Bright and early on the morning of January 24, 2023, as Riz Ahmed and Alison Williams named the Oscar nominees for Best Actress, 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 a depiction of a real person. Michelle Yeoh for Everything Everywhere All At Once. And Andrea Riseborough, for ... To Leslie?
Most people who’d heard of the movie knew of it because of a strange grassroots campaign that seemed to emerge out of nowhere a week or two prior, 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, praise for Riseborough’s performance was everywhere.
On Oscar nominations morning, it turned out that this was enough to get Riseborough on the board. Some observers complained, noting that previous favorites for the slot — Danielle Deadwyler in Till and Viola Davis in The Woman King — appeared to have been knocked out by the groundswell of support.
We have no way of knowing if that’s true, but it doesn’t seem impossible, since both Deadwyler and Davis have had widespread support in various guild and critics’ awards over the past few months. Nonetheless, the Academy announced they’d be opening an investigation into the tactics of Riseborough’s campaign to see whether they violated the rules of the Oscars. On January 31, they announced that Riseborough would keep her nomination but that “tactics” were being “addressed with the responsible parties directly.”
And those intimations about dicey tactics are a little surprising, if you know anything about how Oscar winners are made.
Let’s back up. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences — that is, the industry group made up entirely of people who work in the industry (but no journalists or critics) — gives out the Oscars, and the group is made up of distinct “branches.” There’s a branch for cinematographers, another for writers, another for directors, and so on. Each branch votes on nominations in its own discipline, ultimately picking five nominees. The exception is Best Picture, which has 10 nominee slots and is voted on by the entire membership, which numbers around 10,000. After nominees are announced, everyone gets to vote in every category.
The idea here is noble: You know your craft, so you’re best suited to pick the five options from which the broader membership will choose the winners. Simple, right?
Except the Oscars have never been simple, for a lot of reasons. The American film industry is mostly based in Los Angeles, which is a company town. That means everybody knows everybody — not just knows, but marries, divorces, drinks with, sees at bake sales, hires and fires and hears rumors about. Exceptions abound, of course, but it’s a bit like choosing winners among your very extended family. No wonder the whole thing can feel like a popularity contest.
Another wrinkle is that the prospect of choosing “the best” art is categorically ridiculous. Some things are better than others, sure. But taste is inherently subjective — what I like you might hate — and when you’re operating on the technical level of most movies, judgments of “best” boil down to taste. The endless awards season has its reasons for existing; recognition for one’s work can go a long way toward establishing a career. But the fiction that a group can vote to choose the best of something is silly, laughably so.
But the main issue with choosing the Oscars is simply that they’re not a contest of craft at all. They’re a contest of politics. I don’t mean that they’re “political,” though the long, long history of Hollywood is one of Washington and Hollywood meddling in one another’s business. (Anyone who says movies were better when they were “less political” has made up some Hollywood in their head with no resemblance to the real one.)
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, though it might not feel that way to the nominees. This is so true that when I wrote about it several years ago, I found political consultants were as knowledgeable about the process as awards strategists (and more open about it, too).
Yet there’s one big difference. When you’re campaigning for president, all bets are off. You can relentlessly knock on doors, call and text and email constituents, and outright ask for their vote. In American politics, it’s perfectly fine to be a candidate who walks up to someone on the street, hands them a flier, and says, “I am Alissa Wilkinson, I’m running for president, and I’m asking for your vote.”
But there’s a strange skittishness in the Academy around such bold displays of campaigning — if anyone notices. Andrea Riseborough doesn’t appear to have been knocking on doors personally, but To Leslie director Michael Morris’s wife, the actress Mary McCormack, reportedly beat the bushes on her behalf. Variety reported that she emailed friends in the Academy, asking them to “post every day between now and Jan 17th” — the last day of Oscar nominations voting. It was a low-budget campaign for a low-budget film, but it may have violated the Academy’s injunction against direct campaigning. Reportedly, she also held a small gathering at her home (something the Academy doesn’t allow, in certain parameters, without an accompanying screening).
What’s ironic, as many have pointed out — like Riseborough’s 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 we know about), there’s plenty of campaigning going on. As I wrote:
The bottom line is that, no matter what narrative your film is part of, you have to ensure that Academy members will see your film, connect to its story, and remember it come voting time. The more opportunities there are to do this, the better. And so during Oscar season, there are screenings with cocktails and Q&As. There are dinners. And breakfasts, and luncheons, and teas, and cocktail receptions hosted by celebrities and influencers.
Stars and Oscar hopefuls show up for meet-and-greets and make surprise appearances at screenings. They appear on podcasts and do video tours and make the rounds on late-night comedy shows, and a lot more.
(Perhaps most ironically, the modern-day template for campaigns that cost millions of dollars and sometimes employ dirty tactics was created, more or less single-handedly, by none other than Harvey Weinstein.)
In the end, the question is whether a movie that visibly violated the campaign rules should be punished, allowing the Academy to maintain the polite fiction that much more expensive campaigns with less overt (but still obvious) tactics should be permitted to continue.
And all of this points to what seems to me like a bigger issue. The American presidential election system has been hopelessly mediatized and increasingly hysterical. The hype-and-fear cycle begins years ahead of the actual election, as if it’s an epic live sports showdown and not a sober civic ritual designed to produce justice and fairness.
The Oscars are, in fact, a live showdown, and if you think they’re about justice and fairness then you may want to buy this bridge I’ve got down in Brooklyn. But the Oscars cycle does have a negative effect on the movies, regardless. As I’ve written, the hype cycle, the endless “will it win an Oscar?” questioning, the informal campaigning begins about a month after the Oscars and continues all year. By September’s fall festival cycle, the “frontrunners” are all but established, making it hard for any surprises to break through. 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 films get swept up in the vortex.
If the Academy were to put a tighter rein on all campaign activities — not just grassroots campaigns that are a little too obvious for its taste — it might not solve that problem. But it could also work to level the playing field, allowing more films to enter the conversations and even be seen by more people. Maybe it wouldn’t lead to a movie business less hellbent on awards-grubbing — but wouldn’t it be worth trying?