Why a British star’s Oscar nomination has sparked controversy

Entertainment

When British actress Andrea Riseborough’s name was read out as one of this year’s five Academy Award nominees for best actress, it came as something of a surprise to many.

Not because her performance in To Leslie – a small indie film in which she plays a single mother who turns to alcoholism after winning the lottery – wasn’t worthy, but because there had been no substantial awards-season buzz surrounding her before the announcement.

This is how it works: the Oscars is the biggest night in Hollywood, the culmination of awards season, but it’s not the only ceremony in Tinseltown.

Many will no doubt be aware of some of the events, such as the Golden Globes, while others including the SAG awards are less well known. And of course, there is also the BAFTAs in the UK.

Each awards ceremony has its own members voting but you tend to see the same names cropping up on the shortlists, give or take a few.

In 2022, for example, Will Smith, Jessica Chastain, Ariana DeBose and Troy Kotsur picked up the four acting prizes at pretty much every single ceremony, including, finally, the Oscars.

Riseborough, who starred in Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical in 2022 and is also known for The Kindness Of Strangers, Made In Dagenham and Birdman, did not receive nominations for any other awards this year, and nor did To Leslie.

However, before the Oscar nominees were announced, Riseborough did publicly receive the backing of some very prominent A-listers (more on this later).

During awards season, film studios campaign, campaign, campaign – which means projects with the biggest budgets are more likely to get noticed by voters.

The To Leslie campaign was reportedly self-funded and relied on word of mouth to get noticed.

Questions have now been raised as to whether Riseborough’s nomination was fair – in an escalating row which has led to criticism once again of diversity at the Oscars, where none of the best actress nominees are black – and seen her co-star and others speaking out to defend her.

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Although it did not mention To Leslie, the Academy, which organises the Oscars, has announced it is conducting a review of award “campaign procedures” to ensure no guidelines were violated this year.

The issue is due to be discussed at its next meeting later today.

So what is Oscar campaigning? What did Riseborough’s celebrity backers apparently do wrong? Is any of it really fair? Here’s everything you need to know.

Who is Angela Riseborough?

The 41-year-old actress is known for her work in the Oscar-winning Birdman, and for playing Wallis Simpson in WE and the former prime minister in Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk To Finchley.

In 2022, she starred in the latest adaptation of Matilda, playing Matilda’s mother Mrs Wormwood alongside Stephen Graham as Mr Wormwood, as well as Emma Thompson as Ms Trunchbull, Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey, and Alisha Weir in the titular role.

She also starred in Battle Of The Sexes, about the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, playing King’s lover Marilyn Barnett, and appeared in an episode of Black Mirror.

Riseborough was the first British actress to formally support the #4PercentChallenge, urging members of the film industry to work with female directors, following its launch by Creed actress Tessa Thompson at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019.

She is nominated for her performance in To Leslie, a small-budget film which reportedly grossed around $27,000 (about £22,000) at the box office, according to US entertainment site Variety.

Which celebrities supported her?

In the run-up to the Oscar nominations, To Leslie broke through with the Academy seemingly in no small part thanks to a campaign by some of the most prominent names in Hollywood.

Indeed, Cate Blanchett, who is also up for the best actress Oscar alongside Riseborough, used her Critics’ Choice speech to praise the Brition – along with others, it should be noted.

“Best actress, I mean, it is extremely arbitrary considering how many extraordinary performances there have been by women; not only in this room, but Andrea Riseborough and Tang Wei, Penelope Cruz, the list goes on and on,” she said. Blanchett continued by saying she wanted to change how awards work and highlight the “raft” of performances.

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Fellow Hollywood stars including Kate Winslet, Amy Adams, Gwyneth Paltrow, Edward Norton, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Aniston, Zooey Deschanel, Frances Fisher and Helen Hunt have also praised Riseborough’s performance.

Fisher, known for films including Titanic and Unforgiven, has been particularly vocal on social media about the actress’s performance.

What’s wrong with any of this?

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging Oscar voters to watch a particular film, or praising a performance.

However, some posts supporting Riseborough on social media may have broken Academy rules if they reference “competition” by name or title.

