The Andrea Riseborough controversy, explained

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Hollywood is in a frenzy as the nominations for this year’s Oscar Awards are causing controversy. More specifically, it’s about the best actress nominations, arguably, one of the most anticipated categories of the night. The age-old question, is the Academy is A) racist, B) corrupt, C) biased, or D) all of the above?

The best actress category is always speckled with star quality. Speculations on who will be nominated involve looking at the greatest films of the year: movies with great budgets, movies with the best of women at the front, movies that reach out and touch upon important conversations, and movies that hold their own.

It is expected that the nominations are fair and represent an equal mix of ethnicities, ages, and talents. The nominated are Cate Blanchett (Tár), Ana de Armas (Blonde), Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans), Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once), and Andrea Riseborough (To Leslie).

Danielle Deadwyler in Till. Image Credit: Universal Pictures
Viola Davis (middle) in The Woman King. Image Credit: Sony Pictures

Riseborough was not expected to be a runner-up for the nomination. Her contenders were Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler, two black women, starring in the movies The Woman King and Till, respectively. The nomination was unexpected to Riseborough herself, who said she was just excited that “people know who I am now.” Neither The Woman King nor Till managed to secure a single Oscar nomination.

So how did it happen that two black actresses who were expected to receive a nomination were suddenly out of the race?

Till and The Woman King are far ahead on both budget and box-office profit than To Leslie. They have done considerably better in advertising and it wasn’t until recently that people had even heard about Riseborough’s performance. Director Michael Morris said that the production didn’t have money to advertise the movie and that they instead relied on people watching the movie for its marketing and campaigning. To Leslie made just about £22,000 at the box office during its short release in October 2022. This makes it one of the lowest-grossing movies to receive an Oscar nomination ever.

“It’s not a snub. It’s a reflection of where the Academy stands and the consistent chasm between Black excellence and recognition.”

There is a case to be made on smaller independently produced movies making a big viewership impact and gaining recognition by organisations like the Academy. Blockbusters are always expected to receive a lot of nominations and Oscar bait (movies that are made on large budgets and with the purpose of earning nominations) is a well-known challenge to authentic and passionate film-making.

Critics have praised Andrea Riseborough for her role in To Leslie, saying it is her best performance to date. The movie ranks high on both IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, but so does The Woman King and Till. It seems that it was a fair fight between the movies and that Davis and Deadwyler were just unlucky this time around.

Andrea Riseborough is originally from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Image Credit: TNS

Viola Davis recently won a Grammy for best spoken-word album, earning herself an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award). She is the third black woman to achieve the prestigious honour. Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of The Woman King, didn’t think the nominations had been snubbed by To Leslie.

“A snub is if it missed out on a category or two. The film was not nominated for one single craft. Not one single extraordinary performance was recognized,” Prince-Bythewood told The Hollywood Reporter. She has been in the film industry for more than three decades.

“It’s not a snub. It’s a reflection of where the Academy stands and the consistent chasm between Black excellence and recognition.”

Danielle Deadwyler cited racism and misogynoir as the reasons why she and Davis were overlooked in the awards nominations. Misogynoir is a term coined by black author, feminist, and activist Moya Bailey, referring to the misogyny directed at black women. Deadwyler asserted that it was a question of “people who are living in whiteness, white people’s assessment of the spaces they are privileged by.”

Sarah Paulson made an Instagram post praising To Leslie with the hashtag #tolesliemovie. Image Credit: @mssarahcatharinepaulson / Instagram

These reactions came after Riseborough’s performance received endorsements from a group of A-list celebrities. The Academy has very strict lobbying rules on how movies campaign before Oscar night. It is strictly forbidden to contact members of the Academy to promote a film. However, all of a sudden celebrities like Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ed Norton, Charlize Theron, and Jennifer Aniston hosted private screenings and advocated the movie as “a small film with a giant heart”.

“It took me 40 years to even get a nomination. […] The stories we want to tell are more important.”

Andrea Riseborough’s movie roles include Birdman, Matilda the Musical, and Amsterdam, but she is not a household name and her connection to long-time Hollywood celebrities is not apparent. The wife of director Michael Morris, however, has a long history among these people. Mary McCormack allegedly sent emails to her Hollywood connections asking them to promote the movie.

This last-minute campaign has sparked a lot of debate on white privilege and elitism in the film industry. Is a good connection all that is needed to gain an Oscar nomination?

Left to right: Andrea Riseborough, Demi Moore, Michael Morris, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Image Credit: Gwyneth Paltrow

The academy subsequently launched a review of the Oscar campaigns, not directly naming To Leslie’s sporadic campaign, but concluded that Riseborough’s nomination should not be revoked.

Several celebrities came to the defence of Riseborough’s surprise nomination, ridiculing the Academy’s investigation as being woke. Best-actress nominee Michelle Yeoh commented that she wished everybody could be nominated, emphasising that it’s a tough field.

“It took me 40 years to even get a nomination. […] The stories we want to tell are more important.”

The Academy Awards will take place on March 12.  

Featured Image Credit: IMDb

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Fourth year English and Journalism student and Comment editor. Talk to me about fashion, culture, language and media.

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