, effectively getting boosted over the fence to crash this party just became a more dangerous game.
Andrea Riseborough’s all-star fan club – and their praise for To Leslie
“It’s about the most fully committed, emotionally deep, physically harrowing performance I’ve seen in a while. Just raw & utterly devoid of performative BS.”
“This is the greatest female performance on screen I have ever seen in my life”
“Andrea should win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet.”
“It’s the kind of movie that stays in your mind. It stays in your bones. [It] even stays in your skin.”
“A small film with a giant heart”