If You Think The Andrea Riseborough Oscar Nomination Is Racist, You Are Being Used
Plus: Why the Razzies shouldn't have un-nominated a 12 year old.
Hello friends & lovers,
Last week, nominations for the 2023 Oscars were announced. In one of the award show’s all-time big surprises, Andrea Riseborough was nominated for Best Actress for a film that virtually no one had seen or even heard of. To Leslie is an independent film about a West Texas mother who wins the lottery, blows the money on alcohol, and many years later tries to put the pieces of her life back together. When I say no one saw this film, I mean it. It made less than $30,000 at the box office when it was initially released. It costs almost that much just to make your film available for Academy members to see on the members-only streaming platform.
She had not been nominated at any of the other prestigious awards shows that prognosticators typically look at when trying to predict the Academy Awards. This was not on anyone’s radar screens.
What had happened was that about a week before the voting kicked off, some very famous actors and actresses took to social media to tout her performance. After her nomination was announced, it came out that the wife of the film’s director had emailed everyone celebrity she knew and asked them to see the movie and post on social media about it. This was the director’s first film, but his wife is the actress Mary McCormack, who is not like some A-lister but has had a long and notable career on television. She has built up a lot of goodwill in Hollywood, so her prompting led many famous actors and actresses who decide on the nominations in the acting categories to tweet about it and Instagram about it and host screenings and Q&As with their friends about it. Kate Winslet called her performance “the greatest female performance onscreen I have ever seen in my life.”.
All of this paid off with this shock nomination.
Some background for the uninitiated: hundreds of films are eligible for Academy Awards nominations in each category. The nominations for all awards but Best Picture (which everyone gets to vote for) are decided by the members of each particular branch. There are about 10,000 voters in the whole Academy, sorted between 17 branches. So, cinematographers determine who is nominated for Best Cinematographer. Actors decide who is nominated for Best Actor/Supporting Actress, etc… Once the nominees are set, every Academy member gets a ballot and gets to vote for who should win the actual awards.
Getting a nomination involves being in the top 5 of a blind ballot of a thousand-ish people. (Except for Best Picture, which has its own rules and is irrelevant to any of this conversation.)
Actually winning means being the top vote-getter in that category of the entire Academy.
The Academy Awards are a highly political thing in Hollywood. Studios and publicists spend millions of dollars throwing screenings and taking out ads and flying potential nominees to events all around the country to win the support of enough Academy members to score a nom. And you don’t need that many. The acting branch of the Academy is its largest branch, and it has more than a thousand but fewer than probably 1,500 members. So when you get to the bottom of the five nominees in each category, it could be because 100 people voted in a block for it at number 1.
Andrea Riseborough’s shock nomination meant that someone who was expected to get nominated necessarily didn’t. In this case, the prognosticators had assumed that the fifth nomination would go to either Viola Davis (The Woman King) or Dannielle Deadwyler (Till). Both of these actresses are Black and were the subject of massive multi-million dollar Oscar campaigns to score them nominations. Andrea Riseborough is a British white lady who did not receive an extensive campaign backing her. Because Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler were not nominated for Best Actress, it means that no Black women were nominated in that category. (Angela Basset was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and is the favorite to win that award.)
So, last week outrage at the apparent snubs boiled over on social media from a lot of armchair Twitter users and some people in Hollywood, including the director of Till. This criticism was based on the idea that the Oscars are racist.
“We live in a world and work in industries that are so aggressively committed to upholding whiteness and perpetuating an unabashed misogyny towards Black women,” Till director Chinonye Chukwu wrote on Instagram.
A few days after the nominations were revealed, the Academy announced that it was investigating the campaigns that led to the nominations and though they didn’t call out To Leslie specifically, it was reported that it was because people had complained that the organic efforts to get people in the acting branch to see the film may have run afoul of some Academy rules that prohibit “lobbying” members directly. None of the rules are very clear, and in the run-up to the nominations every year, every Oscar campaign comes as close to breaking the rules as possible.
Did these concerns come from people on Twitter who tweet #OscarsSoWhite and don’t know anything about the Academy Awards voting policies? Probably not! They probably came from a second group of people miffed at Riseborough’s nomination: publicists.
Oscar season for Hollywood publicists is like a new iPhone reveal for tech journalists: you will make most of your business for the entire year during this one season. The idea that you can just come out of nowhere and score a nomination over these well-funded campaigns threatens the business model of expensive Oscar campaigns.
