The industry whisper-stream registered a seismic shockwave at the Oscar nominations last week when Andrea Riseborough was nominated as Best Actress for her role in a tiny indie called To Leslie—which almost nobody saw. Nobody, perhaps, aside from her friends in that branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which consists of about 1,500 thespians who select the nominees in the acting categories before the Academy’s entire voting class (roughly 9,500 people) goes on to pick the winners.
To Leslie, the story of an alcoholic single mother in Texas, made just $27,000—about a tenth of the amount normally spent on a film’s promotion and publicity alone. That’s why there were gasps of surprise when Riseborough’s name was called. Four spots on the Best Actress list went to the heavily-predicted Michelle Yeoh, Michelle Williams, Cate Blanchett and Ana de Armas—though de Armas was not a sure thing—while the fifth nom was all but going to go to Danielle Deadwyler in Till, or Viola Davis in The Woman King, or Olivia Colman in Empire of Light. Their movies had much bigger budgets—and these actresses had much better-funded campaigns behind them.
An Oscar nom for less known (though no less praised) actresses like Riseborough and Deadwyler is an almost certain career accelerator, a fast track to leading roles in bigger films.
Imagine Riseborough’s surprise hearing her name called. Now, imagine even more surprise when the Hollywood trades started to report at the end of the week that the Academy is going to investigate whether Riseborough and her supporters broke Academy rules with a high-octane, celebrity-fueled Oscar campaign. The Academy’s rules on what you can and cannot do during nomination voting (and award voting) are stringent, to say the least. If one’s found breaching them, their nomination will be rescinded. That’s pretty hardcore. And not a little humiliating.
Only nine Oscar nominations have been challenged or investigated in the history of the Academy Awards. And while nominations, and even Oscars themselves, have been taken back, it has never happened in the acting branch. In 2004, Shoreh Aghdashloo, nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2003’s House of Sand and Fog, nearly lost her nom when an ad in Variety used excerpts from critics in print and TV ads saying Renee Zellwegger would likely win that year for Cold Mountain, but that Ashdashloo “should win.” The Academy called that “an attack ad”—something former Miramax head Harvey Weinstein is widely credited with creating back in the 1990’s. By 2002, the Academy came out with rules barring attack ads of any kind. So the top team at Dreamworks, the studio behind House of Sand and Fog, apologized profoundly, stating: “We made a very bad and ill-advised mistake.”
The Academy let Aghdashloo’s nomination stand in the end, and she went on the lose to Zellwegger anyway.
Riseborough’s Oscar campaign used a number of A-list celebrities—including Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Edward Norton—to champion the performance, either at voter screenings or on social media. Cate Blanchett even referenced Riseborough in her speech when she took home the Critic’s Choice Award.
Actress Frances Fisher posted on Instagram a week before the nominations that Riseborough could grab the nom if 218 actors in their branch named her in first position for Best Actress. Which is all well and good. All these celebs lauding Riseborough’s acting in To Leslie is just fine, but Fisher named the other likely nominated actresses in her post, which is considered against the rules.
Even worse, the official To Leslie Instagram page quoted Chicago Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper’s article on the ten top films of 2022, in which he stated, “As much as I admired Blanchett’s work in ‘Tár,’ my favorite performance by a woman this year was delivered by the chameleonlike Andrea Riseborough in director Michael Morris’ searing drama about a mom at the final crossroads in her life after she’s lost everything due to her drinking.”
The Academy Board of Governors will meet on Tuesday to debate whether Riseborough’s nomination should be rescinded. That won’t help any of those other overlooked candidates, however. If Riseborough’s nom is canceled, there will be only four Best Actress nominees.
If this Academy sleuthing strikes you as a bit gross following decades of heavily-moneyed Oscar campaigns by powerhouse studios, at least one person in Hollywood voiced similar objections—but she quickly withdrew them.
In a since-deleted Instagram post, Christina Ricci blasted the system, writing,”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. 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.”
None of the negative campaigning appears to have come from Riseborough herself, and it is perhaps impossible to know if she encouraged any of it. One thing’s for sure: when To Leslie hits the streamers, it will likely get a lot more eyeballs.