By Sonia Rao
The matter is finally settled: Andrea Riseborough will be allowed to keep her Oscar nomination.
Following a week of controversy, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences met on Tuesday to assess whether the intense social media campaign contributing to Riseborough’s surprising best-actress nod for “To Leslie”, a little-seen independent film, abided by the organisation’s guidelines.
While the Academy didn’t find reason to rescind the nomination, it found fault with unspecified “social media and outreach campaigning tactics” and announced it would address those concerns with the responsible parties.
“Given this review, it is apparent that components of the regulations must be clarified to help create a better framework for respectful, inclusive, and unbiased campaigning,” Academy CEO Bill Kramer said, adding that the changes would be implemented after the conclusion of the awards cycle.
While Riseborough’s performance as an alcoholic who struggles after winning the lottery in “To Leslie” garnered praise from critics, it made little splash on its own, earning less than $28 000 (about R500 000) during its limited theatrical run.
The 41-year-old English actress surprised the public by landing a best-actress nomination last week, alongside Ana de Armas, Cate Blanchett, Michelle Williams and Michelle Yeoh, which turned attention to the unusual push behind it.
Just as voting for the Oscar nominations began, dozens of prominent actors began sharing praise for the low-budget film and its lead performance, on their personal social media accounts.
Actress Mary McCormack, the wife of “To Leslie” director Michael Morris, reportedly co-ordinated much of the efforts by personally encouraging people to watch and share their thoughts online.
Many posts contained similar language, including the now-viral phrase describing “To Leslie” as “a small film with a giant heart”.
Gwyneth Paltrow posted a photo on Instagram of herself standing alongside Demi Moore, Morris and Riseborough, whom she said “should win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet”.
Edward Norton wrote in a rare post that Riseborough gave “the most fully committed, emotionally deep, physically harrowing performance I’ve seen in a while.” (Though Norton previously stated through a representative that he didn’t post with regard to the Oscars.)
Blanchett, herself an Oscars front-runner, gave Riseborough a shout-out in her Critics Choice Awards speech.
Riseborough has worked steadily over the past two decades, appearing in the Oscar-winning dark comedy “Birdman”, political satire “The Death of Stalin” and several horror films.
While actors often commend their peers in public arenas, the posts about her performance in “To Leslie” noticeably ramped up the second week of January – just in time for the Oscar nominations voting period.
Actress Frances Fisher went so far as to share multiple posts about Riseborough, at one point addressing the Academy’s actors branch directly and writing a detailed description of the voting process.
TCM host and Entertainment Weekly awards correspondent Dave Karger said that while he believed the controversy over Riseborough’s nomination was overblown, the Academy “is smart to deal with this and understand how social media changes the game”.
Matthew Belloni, a former editorial director at the “Hollywood Reporter” who co-founded the media company Puck, called the organisation reckoning with Oscar campaigns in the social media age “the biggest legacy” of the debacle.
“There’s an entire economy around the Oscars, and it’s all predicated on the legitimacy of the awards,” Belloni said.
“If the awards are tainted by this spectre of cronyism, that does have an impact on their legitimacy. That’s something the Academy should care about.”
Of course, he added, “there’s been cronyism in the Oscars since literally the second year they gave them.”
The Academy has become more transparent about its internal workings since the #OscarsSoWhite backlash in 2015, a year after which the board of governors announced its goal to double the number of “women and diverse members” in the voting body.
Last year, the organisation elected as president Janet Yang, who was described in a news release at the time as “instrumental in launching and elevating several Academy initiatives on membership recruitment, governance, and equity, diversity, and inclusion”.
Much of the criticism directed toward Riseborough’s nomination framed it as a slight against Viola Davis (“The Woman King”) and Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”), who were each nominated for major precursor awards.
Multiple industry experts argued that while the Academy certainly has a way to go regarding its recognition of Black talent, that was a separate conversation from the one about Riseborough.
“With all these high-profile awards shows that are televised and reported on, even casual movie fans have become conditioned to the (idea) that at a certain point, certain performers have earned a slot in the Oscars race,” Karger said.
“These are all different voting bodies, and different people. Just because one person got three other nominations doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to get the fourth.”
The Oscars use a ranked-choice voting system in which Academy members list awards contenders in order of preference. This can allow for narrow margins between those who snag a nomination and those who miss out.
If the large majority of voters ranked either Blanchett (“Tár”) or fellow front-runner Yeoh (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) as their No. 1 choice for best actress, for example, the threshold to land one of the remaining three slots would have been quite low.
With a small number of votes making all the difference, there is no guarantee Davis or Deadwyler placed sixth; Riseborough could just as easily have “pushed out” contenders such as Olivia Colman (“Empire of Light”) or Jennifer Lawrence (“Causeway”).
Riseborough had, in some ways, become a scapegoat for the Academy’s own failings, suggested Melissa Silverstein, the founder of Women and Hollywood, an initiative advocating for gender diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry.
Silverstein described Riseborough as an actress who “has toiled for decades underneath the surface of the recognition she has deserved”, and said it was unfortunate this situation occurred “in a year with just unbelievably extraordinary Black women in leading roles”.
In an ideal world, Silverstein said, there would be room for more actresses to be recognised.
“It’s a multimillion-dollar game,” she said, “and we’re all part of it.”