Andrea Riseborough Oscars Controversy Prompts Academy Campaign Review
Mar 28, 2023
It looked as though the 2023 Oscar season would be the first in over a decade without some sort of scandal in its midst. After the events of the past week, that does not appear to be the case. The “surprise” nomination of Andrea Riseborough in the Best Actress category has prompted concern over what was sold as a “grassroots” campaign to the media and general public.
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In a statement released today, The Academy noted:
“It is the Academy’s goal to endure that the Awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner and we are committed to ensuring an inclusive awards process.
We are conducting a review of the campaign procedures around this year’s nominees to ensure that no guidelines were violated, and to inform us whether changes to guidelines may be needed in a new era of social media and digital communication.
We have confidence in the integrity of our nomination and voting procedures, and support genuine grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances.”
Despite numerous media breaks for weeks on end, the general public and numerous Academy members were shocked when Riseborough made the Best Actress field for her performance in the independent release, “To Leslie.” This wasn’t a case of a mediocre performance crashing the race, however. “To Leslie” debuted at the 2022 SXSW film festival to rave reviews and, at publication, has a stellar 84 grade on Metacritic (landing a Metacritic “Must See” tag) and a 98% approval on Rotten Tomatoes from 58 votes (a significant number of critics). Riseborough also earned a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for her performance and the movie landed on NBR’s Top Ten Independent Films of the year list. What “To Leslie” didn’t have was an awards distributor familiar to Oscar voters (in this case Momentum Pictures) or overall year-end critical support.
When Riseborough was announced, she was seen as the nomination that denied “The Woman King’s” Viola Davis and “Till’s” Danielle Deadwyler a nod. Both of those women earned SAG Awards and BAFTA Award nominations among many other year-end accolades (the British-born Riseborough didn’t even make the BAFTA longlist cut). Complicating matters was the fact Ana de Armas earned a nomination for her performance in the polarizing biopic “Blonde.” Even that film’s distributor, Netflix, thought de Armas’ candidacy was on the cusp, at best.
All Oscar nominees have the benefit of some sort of campaign that can take all sorts of shapes and sizes. This portion of The Playlist is called Awards Campaign for that specific reason. However, the Riseborough campaign was touted as one spearheaded and propelled by her friends and fans in The Academy to support her performance. Especially considering the fact Momentum Pictures had no budget to mount a proper one. The film earned just $27,322 at the box office but even ancillary revenue (you can find it available to screen on a number of domestic and international carriers) wouldn’t be enough to justify the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for even the P.R. aspect of an Oscar campaign. Instead, a groundswell of AMPAS members such as Sarah Paulson, Patricia Clarkson, Debra Winger, Ed Harris, Amy Ryan, Helen Hunt, Pedro Pascal, Juliette Lewis, Anne Archer, Mary Louise Parker, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Minnie Driver, Ellen Barkin, Carla Gugino, Alan Cumming, Jennifer Garner, Demián Bichir, Marlo Thomas and Frances Fisher all lent their names to her campaign. Charlize Theron, Sarah Paulson, Jennifer Aniston, Edward Norton, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Courteney Cox all hosted screenings for “To Leslie” as well. In fact, this pundit wrote about Riseborough’s support in a column on Jan. 9 and then predicted she would earn a nomination on Jan. 20. And there is absolutely nothing inherently forbidden about such campaigning in The Academy bylaws. But there are rules and it appears one member might have crossed the line.
Fisher, best known for her performance in “Titanic” and a mainstay at award-season events for decades, posted multiple times on Instagram encouraging fellow acting branch members to see the movie, but one, in particular, ranked the top contenders in the field and noted, “To ensure Andrea gets a nomination I’m turning the list upside down and putting her in 1st position.” The Academy could determine Francis broken Oscar campaign rule 11, “References to Other Nominees,” in said post. In theory, Fisher may earn a one-year suspension as a first-time offender if its determined her posts broke that specific rule.
There is also grumbling from studios and consultants that this was not the grassroots campaign it was sold as. While this effort was seemingly begun by actress Mary McCormack, the wife of “To Leslie” director Michael Morris and not an AMPAS member in her own right, someone was paying for it. The aforementioned screenings cost $5,000 at a minimum for theater rentals (a regular price is around $15-20,000) and prominent P.R. firms Narrative and Shelter PR worked on the campaign for at least a month (they aren’t cheap). The, um, narrative that it was Academy members telling each other to watch the film (a genuine phenomenon that may have reached its peak during the stay-at-home pandemic) was only partially true.
Whatever the intention of AMPAS Acting branch voters, the perception from some members is that a slew of powerful white women went overboard campaigning for another white woman over the detriment of two celebrated performances from black actresses, one of whom was playing Emmett Till’s mother for Christ’s sake. Because so much of Riseborough’s rise was in Los Angeles, perhaps many of her competitors believed she could not overcome branch voters in the parts of the world. And, The Academy has so many campaign rules in place that these sorts of “come from behind” results rarely happen anymore. But, in this case, it did.
Members of the media suggesting Riseborough will have her nomination rescinded do not know what they speak of. Fischer getting a slap on the wrist and clarification of rules is the more likely outcome. Whether this will taint the experience for Riseborough and her fellow nominees remains to be seen.
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