Can we have ONE Oscar season without controversy? Just ONE! I am asking so little! I just want pageantry and glamor, dammit, and I keep having to talk about slaps and voting rules! This year’s fresh hell is the surprise Best Actress nomination of British actor Andrea Riseborough for her performance in To Leslie. I am not as high on that film and that performance as others—I prefer Riseborough’s gender-bending work in Please Baby Please—but Riseborough is a good actor and is the type to get nominated for something, eventually. And it turned out her first nomination came this year, on the back of a film few people have seen. Compounded with a lack of precursor nominations—Riseborough has been a non-entity on the awards circuit up to this point—and the exclusion of Black actors Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler, who were more prevalent in the run up to nominations, Riseborough’s inclusion left many people scratching their heads.
And then came news on Friday that the Academy is “investigating” the nomination, which might have violated Academy rules regarding lobbying for nominations/votes. This comes from Matthew Belloni’s Puck newsletter:
“But the shock nom has created a brewing sh-tstorm within the Academy because Riseborough seemingly pushed out Viola Davis (The Woman King) and Danielle Deadwyler (Till), two actresses of color that were backed by well-funded campaigns by Sony and MGM/Amazon, respectively, and were widely predicted to score honors, yet presumably do not have access to a network of powerful (and, let’s be honest, white) friends in the Academy to campaign for Oscars on their behalf. To some, it was the worst kind of racially-tinged cronyism, where the connections outshined the work.”
The grassroots campaign for Riseborough was noticeable as many (white) celebrities started posting on their socials about the film, and then Cate Blanchett shouted out Riseborough from the stage when she won her Critics Choice Award. The social media posts were especially fishy, because many of them featured such similar wording it read like copypaste, like everyone was regurgitating language sent to them by, oh, a publicist, for instance. But that’s not really what’s under investigation; what the Academy is looking into, specifically, is if To Leslie producer Mary McCormack (best known for acting in The West Wing and In Plain Sight) and her husband, Michael Morris, who directed To Leslie, may have violated the “no direct lobbying” clause in the Academy’s rules. Actor Frances Fisher is also under fire for a now-deleted Instagram post that name-checked film critic Richard Roeper’s support of the film, albeit in a misleading way, while tagging specific members of the Academy’s acting branch in the post.
It's the “direct lobbying” part that is getting everyone in trouble. Yes, awards season is rife with campaigning, everyone spends way too much money, and a film like To Leslie, with a tiny budget and miniscule box office does not have the same resources as a film backed by a major studio. To Leslie did what other under-resourced films have done in the past, and ran a campaign based on Riseborough’s friends and admirers in the industry hosting “for your consideration” events like screenings and Q&As, which actors including Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, and Charlize Theron, among others, did. Awards maven Scott Feinberg has an excellent breakdown of the efforts on behalf of Riseborough here.
This is not about which performances we like best and what we think certain people deserve, it’s about the politics and systems in place that factor into Oscar nominations.
The problem is when someone like Frances Fisher then tags specific individuals in a post imploring people to vote for Riseborough (while emphasizing how few votes it actually takes to get nominated). Or, in McCormack’s case, apparently emailing people directly. And allegedly, there were people stumping for Riseborough urging voters to rank her #1 on the weighted ballot, which is what kicked off the Academy review, as that is really particular lobbying, specifically attempting to game the balloting system. It’s hair-splitting and maybe a stupid rule to begin with, but the “no direct lobbying” rule exists to stem the toxic negative campaigning of the 1990s, which was dominated by Harvey Weinstein’s mud-slinging tactics (many people attribute this to Shakespeare in Love’s 1999 Best Picture win). It’s important to note that so far, Andrea Riseborough herself has not been accused of doing anything untoward.
But let’s also note Andrea Riseborough is not the problem, nor is it even really a case of a financially disadvantaged film against a studio-supported film. The only reason the Academy is taking this up, I believe, is because of the public perception that Riseborough, a white woman, “stole” a nomination from a Black woman such as Viola Davis (The Woman King) or Danielle Deadwyler (Till). In the run-up to Oscar nominations, Deadwyler was an outside force, receiving BAFTA, SAG, and Critics' Choice nominations. Davis, however, received Golden Globes, BAFTA, SAG, and Critics’ Choice Award nominations, hitting all the major awards stops. We will never know who was #6 on the nomination ballot, but the PERCEPTION that Davis got screwed out of a nomination is understandable.
And let’s be honest, it does LOOK bad. A white woman rallied by her famous white women friends and she got an Oscar nomination, and a prominent Black woman, presumed to be a favorite for a nomination, did not. You cannot shake the perception that this is really about how the Oscars, the Academy that votes on the Oscars, and the entire awards industrial complex is tilted against Black creatives, regardless of how well financed and funded their films and campaigns are. Critic Robert Daniels eloquently covers this systemic failure here.
The issue is more that Riseborough has this whole machine at her disposal. Does her film have as much money to spend on FYC as anything backed by a major studio or streamer? No. But she has enough connected friends to rally for her to get the (few) votes required for a nomination. And yes, Viola Davis is certainly connected, but…how many of her connections are also eligible to vote for Oscar nominations? I am not accusing Riseborough of anything, or saying she is racist, but there is no denying that she has many friends in the acting branch who can mobilize on her behalf, and encourage their friends to mobilize, too. Does Davis have that many friends in the branch? Basically, has the balance of power shifted enough to make it equally possible for a Black actress to do this kind of thing?
Maybe, but if so, we’ll never know, because neither Davis nor anyone connected to her tried it. But I wonder if it would even work in the first place. Though the Academy has made moves to broaden its member base, it is still predominately white. And the question isn’t “should Andrea Riseborough have her nomination rescinded”, it’s “how does the playing field remain uneven”? I don’t think anyone went into this thinking “we’re going to screw Viola Davis out of an Oscar nomination”, and maybe Davis wasn’t even the sixth nominee on the ballot. Maybe that was Margot Robbie, who knows. What the Riseborough Affair has exposed is that it is possible for cliques within the Academy to still game the system. The question, then, is how best to address it.
I don’t think the Academy should rescind Riseborough’s nomination. Unless she can be proven to be in direct violation of the rules HERSELF, it serves no purpose and only looks reactive and doesn’t even result in “promoting” Davis or Deadwyler or anyone else into that fifth nomination spot (if the nomination is rescinded, there will just be four nominees). I DO think the Academy should be finding ways to cut money out of the process, which would lessen the need for anyone to do these kinds of direct campaigns, and the Academy should continue looking for ways to level the playing field. Is there anything that can be done to increase the visibility of Black films, or any non-white films, in contention? Should there be rules in place about verifying a film has been screened before voting on it? (You will not be shocked to learn many people nominate/vote for stuff on word of mouth, not actual viewings.) What can be done to ensure distributors are allocating funding equally between their films?
There has been some progress over the last few years, not just in the Academy but the industry at large, to help non-white filmmakers and actors break through, but there is no question there is still yet more to do be done. The Riseborough Affair is just a symptom of this larger, ongoing systemic failure to support Black filmmakers and performers. It’s evidence of lingering bias, unconscious or not, within the industry. Rescinding an individual nomination doesn’t fix any of that. The only way to fix it is by constantly recalibrating systems for greater equity, and by doing the hard work of unlearning bias, on a systemic and individual level. It’s not sexy and it’s not headline-grabbing, it’s the slow, grinding work of years, but it is the work that must done.