To Leslie: What Is the Andrea Riseborough Movie with All the Oscar Drama?

Andrea Riseborough’s Oscar nomination brought a lot of welcome attention to the heartfelt indie To Leslie… and possibly some controversy.

Andrea Riseborough in To Leslie
Photo: Momentum Pictures

Last week marked the annual ritual that comes every 12 months with Oscar nominations. Before the crack of dawn, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awakens the entire industry to reveal who will be nominated as “the best” from the year that was. And, as always, there were snubs and Oscars disappointments about who was ignored or passed over (and how all too often they appear to be Black when it comes to major categories like Best Director and Best Actress). 

One major pleasant surprise, however, was the nomination of Andrea Riseborough in the Best Actress category for her role in To Leslie. The film premiered at SXSW earlier in the year and was an intimate character study that far too few audiences saw or even sought out. Nonetheless, the film’s central performance was nominated alongside expected nominees like Cate Blanchett for the spellbinding Tár and Michelle Yeoh for the wild Everything Everywhere All at Once. Riseborough even got into the category over performers who prognosticators felt were locked in for nominations like Danielle Deadwyler, who was heartbreaking in Till, and household names such as Viola Davis (The Woman King) and Margot Robbie (Babylon).

However, Riseborough’s celebratory attention has shifted due to social media whispers about the campaign process, and the Academy’s Board of Governors are even expected to discuss the matter later this week. So just what is To Leslie, and why is there so much supposed controversy around the movie?

What Is To Leslie (and Why You Should See It)

To Leslie is director Michael Morris’ feature-length debut after spending more than a decade working in television. You may not know his name, but Morris has likely worked on at least one of your favorite TV shows with his credits including Better Call Saul, Shameless, Halt and Catch Fire, and For All Mankind. With To Leslie, he and screenwriter Ryan Binaco took inspiration from real events to consider a scenario where winning the lottery could, in fact, make your life worse.

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That’s arguably what happened to Leslie (Riseborough), a single mother living in West Texas who wins a small fortune of $130,000 in the lottery. She thinks the money will change her life, and it does—allowing her to unleash her worst demons as it completely vanishes in a handful of years. When the movie picks up, her son is gone and has no interest in talking to her, and Leslie spends most nights staring down the bottom of the bottle and addiction. Perhaps, though, there is redemption if she can ever look up.

So To Leslie is an intimate character study of one woman’s pain and dignity after enjoying (and enduring?) an extraordinary life event. It is also a showcase for its acting, particularly Riseborough who wowed the critics who did see the movie with a multilayered portrait of despair and desperation. The movie also featured significant turns from Allison Janney (who won an Oscar for I, Tonya) and Marc Maron (GLOW).

Why the Oscar Nomination Was a Surprise

As aforementioned, To Leslie premiered at SXSW last March, but since then it’s been seen by an intimately small audience—and that includes critics and many awards groups. Despite playing at a series of other festivals, the film received a straight to PVOD release date in October to accompany its extremely limited release in a handful of theaters. Distributed by indie Momentum Pictures, To Leslie received praise from the critics who saw the film (it currently sits at 97 percent fresh reviews on Rotten Tomatoes based on 59 aggregated reviews), but otherwise did not find a major audience.

This includes many awards groups. Films and performances are traditionally championed by organized campaigns masterminded by publicists working either for a film’s studio or an independent PR firm that was hired by the studio and/or producers to pay minute attention to the rules and details governing each awards body. This helps create the current ecosystem of awards shows and events, and the all the voting therein. It also is a system that allows smaller movies—with financial support—to find awards groups who might’ve missed them earlier in the year. This is achieved by campaigns sharing screeners with voters, holding press screenings for guilds and associations in major cities, and even the infamous Q&As and parties wherein awards hopefuls are able to spend a little face time with voters—including most especially members of the Academy.

And generally speaking, given the relative obscurity with which To Leslie was released, the film had little to no organized campaign effort until late in the season (more on that below). Which is not to say it was totally ignored. Indeed, Riseborough previously received a nomination for the Independent Spirit Awards which celebrates the type of indies that are usually off the Academy’s more Hollywood-centric radar. However, anecdotally, I know that members of many critics groups who receive most of their screeners in November or December reportedly did not receive one for To Leslie, and as a member of several critics groups, I am aware of only one screening invitation in December… that was connected to a festival occurring hundreds of miles outside the city where I live.

 Why There Is Drama About Riseborough’s Nomination

At the moment, there is no public evidence of rule-breaking or actual impropriety on the part of anyone associated with To Leslie, which resulted in Andrea Riseborough being nominated for Best Actress. But due to optics around the film’s grassroots support among members of the Academy (mostly from its actors’ wing), many observers have cried foul that Riseborough’s nomination is probably at the expense of two Black performers, namely Danielle Deadwyler who many (myself included) assumed was locked-in for a nomination after seeing Till, as well as Viola Davis for her work in The Woman King.

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The Academy has an infamous history with its difficulty in awarding Black art, and is only right now seven years removed from the “#OscarsSoWhite” controversy. To date, only one Black woman has won the Best Actress Oscar in its 95-year history.

Meanwhile, To Leslie’s Oscar campaign did not follow the traditional path forward, with the film apparently gaining initial attention in large part because of the efforts of Mary McCormack, the wife of To Leslie director Michael Morris. According to a newsletter from THR, this began with Morris and McCormack sharing the movie with personal friend Howard Stern who, in turn, began championing it for awards consideration. After Riseborough was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in November, Charlize Theron then hosted her own screening of the film with CAA, one of the most powerful agencies in Hollywood.

According to THR, it was McCormack, instead of the film’s distributor or producers, who then enlisted publicity firms Shelter PR and Narrative PR to help build a last minute awards campaign for Riseborough in the Best Actress category. McCormack also campaigned for the film by emailing friends with connections in the industry. One email obtained by Variety read, “If you’re willing to post every day between now and Jan 17th [the last day of Oscar nomination voting], that would be amazing! But anything is helpful, so please do whatever makes you comfortable. And what’s more comfortable than posting about a movie every day!”

In the final weeks ahead of nominations, A-list stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Edward Norton, Courteney Cox, and Demi Moore began holding personal To Leslie screenings for Academy members, and the film received public support from the likes of Liam Neeson, Jane Fonda, Sally Field, and Laura Dern. Cate Blanchett even praised Riseborough during her own acceptance speech at the Critics Choice Awards.

The result appears to be an Oscar nomination. Yet, while there is no evidence of supposed wrongdoing, the Academy has announced (via the Los Angeles Times) it will “review” on Tuesday  the polices and procedures deemed acceptable for campaigning in the age of social media.

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

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Given the facts that are a matter of public record as of press time, the rapid response by the Academy to the online controversy around Riseborough’s nomination seems a bit… odd. The Oscars have a long, long, long history of passing over Black performances in favor of white ones, as well as ignoring great achievements of all stripes due to effective political campaigning behind the scenes.

Unless something significant is reported from their “review,” hand-wringing that social media posts of support from celebrities is out of bounds—after the fact—feels meaningless when it comes to addressing what appears to be strong institutional bias against Black performances. And to blame that on a small movie with a marvelous performance would itself be its own kind of PR fiasco and controversy.