If a formal complaint is filed, this could result in Fisher receiving a one-year suspension from the Academy, according to reports.

There is no suggestion that Riseborough broke rules herself.

But questions remain as to the authenticity of the backing for her. Were all these supporters genuinely wowed by her performance, or simply friends in high places, helping out a mate?

What is Oscar campaigning?

Studios can spend millions of dollars promoting their films in the run-up to and during awards season, making sure they have the attention of voters.

The aim is to construct a narrative that a film is “Oscar worthy”.

Billboards go up, screening events are held, the stars will walk red carpets, do interviews, meet the right people.

In 2016, Susan Sarandon called for “campaign finance reform”, saying the Oscars campaign race had become “enormous”.

What has the Academy said about the latest controversy?

A statement released by the Academy on Friday did not reference Riseborough or To Leslie specifically.

“It is the Academy’s goal to ensure that the awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner, and we are committed to ensuring an inclusive awards process,” the statement read.

“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.

“We have confidence in the integrity of our nomination and voting procedures, and support genuine grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances.”

Why has this led to criticism about diversity at the Oscars?

This year, none of the best actress nominees are black.

Riseborough and Blanchett (Tar) are up for the award alongside Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All At Once), Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans) and Ana de Armas (Blonde), while strong contenders Viola Davis (The Woman King) and Danielle Deadwyler (Till) missed out.

Following the nominations announcement, Till director Chinonye Chukwu posted a statement on Instagram, saying: “We live in a world and work in industries that are so aggressively committed to upholding whiteness and perpetuating an unabashed misogyny towards Black women.

“And yet.

“I am forever in gratitude for the greatest lesson of my life – regardless of any challenges or obstacles, I will always have the power to cultivate my own joy, and it is this joy that will continue to be one of my greatest forms of resistance.”

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Of course, Davis and Deadwyler’s names being missing from the shortlist is not Riseborough’s fault.

When it comes to analysis of the nominees, the nods for de Armas and Williams have also been questioned – de Armas as the Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde has been widely panned, despite her performance being praised, and Williams as the role of Mitzi Fabelman in The Fabelmans is considered by some to be a supporting role.

Support for Riseborough

Following the Academy’s announcement, stars have spoken out in defence of Riseborough and To Leslie.

In the latest episode of his WTF podcast, her To Leslie co-star Marc Maron criticised the Academy’s investigation.

“Apparently, the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences or whatever the f*** it is has decided to investigate Andrea Riseborough’s grassroots campaign to get her the Oscar nomination,” he said. “Because I guess it so threatens their system that they’re completely bought out by corporate interests in the form of studios.

“Millions of dollars [are] put into months and months of advertising campaigns, publicity, screenings by large corporate entertainment entities and Andrea was championed by her peers through a grassroots campaign which was pushed through by a few actors.

“The Academy is [like], ‘Well, we gotta take a look at this. This is not the way it’s supposed to work. Independent artists don’t deserve the attention of the Academy unless we see how it works exactly. So, we’re going to look into this’.”

Actress Christina Ricci apparently also defended Riseborough in an Instagram post, which has reportedly since been deleted. According to US entertainment site Deadline, the star wrote: “So it’s only the films and actors that can afford the campaigns that deserve recognition? Feels elitist and exclusive and frankly very backward to me.”

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What happens now?

Well, it’s down to the Academy to decide. Many think it’s unlikely Riseborough’s nomination will be withdrawn.

But even if she remains in the race, the nomination may now seem tainted – and following the initial positive reaction to her nod, voters could see her as too controversial to pick to win.

And for studios: why bother with all the promo when A-list recommendations can make even more impact?

Whether rules have been broken or not, this saga has lifted the lid on the deep pockets of awards campaigning – and how it’s good promo, not necessarily just a good performance, that can turn a film or a star into a winner.

Watch the Oscars exclusively on Sky Showcase on Sunday 12 March from midnight. Sky News will be live on the red carpet at the ceremony in Hollywood on Sunday 12 and live with the winners at the Vanity Fair party on Breakfast with Kay Burley, on Monday 13 March

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