The Oscars’ Andrea Riseborough Controversy, Thoroughly Explained

The seismic Will Smith slap? The jaw-dropping “La La Land”-“Moonlight” mix-up? You can have ’em. I like my Oscar controversies like I like my “Curb Your Enthusiasm” plot lines: small, petty and a little bit deranged.

That’s why I’ve been gripped by all the new developments surrounding Andrea Riseborough, who managed a surprise best-actress nomination last month that quickly turned from boon to boondoggle. It’s the story everyone in Hollywood is talking about, though you’d be forgiven for wondering what exactly has gone down or why any of it matters. With that in mind, let’s see if I can find the answers to your questions:

Who is Andrea Riseborough?

The 41-year-old Brit is a real actor’s actor, the sort of committed thespian who is well-respected by her peers but has mostly flown under the pop-cultural radar. Without even clocking that it was the same actress, you might have seen Riseborough playing Nicolas Cage’s wife in the hallucinogenic “Mandy”; seducing Emma Stone in “Battle of the Sexes”; covering up an accidental death in an episode of “Black Mirror”; or exploring a ruined Earth with Tom Cruise in “Oblivion.”

Because Riseborough has played such a wide variety of roles without developing a tangible star persona, she is often described as a “chameleon” or even “unrecognizable,” which is Hollywood-speak for an actress who doesn’t wear eye makeup. Still, the woman is damn castable: She appeared in four movies last year alone, including “To Leslie,” the tiny indie at the heart of this Oscar controversy.

Spot the chameleonic Riseborough: Clockwise from top left, in “Oblivion,” “Mandy,” “Black Mirror” and “Battle of the Sexes.”

What is “To Leslie”?

Directed by Michael Morris, “To Leslie” stars Riseborough as the title character, a hard-drinking West Texan who won the lottery years ago but has blown through her money and torpedoed her relationships in the time since. As her frustrated family and friends wonder what to do with the belligerent Leslie, big questions are bandied about: Is it better to let an addict hit rock bottom or to extend a helping hand? Does there ever come a time when severing family ties should be done for your own good? And hey, is that Stephen Root, the stapler nerd from “Office Space,” playing a leather-daddy biker? (Alongside a glowering Allison Janney, no less!)

The film debuted at South by Southwest last March alongside a much more high-profile Oscar contender, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and though “To Leslie” received mostly positive reviews, it earned less than $30,000 during its October release. In a year when many specialty films struggled to find an audience in theaters, that box office total was still so low that Riseborough’s co-star, the podcaster Marc Maron, accused the “To Leslie” distributor, Momentum Pictures, of “gross incompetence” on Twitter, then blasted the studio for failing to submit the film for awards consideration by most industry guilds. That sort of negligence might make people want to take matters into their own hands … but we’ll get to that.

How is Riseborough’s performance?

Though Leslie is a scrappy slip of a person, Riseborough makes a lot of big choices while playing her. It’s a pugnacious, eccentric performance, and though I’m an on-the-record fan of maximalist acting, I should let you know that if this were measured on a scale of 1 (utter naturalism) to 10 (Kristen Wiig as Liza Minnelli trying to turn off a lamp), Riseborough would be pulling an awfully high number.

In other words, it’s the sort of big, actressy transformation that awards voters flock to like catnip, and if someone like Charlize Theron or Michelle Williams had de-glammed to play Leslie, there likely would have been Oscar buzz from the beginning. But without box office success or a big name, Riseborough appeared to be a non-starter.

What was unusual about her Oscar campaign?

A typical Oscar race plays out like a couture-clad season of “Squid Game,” where a large number of hopefuls are winnowed down to a surviving few. To stay in the conversation until the very end, it helps to win critics awards and earn nominations at televised awards shows, and Riseborough lagged on both counts: She hadn’t mustered much more than an Independent Spirit Award nomination and had no deep-pocketed distributor ready to buy For Your Consideration ads on her behalf. By most pundits’ estimation, she was not a serious contender, nor even an on-the-bubble dark horse.

