For awards ceremony observers, Oscars nominations often come with few surprises.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominations ceremony, held Jan. 24 in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, arrived on the heels of international film festivals, prestigious awards ceremonies and lengthy studio campaigns.
The expensive season — where Variety estimated in 2016 that studios spend $3 million to upwards of $10 million on advertisements and endorsements — is all in an attempt to appeal to Oscars voters. The results? Film studios and their actors receive critical acclaim and widespread public interest. Ideally, those who have been pushed furthest into the public eye are the ones who will be nominated.
Ask your local cinephile who their selection is for best actress this year. They might tell you it’s Michelle Yeoh, Golden Globe best actress recipient for her role in Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Maybe they prefer Cate Blanchett, the 2022 Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup best actress award winner for her work in Tár.
Or Danielle Deadwyler’s performance as Mamie Till-Mobley in Till — which awarded her BAFTA nominations alongside Yeoh and Blanchett — might be their favorite to win.
With this prediction system in mind, the Oscars nominations audience was stunned when Andrea Riseborough was announced as a nominee for best actress for her performance in the indie drama To Leslie.
The film had been under the radar during the competitive awards season. Instead of a studio-driven campaign, Riseborough’s effort for a nomination has been described as “grassroots,” with her acting peers being the ones pushing praise of her performance.
Those involved in her campaign include Oscars winners Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet as well as actors Amy Adams, Demi Moore and category competitor Cate Blanchett. All of these actresses were a part of screenings and Q&A’s of the film earlier this year.
To make up for its nonexistent advertisement budget, To Leslie director Michael Morris and his wife Mary McCormack utilized their celebrity connections to stage events, such as the screenings, and coordinate social media buzz to market the film.
Morris’ previous work includes directing episodes of the TV series Better Call Saul, while McCormack worked on The West Wing. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Morris described the film as one that “can’t even afford an ad. We live or die by people’s reactions to the film.”
Riseborough’s nomination has since sparked outrage, with many awards observers questioning if her best actress campaign violated the academy’s lobbying rules. Listed as rule 10 in its guidelines, AMPAS states that “contacting academy members directly and in a manner outside of the scope of these rules to promote a film or achievement for Academy Award consideration is expressly forbidden.”
In their campaigning of the film, Morris and McCormack repeatedly called and emailed voters to view To Leslie, which has been described as an “aggressive” appeal tactic.
Online observers also picked up on the similar language certain celebrities used in their reviews of To Leslie. Actors Mia Farrow and Dulé Hill, alongside journalist Meredith Vieira, each described the movie as “a small film with a giant heart.” It has since been revealed in an email Variety obtained in which McCormack shared language guidelines with celebrity contacts on how to market the film and Riseborough’s leading performance on social media.
The campaign is also at risk for possibly violating rule 11, which prohibits “any tactic that singles out ‘the competition’ by name or title.” One instance of this includes academy member and actor Frances Fisher explicitly mentioning Riseborough and her competitors in a social media post. In it, she advises her fellow voters to select Riseborough as their winner.
In response to growing backlash, the academy released a statement Friday: “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 the guidelines may be needed in a new era of social media and digital communication.”
Riseborough’s nomination also comes at the expense of nominations for actresses of color such as Danielle Deadwyler and Viola Davis, who have been spotlighted this award season. The academy, which pledged in 2021 to forge “greater inclusivity” in its ceremonies, only nominated one non-white actor, Michelle Yeoh, in its leading acting categories.
Social media was quick to criticize the academy over the lack of diversity in the categories and argued further that Riseborough’s connections possibly prohibited Deadwyler and Davis from being nominated. Until the Academy Board of Governors meets to discuss the ethics behind the To Leslie campaign, Riseborough’s nomination will not be rescinded. Nevertheless, the response to her nomination can grow into a moment of reckoning for the academy and could change the criteria of how a production earns a nomination.