The Rise of Riseborough

What’s behind this year’s most controversial and surprising Oscar nominee?

Two weeks ago, almost no one knew who Andrea Riseborough was. Now, she’s a best actress Oscar nominee. What that means is complicated.

Every year, the Oscars mess something up. Sometimes, it’s an event during the show itself, as exemplified by 2022’s Will Smith/Chris Rock ‘slap’ situation or 2021’s failed Chadwick Boseman tribute. But most times, there’s something afoot in the nominations. It’s never a matter of if something will go wrong. It’s a matter of what.

There weren’t too many surprises in this year’s group of nominees, announced about two weeks ago by M3GAN star Allison Williams and Sound of Metal star Riz Ahmed. But, there was one surprise that almost no one saw coming, simply because it didn’t seem like the Academy would be unpredictable enough to go through with it. That surprise: the British actress Andrea Riseborough landed a Best Leading Actress nomination for her work in Michael Morris’ To Leslie, a small independent film that no one (well, almost no one) has seen. The film had a small premiere at South by Southwest in March before making a meager 27,000 dollars at the global box office. Naturally, the announcement left many asking who, what, how and why?

Here’s some context. Andrea Riseborough is a British actress, known for starring in big films but usually in small roles. She’s traversed the industry, starring in everything from Oscar hits, such as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Best Picture-winning Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, to blockbusters such as Joseph Kosinski’s box-office failure Oblivion. She recently starred in Brandon Cronenberg’s 2020 horror hit Possessor, and had supporting roles last year in David O. Russell’s Amsterdam and Matthew Warchus’ Matilda the Musical. Her resumé is impressive, but a trend is clear: she’s often in supporting roles.

T0 Leslie is a clear break from this. In the film, Riseborough plays a single mom from Texas who hits the jackpot in her state lottery but quickly loses all her winnings. To get her life back on track, she takes a job at a local motel. The film also stars podcaster Marc Maron, the iconic Allison Janney and the up-and-coming Owen Teague (Montana Story, the upcoming Eileen). Above all, it’s the pinnacle “film festival film,” the type of small film that makes some impact at its festival premiere but flies under the radar when released theatrically. This is particularly true given the current state of the theatrical exhibition landscape. After all, we live in a world where the best Steven Spielberg movie in 20 years hasn’t even cracked 30 million dollars at the global box office.

Riseborough’s rapid rise from nonexistence in the Best Actress race to a nomination wasn’t the result of an overnight push. It was more of a week-long push. Until the middle of January–more specifically, the five-day period where Academy members submit their individual proposed nominations–the actress had gone largely unrecognized for her work in the film. The highest caliber nomination she had received was a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination, a mention largely unsurprising given the film’s low budget and independent nature.

Then, as if from nowhere, a grassroots campaign, led by some of Hollywood’s most prominent actors and actresses, emerged, solely focused on highlighting Riseborough’s performance. A plethora of celebrities–including the likes of Charlize Theron, Edward Norton and Gwyneth Paltrow–hosted screenings of the film. Others hosted interviews with Riseborough–notably, Kate Winslet, who went viral after calling Riseborough’s performance “one of the greatest I have ever seen in my life.” Celebrities who didn’t host screenings turned to Twitter to voice their praise of her performance, using an off-putting, quasi-scripted formula to do so. The campaign mobilized quickly, and their efforts paid off.

Campaigning is not a new aspect of awards races. Every year, film studios spend millions of dollars and actors spend months attending events and press tours, attempting to gain a coveted spot on the ballot. There’s an organized bureaucracy to it–every appearance, every interview and every press opportunity matters. So, in theory, it’s not odd that some actors took it into their own hands to campaign for one of their friends. They’re essentially playing the same game as the studios–it’s just more noticeable this way.

That’s the very thing that makes this entire situation unsettling. The way all these celebrities, from vastly different domains of the entertainment world, mobilized seemingly out of nowhere feels unnatural. This feeling was bolstered by the dramatic, hyperbolized nature of all the celebrities’ tweets, comments and attitudes. Chances are if you followed at least one film-related account during the rise of the campaign, To Leslie Elon Musked your timeline, hogging all the space with unnecessary and over-the-top quips. Nothing was hidden–it was all in plain sight. All this confusion even caused the Academy to launch an investigation into the situation, where they considered revoking Riseborough’s nomination–a drastic action that they did not take in the end.

There’s also a question of “why now?” to all this. Why–after years and years of the Academy looking over excellent actors just because their performances were in smaller films or “non-awards-worthy” genres–has this particular performance broken through? The Academy historically plays it safe with best actor nominations, causing audience outrage on behalf of those who deliver some of the year’s best performances but receive no recognition for it. This situation proves that Academy members can mobilize to push certain people forward if they care enough. But, if they had the power to do that all this time, why do they keep picking the same predicted choices again and again? What makes Riseborough’s performance so different?

It’s also important to note that the news of Riseborough’s inclusion (paired with the shocking but less unexpected inclusion of Ana de Armas for her work in Andrew Dominik’s horrific Blonde) marked the exclusion of Danielle Deadwyler (in Till) and Viola Davis (in The Woman King), two Black actresses whose names were assumed to appear on the ballot. This is a devastating blow to the Academy’s attempts to increase diversity among the nominees, the actresses themselves and the films they represent. In a time when the Oscars are starting to highlight more popular films, nominating both Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick for best picture–completely snubbing The Woman King–a critically acclaimed, crowd-pleasing hit that made almost 100 million worldwide–feels like the wrong choice. But the Academy isn’t exactly known for making sensible decisions.

It’s not clear how this will impact the future of the Oscars. On the one hand, maybe Riseborough’s nomination will drive more people to watch independent cinema and inspire the Academy to continue nominating performances that aren’t “safe” choices. That would be exciting for the Oscars and for getting more people to watch independent, off-the-radar films. Even right now, To Leslie is 15th on the iTunes Store charts, a position that wouldn’t be possible without Riseborough’s nomination. But the harsher, yet more probable reality is that none of this means anything. We’ll move forward, the Academy will continue to play it safe, and nothing will remain except the memory of when those actors randomly decided to help their friend.

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Kaveh Jalinous

Kaveh Jalinous is a New York City-based freelance journalist specializing in the world of film and television, as well as a working filmmaker and screenwriter. He is currently pursuing a degree in Film and Media Studies at Columbia University, and in his free time, he enjoys playing guitar.

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