By Laurence Lerman / New York City
It’s not as out-there as actor Will Smith’s infamous on-stage slap of host and comedian Chris Rock at last year’s Academy Awards—not even in the ballpark, really. But the week following the talented Andrea Riseborough’s nomination for Best Actress for her performance in last year’s little-seen independent drama To Leslie is already in the running to be one of the biggest controversies of this year’s Oscars.
In the wake of Riseborough being acknowledged for a film that earned only $27,000 during its barely-there limited release on October 7 (it became available to stream on-demand on October 22), To Leslie has emerged from near-obscurity to a public that’s now curious about a film that it’s probably never heard of.
Helmed by first-time feature director Michael Morris (whose résumé includes the prestigious television series Better Call Saul and For All Mankind) and written by Ryan Bianco, To Leslie stars Riseborough as the titular West Texas working class mother who wins the lottery, only to spiral into alcoholism and impoverishment. Six years later, after she’s kicked out of the motel where she is living, Leslie reconnects with her with her estranged 19-year-old son and former friends as she attempts to get sober and face her demons.
To Leslie, which also featuring Marc Maron, Allison Janney and Stephen Root in its cast, certainly reads like the kind of film that Academy Award voters would get behind: a tough, contemporary story about a disenfranchised character who takes a shot at redemption, led by a central performance that was lauded by the critics after viewing it at a screening or on a streaming platform. (The odds are they didn’t see this $27,000 grosser in the theaters!)
An explosion of criticism hit social media platform on the morning of January 24 in the hours following the announcement of the nominations, at first focusing on the fact that Riseborough scored a nomination rather than actresses Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler. The stars of the commercially and critically well-received The Woman King and Till, respectively, the two Black actresses were considered likely to garner nominations, which never happened. The belief was that the British-born, white Riseborough took the other two talented actresses’ slots.
Members of the Hollywood extended community and awards watchers also raised questions about whether rules may have been broken with To Leslie’s Oscar campaigns, which appear to have actively lobbied Academy members to vote for the film.
In the months prior to the announcement of the nominations on January 24, dozens of Hollywood’s hottest names announced how enthralled they were with Riseborough's performance, or posted comments supporting Riseborough and her clearly long-shot bid for a Best Actress nod for her work.
Among Riseborough’s many champions (and possibly lobbyers) were Edward Norton, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Zooey Deschanel, Joe Mantegna, Jennifer Aniston, Debra Winger and even Howard Stern, who mentioned To Leslie on his Sirius radio broadcast and is known to be very friendly with director Morris’s wife, actress Mary McCormack.
The praise just kept on coming: Allen Cumming commented on Riseborough’s “insanely raw and beautiful performance.” Kate Winslet called Riseborough’s work “the greatest female performance on screen I have ever seen in my life.” Gwyneth Paltrow described the movie as a “masterpiece of a film.” And Charlize Theron even hosted a screening of To Leslie at the Creative Artist Agency offices in Burbank in early November, the first of a handful of screenings held by other celebs.
So loud was the outcry after the nominations were announced that the governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deliberated on the subject at a previously scheduled meeting on Tuesday, January 31.
Following the meeting that day, the Academy announced that it would not rescind Riseborough’s nomination for Best Actress, following a brief investigation into whether an Oscar campaign on her behalf violated the organization’s rules.
“The academy has determined the activity in question does not rise to the level that the film’s nomination should be rescinded,” Academy CEO Bill Kramer said in a statement. “However, we did discover social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern. These tactics are being addressed with the responsible parties directly.”
So what exactly were the social media and campaigning tactics that were called into question?
On January 31, industry trade paper Variety reported that one of the strongest potential campaigning violations came in the form of a now-deleted Instagram post from the To Leslie account which quoted an excerpt from critic Richard Roeper’s Top Ten Films of the 2022 list in the Chicago Sun Times:
“As much as I admire Blanchett’s work in Tár, my favorite performance be 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. With an insightful script by Ryan Binaco and fine supporting work by Marc Maron, Andre Royo, Allison Janney and Stephen Root, To Leslie ranks with Leaving Las Vegas and Crazy Heart as modern-day classics about the ravages of alcoholism.”
According to Variety, this post may have been regarded as a direct violation of the Academy’s campaign rules regarding references to other nominees where the rule states “any tactic that singles out ‘the competition’ by name or titles is expressly forbidden.”
While the Instagram post quotes a critic and doesn’t directly state the name of a competitor, that the post comes from the film’s official Instagram account could still be an issue.
Eyebrows were also raised by a social media post by the actress Frances Fisher on January 14 stating that Academy members should vote for Riseborough since “Viola, Michelle, Danielle & Cate are a lock for their outstanding work.” She was referring, of course, to Viola Davis, Michelle Yeoh, Danielle Deadwyler and Cate Blanchett, and though the story ending happily for Michelle and Cate, that’s not the case for Viola and Danielle.
Looking at the weeklong skirmish now, a few days after it has basically ended, one comes away with the feeling that the hullabaloo over an actor not earning a nomination for his or her in an industry award competition might be small potatoes compared to the near-guarantee that the story will receive the kind of press that could only generate more business for the film. This is certainly the case for To Leslie and Ms. Riseborough, who never received this kind of attention in a previous decade of fine performances in projects like Oblivion with Tom Cruise (2013), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), The Death of Stalin (2017), Mandy (2018) and Possessor (2020).
And the same could also be said about The Woman King and Till, which performed respectably at the box office, but were far from being runaway hits. So maybe the campaign and nomination scandal will attract some additional eyeballs to those two films as well.
'Cause as many an Oscar winner who's taken the stage and offered an acceptance speech has said, it's all about the work.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.