The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ board of governors is today meeting to review its practices following a surprise Oscar nomination for the English actor Andrea Riseborough. “We are conducting a review of the campaign procedures around this year’s nominees, to ensure that no guidelines were violated,” a statement read. “We ... support genuine grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances.”
Much hangs around the interpretation of those loaded words “genuine grassroots campaigns”. Riseborough’s hugely unexpected nomination as best actress for the hitherto barely mentioned To Leslie was credited to a last-minute burst of support from celebrities such as Susan Sarandon, Mira Sorvino, Minnie Driver and Helen Hunt. Cate Blanchett gave a shout-out to Riseborough at the Critics Choice Awards. None was more effusive than Kate Winslet. “I think this is the greatest female performance on screen I have ever seen in my life,” she said of her compatriot. Take that, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench and the rest. Ed Norton tweeted. So did a dozen others.
Riseborough’s nomination raised the issue of who’d been squeezed out of the best-actress race as a result. It was hard to avoid the uncomfortable truth that the most obvious losers were two black women. Viola Davis, strident in The Woman King, and Danielle Deadwyler, heartbreaking in Till, had been predicted as contenders by the majority of prognosticators.
Terri White, former editor in chief of Empire magazine, expressed the views of many. “You can think Andrea Riseborough is an insane talent ... and also ask if those in the actors’ branch would similarly cob their weight behind a Black woman,” she noted. Robert Daniels, a prominent film critic, followed up: “What does it say that the Black women who did everything the institution asks of them ... are ignored when someone who did everything outside of the system is rewarded?”
Where did the surge for Riseborough come from? Was its arrival in the days leading up to the closing of nomination voting a spontaneous outpouring? If you believe that I have a Hollywood sign to sell you.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Glenn Whipp reminds us that Michael Morris, director of To Leslie, and his wife, Mary McCormack, a busy actor, know celebrities in all corners of film and TV. “They contacted nearly every one of them, requesting their friends watch the movie and, if they liked it, spread the word,” Whipp claims. Edward Norton, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston all hosted private screenings. By nomination eve, the campaign was generating endless memes and joke tweets.
Yet almost no Oscar pundit thought Riseborough had a serious chance of a nomination. The film had taken just $27,000. The surge came too late. She had failed to make an impression on the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critics Choice or even her home team at Bafta. Only a sole nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards (greeted with a large “what the hell is To Leslie?”) offered a clue. Nothing like this had happened before.
There was an audible gasp when her name was read out last Tuesday. It looks as if, in modern times, the only other actor to secure a nomination without registering in any of the big precursors was Marina de Tavira, for Roma, in 2019. Perhaps the rune masters should have seen it coming. Keep in mind that, at nomination stage, only members in the relevant branch – actors in this case – get to cast a vote. That adds up to 1,302 people. Persuade just 200 or so to lean Riseborough’s way and you may have a result. And the Tyneside star has long been celebrated as “the best actor you’ve never heard of”.
The initial response was wry bemusement. Everyone knows the studios spend millions placing “For Your Consideration” advertisements and hosting celebrity screenings. Was this any less ethical?
The argument bubbled on for a day or two before the academy cautiously announced its decision to discuss regulations. Nominations have been rescinded on nine previous occasions – usually for dull procedural transgressions. In 2014, however, Bruce Broughton had his nomination for best original song rescinded when it was discovered he had emailed members of the music branch during the voting period.
The academy did not mention Riseborough specifically. No formal accusations have been made against her or the campaign. And she remains an acclaimed actor. Variety has, however, tentatively suggested an Oscars rule may have been broken
The academy did not mention Riseborough specifically in its statement about grassroots campaigns. No formal accusations have been made against her or the campaign. And she remains an acclaimed actor. Variety has, however, tentatively gestured towards a “rule number 11″ that declares “any tactic that singles out ‘the competition’ by name or title is expressly forbidden”.
The trade paper notes that Frances Fisher, a veteran actor who was vociferous in Riseborough’s support, issued an Instagram post pointing out that it required only 218 votes to swing the win and noting that “Viola [Davis], Michelle [Yeoh], Danielle [Deadwyler] & Cate [Blanchett] are a lock for their outstanding work.” (A dud prediction, as it worked out.) But that does not connect her to Riseborough or to the film itself.
Variety is among those concluding it is highly unlikely Riseborough will have her nomination rescinded. Even if that were to happen, precedent suggests that, rather than calling in the sixth-placed competitor – almost certainly Davis or Deadwyler – the academy would allow just four nominees to progress. It does, however, seem as if regulations need to be tightened up for the social-media age.
No Oscar season passes without a scandal. At least, nobody has been slapped. Yet.