Another Oscar Controversy: ‘To Leslie’ and the Best Leading Actress Nomination

Ed Farley

When the Academy Awards nominations for Best Leading Actress came in there were five announced actresses, all worthy of their nominations. However, to many peoples’ surprise, one name in particular was announced, and two were not. Ed Farley looks into this controversy.

It came as a surprise to see Danielle Deadwyler’s critically acclaimed performance in Till be snubbed, alongside Viola Davis’ equally lauded turn in self-produced The Woman King. In their place, was Andrea Riseborough, star of indie film To Leslie. Though well-received from critics, it wasn’t Riseborough’s performance that came into question, but rather the shaky grounds upon which led it to be included in the nominations in the first place.

In a report from Variety, it was announced that the Academy was opening an investigation into a “review of the campaign procedures around this year’s nominees to ensure no guidelines were violated.” This is seen as a response to controversy surrounding the way in which her performance had been advertised to members of the public, and consequently – members of the Academy.

Advocacy for someone’s performance isn’t new, and isn’t a violation in itself – with many industry players rightfully publically praising eachother for their work. However, the means and timing of how celebrities promoted Riseborough’s work rang alarm bells.

Fisher named other possible nominees including those snubbed

Variety, with a rundown of the events explained how a barrage of advocacy from actors and actresses all piled in at the same time, with, for example, actress Frances Fisher notably vocal on social media. A member of the academy herself, she praised the performance, whilst stating that Michelle Yeoh, Cate Blanchett, (and snubbed actresses) Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler “are a lock” for the nomination. She also presented hypothetical vote tallies, suggesting the way Riseborough could get a nomination, should there be enough votes for her.

This was seen as problematic, as Fisher named other possible nominees including those snubbed and claimed they were already certain of getting a nomination. Though she praised their work, setting them together in such a manner still inherently placed them against one another, something that further made the action dubious to say the least.

Though Riseborough had not garnered nominations from other notable award shows like the Golden Globes or BAFTAs, her To Leslie director Michael Morris and his wife Mary McCormack held a reception at their home in support for her Academy Award notice. Whilst just a few days before academy voting, Gwyneth Paltrow, with the director in attendance, held a screening for the film with a separate one held by actress Charlize Theron.

Though many have noted that it is pleasant to see widespread support of an “underdog” (the film only grossed $27,000), the barrage of support so close to voting, with Academy members like Fisher and connections of the film’s director and his wife advocating her nomination so brazenly has been seen as strange. Though Fisher claimed under her Instagram post in a comment she was doing so because the film had no campaign budget, the parameters for campaigns apply regardless of budget, to work in accordance to the Academy’s nomination rules.

Notably, one rule is not holding any special lunches with voters, and keeping press mailing lists conservative, with just one email per week. There isn’t, however, a precedent of social media promotion. The social media praise wasn’t just exclusive to Fisher or Paltrow, but a myriad of celebrities who seemed to extol the film’s, and Riseborough’s, virtues, at the very same time that the nomination period for the Academy closed in. Because of this, advertising for a nomination isn’t as limited as the rules clearly state.

An investigation, which has now found that Riseborough’s campaign was acceptable, was put in place. It drew the question as to how social media should be used, and how it works in conjunction with the who-knows-who basis of the industry which many critics of Hollywood have spoken of since the awards ceremony’s conception. There have been other examples of accusations of bending the Oscar nomination rules before, most recently in the case of Bruce Boughton, who had his 2014 nomination revoked for, what the Academy found to be, inappropriate campaign practises.

With social media such a potent tool, celebrities who hold influential social capital are crucial 

It’s been no secret that connections get you places. It’s the nature of creative work or any business. It has come under scrutiny however, when people get work at the behest of those with power, sometimes over outsiders who can bring new, fresh, or even more diverse approaches to the work.  

Recently, there’s been talk of “nepo babies”, notably an article from New York that stirred discourse over the ethical legitimacy of giving children of Hollywood jobs off the back of who they know, as opposed to who they are when the cameras start shooting. This, however, is not the case for Riseborough. She is a well-seasoned actress who has deserved and been given praise throughout her career, and this article is in no way intended to diminish or question her talent. It is, however, a question of the operations at play during the voting season.

With social media such a potent tool, celebrities who hold influential social capital are crucial. Because of stars like Paltrow, who have millions of followers (some of them Academy voters too), the lines between praise and outright advocacy can become blurred. It doesn’t matter the intention of these screenings or posts because the optics of what one can see, will always take centre stage, much like a film itself.

It soon becomes a message that can reach to millions of people, making it unavoidable for Academy voters

Hosting lunches, for example, is a physical culmination, something meant to attract people as an outward play for attention. But, if you’re a social media user, judging what is orchestrated and what is just personal use, is a little harder. Especially if there are many celebrities (more extensively named by Variety) who are also using their social capital for praise at the same time. It soon becomes a message that can reach to millions of people, making it unavoidable for Academy voters, despite the rules on what information they recieve on potential nominees.

Underdogs are no longer underdogs; they’re instead seen by Twitter users and critics as favourites of the Hollywood elite and tastemakers. Tastemakers who carry heavy influence in both others’ opinions and industry prominence. With the investigation over, it seems that there’s more questions to be had that transcend this one nomination. It is evident that social media is so prevalent in everyday life that regulations on nominations and campaigns need to be reconfigured for the digital age. An age which, as explored before, is spiralling into new depths with new ramifications for its consumers and players alike. Whether it’s the responsibility of the Academy, or the people, is yet to be seen.

Ed Farley

Featured image courtesy of Mirko Fabian via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In article trailer courtesy of Momentum Pictures via YouTube. No changes were made to this video. 

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