Interviews With the Oscar Nominees

  • Kerry Condon: An ardent animal lover, the supporting actress Oscar nominee for “The Banshees of Inisherin” said that she channeled grief from her dog’s death into her performance.
  • Michelle Yeoh: The “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star, nominated for best actress, said she was “bursting with joy” but “a little sad” that previous Asian actresses hadn’t been recognized.
  • Angela Bassett: The actress nearly missed the announcement because of troubles with her TV. She tuned in just in time to find out that she was nominated for her supporting role in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
  • Austin Butler: In discussing his best actor nomination, the “Elvis” star said that he wished Lisa Marie Presley, who died on Jan. 12, had been able to celebrate the moment with him.

But during the second week of January, just days before voting for the Oscar nominations began, a cadre of movie stars suddenly took to social media on Riseborough’s behalf. Edward Norton was the first big booster, telling his two million Twitter followers that Riseborough gave “the most fully committed, emotionally deep … physically harrowing performance I’ve seen in a while.” The next day, Gwyneth Paltrow announced on Instagram that “Andrea should win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet.”

As the week wore on, at least two dozen more celebrities climbed aboard the Riseborough Railroad — from A-listers like Amy Adams, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Aniston to random stowaways like Jenny McCarthy and Tan France — and award watchers started to wonder what the hell was going on. The answer that emerged is that a late-breaking campaign had been waged by Riseborough’s manager, Jason Weinberg, and the actress Mary McCormack, who is married to Morris, the “To Leslie” director, to get the film in front of as many of their famous industry friends as possible.

Riseborough, opposite Owen Teague in “To Leslie,” wasn’t even a dark-horse contender until mid-January. Credit…Momentum Pictures

“The movie cannot afford any FYC ads, so this letter and invitation will have to do instead!” McCormack wrote in one of her mass emails, which were published by Vanity Fair. In a later missive, she said movies like “To Leslie” were an endangered species in need of support, writing, “I worry that unless we all support small independent filmmaking, it’ll just get eaten up by Marvel movies and go away forever.”

With those entreaties, McCormack, Weinberg and Riseborough assembled a starry battalion of boosters that eventually included even her best actress competitor Cate Blanchett, who gave Riseborough a shout-out during her televised acceptance speech at the Critics Choice Awards. (This begs the question: Would Lydia Tár have been Team Riseborough? I don’t think the fictional conductor could ever bring herself to endorse a movie about West Texas — they eat too much barbecue there — though I could imagine a scene where she receives McCormack’s mass email, grimaces and then orders an underling to delete it.)

Why were people so upset?

This was hardly the first time that a contender had taken Oscar promotion into her own hands: Who can forget Melissa Leo’s iconic “Consider” ad campaign, in which the eventual Oscar winner donned furs and posed among pillars like a Blackglama model prowling Hearst Castle? But Riseborough’s team bypassed the FYC-ad industrial complex entirely, opting to wage a weeklong war powered mostly by word of mouth instead of an expensive, multi-month campaign that would have involved round tables, parties, red-carpet appearances, film-festival tributes and endless press hits.

It was an unprecedented awards-season gambit, and it worked: When the presenter Riz Ahmed read Riseborough’s name out loud during the Jan. 24 announcement of the Oscar nominations, the journalists in attendance gasped, giggled and oohed like a scandalized sitcom audience. They knew that Riseborough had just pulled off something crazy, and it didn’t take long before rival awards strategists began working the phones, suggesting that her grass-roots campaign may have run afoul of Oscar rules.

And as the Riseborough surge sunk in, her surprise nomination was weighed against the snubs of the “Woman King” star Viola Davis and the “Till” lead Danielle Deadwyler: If those two Black actresses had been nominated alongside the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star Michelle Yeoh, as many pundits were expecting, it would have been the first time in Oscar history that the best actress race featured a majority of women of color.

Viola Davis’s performance in “The Woman King” was snubbed in the nominations.Credit…Sony Pictures, via Associated Press

In an essay for The Hollywood Reporter published Tuesday, the “Woman King” director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, did not mention Riseborough by name but alluded to the “social capital” that had helped propel her to a nomination. “Black women in this industry, we don’t have that power,” Prince-Bythewood wrote. “There is no groundswell from privileged people with enormous social capital to get behind Black women. There never has been.”

