Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh were a given. Ana de Armas and Michelle Williams were in the conversation. But Andrea Riseborough? Few expected to see her land the coveted fifth slot in the Oscars’ best actress category this week.
Earlier awards season conversations all but omitted “To Leslie,” a heart-wrenching drama in which she plays an alcoholic whose life begins spiraling after she wins the lottery. While critically acclaimed, the low-budget film earned less than $28,000 during a limited theatrical run.
To say “To Leslie” didn’t make much of a ripple would be an understatement.
But in the lead-up to Tuesday’s Oscar nominations, a rare phenomenon occurred: A slew of A-listers began to gush about the film on social media and other public platforms; Blanchett gave Riseborough a shout-out in her Critics’ Choice Award speech.
It’s not unusual for actors to rave about a performance they loved, but the lengths taken to single out Riseborough’s lead performance suggested a well-coordinated and precisely timed behind-the-scenes effort.
In a statement Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences suggested it may be investigating the campaign.
“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,” the organisation wrote. “We have confidence in the integrity of our nomination and voting procedures, and support genuine grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances.”
The praise started in earnest around the second week in January, about when voting began. Frances Fisher posted repeatedly on Instagram about Riseborough’s performance, writing detailed descriptions of the voting process and urging academy members to watch “To Leslie.” She noted that “there’s no money for publicity” for independent films.
The A-list support poured in: “Andrea should win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet,” Gwyneth Paltrow captioned an Instagram post on Jan. 11, standing with Riseborough.
Among the many other supporters were Jennifer Aniston, Patricia Clarkson, Melanie Lynskey, Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet. Edward Norton wrote in a rare social media post that Riseborough gave “the most fully committed, emotionally deep, physically harrowing performance I’ve seen in a while.”
So: Why did this all happen? The Washington Post asked more than 30 actors who publicly supported Riseborough. The few who responded echoed Fisher that the small yet powerful film deserved more attention.
Daphne Zuniga told The Post in an email that she saw her friend Helen Hunt’s Instagram post about the movie. “No one had asked me to post anything, but I felt people should see this brilliant performance,” she wrote.
“I had heard from a few friends how great To Leslie was, and how great Andrea is in it,” Constance Zimmer wrote. “These smaller films don’t have the publicity budgets to get the attention they so often deserve.”
Veteran publicist Stephen Huvane, who represents Hunt, Paltrow and Aniston, told The Post in an email on Wednesday, “Helen, Gwyneth and Jennifer are friends with Mary McCormack and Michael Morris (the director) and when they screened the film they were all blown away by Andrea’s performance.” Through a representative, Norton clarified that he didn’t post with regard to the Oscars.
The email echoed reports about McCormack, the actress married to “To Leslie” director Morris, asking her famous friends to watch and post about the film. TCM host and Entertainment Weekly awards correspondent Dave Karger theorized they “really wanted to trumpet the performance and realized there could be a way in for them by focusing exclusively on the actor’s branch of the Academy.”
The grass-roots campaign stands in stark contrast with the usual awards pushes, which generally involve buzzy media appearances and ads in industry publications. Support for Riseborough seemed to spread almost exclusively through social media or word of mouth, and Karger described the success of the low-cost campaign behind Riseborough’s nomination as “unprecedented.”
The Academy announced its review of the nominations process Friday afternoon, after criticism of the campaign appeared in many Hollywood trade publications - notably a Puck article by Matthew Belloni headlined, “Was the Andrea Riseborough Oscar campaign illegal?”
This is the first Oscar nomination for the 41-year-old English actress, who has spent much of her career in movies like the Madonna-directed 2011 romantic drama “W.E.,” 2013’s post-apocalyptic action romp “Oblivion” and Armando Iannucci’s 2017 black comedy “The Death of Stalin.” She also starred in superhero satire “Birdman,” which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2015.
So what makes McCormack, the actress and wife of the director, so powerful? Pretty much what makes anyone in Hollywood powerful, it would seem: connections forged through years of working the town. Since 1994, she’s had stints on “The West Wing,” “In Plain Sight” and “K Street,” with appearances in various renditions of “Law & Order,” all while amassing a steady film career.
For the Oscars, actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, and so on. (The only exception is best picture, which everyone gets to nominate.) Karger predicted Riseborough’s nomination, saying if everyone who posted about her were “putting their votes where their mouths are,” he said, “I thought to myself, she gets in.”
“That’s the reason why you saw all these very respected actors and actresses stick their necks out” for Riseborough, he said. “In a way, it almost became like a cool kids club - people bragging they had seen this secret, incredible performance.”
And A-listers who keep emphasizing how amazing the movie is can go a long way. Winslet told The Post she spoke with Riseborough last fall about the film. “I could tell from the way she described the experience of playing her, and making the film in 19 days, that this was something that had cost her a lot emotionally, and meant a great deal to her,” Winslet wrote in an email.
“When I saw it, her performance floored me. I wanted to support her. That’s how we do it. In our industry female actors are profoundly supportive of each other, but that’s rarely written about,” Winslet continued. “So there is nothing more wonderful than being able to hold hands with those you admire. We all look out for each other. It seems like this is a surprise to the people! Great work deserves to be acknowledged, that’s all there is to it.”