Have you or someone you love been targeted by a groundswell email marketing campaign to nominate Andrea Riseborough’s performance in To Leslie for an Oscar? If so, you might be a part of a formal investigation by the Academy. On Tuesday, the organization met to determine if the push behind Riseborough’s nomination violated their guidelines. They officially decided they won’t be rescinding her nomination, but they did “discover social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern.” In the meantime, some of Hollywood’s biggest names are finally recognizing their industry’s implicitness in elitism. The horror!
Following Riseborough’s seemingly out-of-nowhere nomination for Best Actress, Vanity Fair revealed on Tuesday that Mary McCormack, wife of To Leslie director Michael Morris, sent numerous emails to Hollywood insiders—including some Academy members—praising the film, Riseborough’s performance, and encouraging them to watch. That, in and of itself, might be somewhat unusual—that sort of campaigning is often left to PR folks—but it didn’t breach nomination guidelines. From there, a gaggle of A-list celebrities, including Jennifer Aniston, Ed Norton, Kate Winslet, and Charlize Theron, all sang praise for Riseborough’s performance.
However, McCormack followed up with another email: “Please watch it, and if you respond to it, then join us at a very intimate reception on January 11th at our home,” Vanity Fair reports. “Come have a drink and chat with director Michael Morris, lead actress Andrea Riseborough, and Allison [Janney], and me, and fellow actors. We can have only about 25-30 people, so it will be small.” The Academy guidelines state that prior to nominations “members may not be invited to, and members may not attend, any dinners, lunches or other such events that are intended to promote an eligible film for awards consideration.” But since McCormack, who is an actor herself, isn’t officially associated with the film, it toed the line of ethics.
There’s a good chance that before January, you hadn’t heard of To Leslie. The film, which was released in October and barely made over $25,000, follows an alcoholic single mother who squanders her lottery winnings. Even now, after being re-released following Riseborough’s nomination, it’s only playing in six North American theaters. In her emails, McCormack touches on the importance of buoying small films because she worries they’ll “just get eaten up by Marvel Movies and go away forever,” unless they are championed by other actors or experts in the craft. It’s a salient point.
Ultimately, this whole situation is a lose-lose-lose. On one hand, Riseborough’s performance—which many are saying is remarkable—is being doubted because of an ambiguous campaign that’s coming across like a circle of influential insiders pushing their favorite onto the Academy. On the other, the Academy’s rubric for what is or isn’t a violation of their campaigning guidelines remains murky as ever. And what’s that? Oh, look! A third hand. On that one, Black leading actresses of movies that actually did draw in considerable audiences—like Danielle Deadwyler in Till or Viola Davis in Woman King—and didn’t receive Oscar nominations are being left out of the running entirely.
Smaller films don’t have the marketing budget huge blockbusters do. But to that same point, a lot of smaller films also don’t have the A-list connections To Leslie does. Is it wrong they exploited those connections? Personally, I think that’s the definition of PR, so no.
Now that flags have been raised about the grassroots campaign, a lot of Riseborough’s celebrity supporters are defiantly touting the “unfairness” of the backlash. Christina Ricci called the investigation “elitist” and “very backward” in a now-deleted Instagram post. Screenwriter Paul Schraeder wrote on Facebook, “She’s got my vote. Go ahead, investigate me”—a statement that sounded like blended-up catchphrases from the 2016 election. It’s clear that actors, who seem to genuinely love Riseborough’s performance, feel like they’re supporting an underdog in this situation; that they’re fighting against the looming Marvel machine. In some ways they definitely are!
But calling the Academy elitist over this investigation is sort of like walking into a McDonald’s and asking if anyone’s ever considered that they over-salt their food. Like, yes, obviously! It’s telling that a lot of these celebrities are now just incensed about elitism when a white woman who got her nomination through word of mouth in a very elite circle is called into question. It’s like they are holding up the correct arrow, but not aiming at the correct target.
The industry is nothing if not a large networking event, and these award ceremonies have almost never been about merit. Is it a little shitty that this incident is being called out, when all Oscar campaigns are basically pay-to-play? Sure, yes. Is it also obnoxious that these celebrities are acting like this is the biggest infraction of said pay-to-play awards show that year after year holds up the status quo? Also, yes.
It makes sense why McCormack ran this campaign. Hollywood, while obsessed with an underdog, has never presented a level playing field. You have to play a little dirty to win.