Image Courtesy of Momentum Pictures

By Dean Robbins

Another awards season, another drama. This year, the subject of controversy is actress Andrea Riseborough and the film To Leslie. The film, which follows Riseborough as a single mother dealing with alcoholism, quietly premiered at the 2022 South by Southwest film festival before again quietly releasing in October. In theaters, prior to awards season, it made just over $25,000 (essentially nothing by even indie box office standards) and it still has fewer than 3,000 ratings on IMDb (as opposed to Avatar: The Way of Water’s 270,000). Despite its obscurity, Riseborough was nominated for Best Actress in a crowded race. How did this happen and why is it so controversial? 

Riseborough won thanks to a grassroots campaign by Academy members including fellow nominee Cate Blanchett, Edward Norton, Jennifer Aniston, and many more. They hosted screenings and posted about To Leslie online. The campaign worked and Riseborough received her first nomination. However, many people online and in the industry are angry. The Academy itself is conducting a review of the nominations to see if the campaign violated any rules. There are two critiques levied at the To Leslie campaign: first, it pushed a Black actress out of the race and second, it broke campaign rules.

The first criticism seems to be speculation. The story goes that Viola Davis would have gotten nominated for The Woman King or Danielle Deadwyler for Till if Riseborough had not been nominated. Unless you have the official voting details, this is speculation. This concern harkens back to the infamous #OscarsSoWhite debate in 2015 and 2016. One anonymous Academy member speaking to Variety said that Riseborough’s nomination will not be rescinded “because ‘white is always right’ [for the Academy]” and that Davis would have been kicked out of the Academy for doing the same thing. That seems a bit extreme. Even if it is true, these are structural and cultural issues that Riseborough and her PR team should not be scapegoats for. While there may be genuine problems with nomination representation, it is not fair to take it out on Andrea Riseborough or a small indie film like To Leslie

The second criticism has more evidence. One of the campaign posts from the film’s official Instagram account quoted an article by Richard Roeper that praised Riseborough and also mentioned Blanchett. The Academy does not allow the naming of other contenders in award campaigns. If Riseborough does get disqualified, this will be why. Some are pointing to tweets by celebrity allies like Frances Fisher which also mentioned other contenders. However, it seems unfair to extend the campaign rules to individuals not expressly part of the campaign team. If the nomination is rescinded, it would likely be catastrophic for Riseborough’s career. There is no reason to punish her like that, especially when most people who have seen the film agree she deserves the nom.

Only two nominations have been rescinded by the Academy in the last fifty years. In 2014, composer Bruce Broughton had his nomination for Best Song revoked after it was discovered he used his former position on an Academy board to campaign. In 2017, sound engineer Greg P. Russell was disqualified from Best Sound Mixing because he had directly called members of the Sound Branch to campaign. Both of these instances were far more egregious than the Riseborough situation. Similar possible violations have reportedly happened and the Academy has let them slide. As another anonymous Academy member told Variety, “So, no, they shouldn’t take her nomination away. If that happens, a lot more will have to be taken away.”  

As the article title implies, I am very much in the camp of keeping Riseborough’s nomination. In terms of the criticism around racial representation, if Riseborough was disqualified, her spot would not be replaced. There would be only four nominees. Additionally, much of the fury about the issue seems to be aimed at the idea of a grassroots campaign for a nomination. A campaign like this has not been successful in a long time and it could change the way films market themselves in awards season. 

However, I do not see how grassroots campaigns could be worse or even equal to the multi-million dollar major studio campaigns that send fancy merch to Academy members and buy expensive billboards in Hollywood. Much of the criticism smells of Goliath feeling threatened by David. We should be celebrating the triumph of an indie film and not advocating for major studios to have an even bigger monopoly. Nominate Andrea Riseborough. 

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