Oscars 2023: What Andrea Riseborough’s controversial nomination reveals
In the early morning hours of January 24, 2023, as Riz Ahmed and Alison Williams named the Best Actress Oscar nominees, the results were, more or less, as expected. Cate Blanchett for Tar. Michelle Williams for The Fabelmans. Ana de Armas for Blonde — the Academy loves the portrayal of a real person — Michelle Yeoh for Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Andrea Riseborough for… To Leslie?
Most people who had heard of the film knew about it because of a strange popular campaign that seemed to come out of nowhere a week or two before, when everyone from Charlize Theron to Howard Stern seemed to start posting on Twitter. about the film, a small indie that had opened in October in a few theaters to critical acclaim but relatively little fanfare. Suddenly, if you followed a lot of celebrities, the praise for Riseborough’s performance was everywhere.
On the morning of the Oscar nominations, it turned out that was enough to get Riseborough on the board. Some observers have complained, noting that previous favorites for the slot – Danielle Deadwyler in Till and Viola Davis in The Woman King – seemed to have been wiped out by the outpouring of support.
We have no way of knowing if that’s true, but it doesn’t seem impossible, as Deadwyler and Davis have received strong support in various Guild and Critics awards over the past few months. Nevertheless, the Academy announced that it would open an investigation into Riseborough’s campaign tactics to see if they violated Oscar rules. On January 31, they announced that Riseborough would retain his appointment but that “tactics” were “discussed directly with the responsible parties”.
And these hints of risky tactics are a little startling, if you know anything about how Oscar winners are made.
Let’s go back. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – that is, the industry group made up entirely of people who work in the industry (but not journalists or critics) – awards the Oscars, and the group is made up separate “branches”. There is a branch for cinematographers, another for screenwriters, another for directors, etc. Each branch votes on nominations in its own discipline, ultimately choosing five nominees. The exception is Best Picture, which has 10 nominee slots and is voted on by the general membership, which is about 10,000. Once the nominees are announced, everyone can vote in each category.
The idea here is noble: you know your job, so you are in the best position to choose the five options from which all members will choose the winners. Simple, right?
Except that the Oscars have never been easy, for many reasons. The American film industry is mainly based in Los Angeles, which is a corporate city. That means everyone knows everyone – not just knows, but gets married, divorced, drunk with, sees bake sales, hires and fires and hears rumors about it. Exceptions abound, of course, but it’s a bit like picking winners from your very extended family. No wonder it all looks like a popularity contest.
Another wrinkle is that the prospect of choosing “the best” art is flatly ridiculous. Some things are better than others, of course. But taste is inherently subjective – which I love, you might hate – and when working at the technical level of most films, judgments of “best” come down to taste. The never-ending awards season has its reasons for existing; recognition of one’s work can go a long way towards establishing a career. But the fiction that a group can vote to choose the best of something is stupid, ridiculous.
But the main problem with choosing the Oscars is simply that it’s not a craftsmanship contest at all. It’s a political contest. I don’t mean they’re “political,” although Hollywood’s long, long history is one of Washington and Hollywood meddling with each other. (Anyone who says movies were better when they were “less political” made up a Hollywood in their head with no resemblance to the real thing.)
What I mean is that campaigning for an Oscar is almost exactly like campaigning for President – except it happens every year, and less is, admittedly, at stake, even if it doesn’t seem not be the case for the nominees. It’s so true that when I wrote about it several years ago, I found political consultants to be just as knowledgeable about the process as rewards strategists (and more open about it, too).
Yet there is a big difference. When you’re campaigning for president, all bets are off. You can endlessly knock on doors, call and text and email voters, and directly request their vote. In American politics, it’s perfectly fine to be a candidate who walks up to someone on the street, hands them a flyer, and says, “I’m Alissa Wilkinson, I’m running for president and asking your vote. ”
But there’s a strange nervousness at the Academy around such bold campaign displays — if anyone notices. Andrea Riseborough doesn’t appear to have personally knocked on doors, but To Leslie director Michael Morris’ wife, actress Mary McCormack, is said to have beaten the bushes on her behalf. Variety reported that she emailed friends at the Academy, asking them to “post daily by January 17” — the last day of voting for Oscar nominations. It was a low-budget campaign for a low-budget film, but it may have violated the Academy’s injunction against direct campaigning. Apparently, she also hosted a small gathering at her house (which the Academy does not allow, within certain parameters, without an accompanying screening).
What’s ironic, as many have pointed out – like Riseborough co-star Marc Maron and actress Christina Ricci – is that while many movies don’t have such an overt campaign (or, at least , not one that we know of), there is a lot of campaign going on. As I wrote:
The bottom line is that whatever narrative your film is part of, you need to make sure Academy members will see your film, connect with its story, and remember it when voting. The more opportunities to do so, the better. And so during Oscar season, there are screenings with cocktails and Q&As. There are dinners. And breakfasts, lunches, teas and cocktails hosted by celebrities and influencers.
Stars and Oscar nominees show up for dates and make surprise appearances at screenings. They appear on podcasts and do video tours and tour late night comedy shows, and much more.
(Perhaps most ironically, the modern model of campaigns that cost millions of dollars and sometimes employ dirty tactics was created, more or less single-handedly, by none other than Harvey Weinstein.)
Ultimately, the question is whether a film that visibly violated campaign rules should be punished, allowing the Academy to maintain the polite fiction that far more expensive campaigns with less overt tactics (but still evident) should be allowed to continue.
And this all points to what seems to me to be a bigger problem. The US presidential election system has been desperately publicized and increasingly hysterical. The cycle of hype and fear begins years before the actual election, as if it were an epic live sporting showdown and not some sober civic ritual designed to produce justice and fairness.
The Oscars are, in fact, a live showdown, and if you think it’s about justice and fairness, you might want to buy this bridge I have in Brooklyn. But the Oscars cycle has a negative effect on movies, regardless. As I wrote, the cycle of hype, the endless “will he win an Oscar?” questioning, the informal campaign begins about a month after the Oscars and continues throughout the year. By September’s fall festival cycle, the “favorites” are all but set, making it difficult to surprise. The question of whether a movie is “Oscar-worthy” can subsume the movie itself, making it hard to talk about it as a work of art. It’s all about its awards potential, and movies are swept into the vortex.
If the Academy were to put a stricter damper on all campaign activity — not just grassroots campaigning which is a little too obvious for its liking — it might not solve this problem. But it could also help level the playing field, allowing more movies to enter conversations and even be seen by more people. Maybe that wouldn’t lead to a less awards-hungry film industry – but wouldn’t it be worth a try?
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