Did the campaign break any rules?

In a statement released on Jan. 27, the academy announced it would review the campaign procedures of the year’s nominees to make sure none of its guidelines were violated. Though Riseborough and “To Leslie” weren’t mentioned specifically, a reference to grass-roots campaigns in the statement all but confirmed that her nomination was the subject of investigation.

Which aspects of the campaign might have earned scrutiny? Online sleuths noticed that a slew of copy-paste phrases — including the description of “To Leslie” as “a small film with a giant heart” — had appeared in social-media posts from the unlikely likes of Mia Farrow, Meredith Vieira and Joe Mantegna. And there was an eyebrow-raising Instagram post from the actress Frances Fisher, soon to be seen tightening Kate Winslet’s corset in the “Titanic” rerelease, who encouraged voters to select Riseborough because “Viola, Michelle, Danielle & Cate are a lock,” though it’s generally forbidden to mention specific competitors in that way.

As the controversy began to heat up, wild rumors flew that Riseborough’s nomination could be rescinded. Puck News even wondered, “Was the Andrea Riseborough Oscar Campaign Illegal?” — a headline so breathless that you’d half-expect someone like Paltrow to be hauled before The Hague as an accomplice. (Hey, if you can’t lock someone up for selling jade vagina eggs, maybe they could be arrested for the lesser charge of Oscar meddling. Isn’t that how they got Al Capone?)

Have Oscar nominations ever been rescinded before?

Rarely, but the last two times it happened, the cause was improper campaigning. In 2014, the academy rescinded Bruce Broughton’s extremely “huh?” original-song nomination from the obscure faith-based film “Alone Yet Not Alone” because he’d leaned on his influence as a former academy governor when soliciting consideration. And in 2017, the academy yanked the nomination for the “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” sound mixer Greg P. Russell because he had engaged in “telephone lobbying.”

It was tempting, then, to wonder if a Riseborough rebuke might change the entire makeup of the best actress race: After all, the Emmys rescinded Peter MacNicol’s 2016 nomination for guest actor in a comedy after learning he had appeared in too many “Veep” episodes to qualify, and then his replacement, the “Girls” guest star Peter Scolari, actually went on to win in the category. But even if the academy had seen fit to give Riseborough the hook, there would be no one to take her place. According to the academy’s bylaws, the race would simply be reduced to the remaining four nominees.

So what happens now?

On the last day of January, the academy’s chief executive, Bill Kramer, released another statement about the investigation, and though this statement did mention the “To Leslie” awards campaign by name, it concluded that Riseborough’s nomination would not be rescinded. “However, we did discover social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern,” Kramer wrote. “These tactics are being addressed with the responsible parties directly.”

It’s unclear who those parties are: The academy didn’t name names, Riseborough hasn’t given an interview since the morning of the nominations, and Fisher’s Instagram post was still up last time I checked. But even if the terms of the scolding are unclear, the far-reaching effects of Riseborough’s curveball campaign have the potential to change the way we think of awards season.

For one, a new spotlight has been put on the academy’s vaunted diversity efforts: Is it enough to simply recruit more members of color when so many of the voters remain obstinate, older white people who, for example, told Prince-Bythewood that they’d had no interest in seeing her movie? Of the four acting categories, the best-actress race has proved most hostile to recognizing people of color, and that won’t change until voters recognize the biases they hold when determining whose stories matter.

But it also means that next season, just when we think the amount of viable Oscar contenders has shrunk to almost five, a surprise could come from nowhere that completely changes the race. Riseborough pioneered a risky new tactic that other would-be contenders could use to slingshot themselves back into viability. All they’ll need is patience — well, and an improbably starry Rolodex that hopefully has little overlap with Riseborough’s. After all, if Winslet has already called Riseborough “the greatest female performance onscreen I have ever seen in my life,” will we believe her when she says the same thing next year about M3gan?

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