Is it possible that the To Leslie grassroots campaign somehow violated the rules in a way that the other campaigns didn’t by virtue of being done organically over email and not involving massive ad campaigns? I don’t care. And neither does anyone else. They are being used as a cudgel by people who break the rules all the time!
These two forces joined: the insider publicist campaign using the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter stuff as cover to raise a stink about someone getting nominated for a major award without spending millions on paid media.
The angle of the #OscarsSoWhite complaint is that Andrea Riseborough benefited from a “boy’s club” of Hollywood people who all know each other and used that to steal a nomination from a Black woman who deserved it but—the implication goes—doesn’t have such an extensive Rolodex. This is patently ridiculous. Viola Davis has been nominated for four Academy Awards. She has won one. She is a beloved A-lister in Hollywood, and I’m sure she knows a lot more people than Mary McCormack, whose most famous role is playing the third female lead in the post-Sorkin seasons of the West Wing.
The underlying implication of the #OscarsSoWhite complaint also seems to be built around the false idea that nominations are decided by all the actors and actresses in Hollywood getting in a room behind closed doors and deciding the five best performances in each category. But that’s wrong. It’s 1,500 blind ballots. So a lot of people who voted for Andrea Riseborough had no idea who the other four nominees would be but probably assumed, like everyone else, that Viola Davis or Danielle Deadwyler would be one of them since they had these massive campaigns behind them. They didn’t all get together and say, “no Black women this year.”
This is a problem that comes with investing in every Oscar race a question of “what does this say about the state of racism in Hollywood?” Blind ballots are funny! Sometimes wonderful performances don’t crack the top 5! The difference between scoring the fifth nomination and not getting nominated could be as few as 20 people voting one way or another.
It is incredibly unlikely that Riseborough’s nomination will be rescinded. But it is now tainted.
You can imagine a situation where this shock nomination led to a torrent of good press that got people to watch this film, creating a sort of Cinderella story that catapulted Riseborough to winning the award. Indeed, I had not even heard of To Leslie but was sufficiently curious to rent it, and it’s amazing! And she is astoundingly good in it! If I were a member of the Academy, I would vote for her to win Best Actress.
But that didn’t happen. And the reason it didn’t happen is because of a third force complaining about it: the publicists and agents who work for the other nominees.
It’s not hard to see how the Cinderella storyline could have snowballed, so to prevent that, they napalmed the press with stories about how the nomination was maybe illegal and racist.
All’s fair in love and war; Hollywood awards are war, and that’s life. Publicists make a lot of money. Some of them aren’t worth it. Some of them are! These ones are earning their money.
But it would have been much harder to do this if #OscarsSoWhite activists on Twitter hadn’t given them cover by saying the whole thing was racist.
They are being taken for a ride to ensure that Cate Blanchett or some other frontrunner wins Best Actress.
There are real diversity issues in Hollywood. The studios, award shows, and every element of the industry have been making progress in remedying them over the last few years. It doesn’t mean they are remedied. Many of these issues are systemic, and you have to look at them from 30,000 feet to understand what’s going on and tell if progress I being made. But you know virtually nothing by focusing on any one individual Oscar race. It’s a tiny number of people making subjective decisions with imperfect knowledge of how everyone else is voting.
It is tempting in all sorts of situations to take huge overwhelming conclusions away from any sort of vote.
If 100,000 people in 2016 had voted differently, a glass ceiling is broken, and America is a vision of progressivism on the road to tomorrow. But they didn’t, so instead, America was an unforgivable hellhole filled with Klan members.
In reality, what 100,000 people in a country of 300 million do is not some meaningful statement about the nation’s soul.
Either takeaway would have been wrong. A lot of this comes down to bad weather and luck. It comes down to coin flips.
This is even more true in a situation like Oscar nominations where you aren’t voting between two choices with competing politics. You’re just voting for your favorite performance. And it should go without saying that, ultimately, Oscar nominations shouldn’t even matter to people outside of Hollywood!
Quick, who were the nominees for Best Actor in 2013 who didn’t win? I have no idea, either.
All of which is to say: Andrea Riseborough’s nomination is cool! I wouldn’t have heard about this film if not for this grassroots campaign to get her nominated. And I’m really glad I did because the film is great! I strongly encourage you to watch it!
While we’re on the subject of Hollywood bullshit…
The Razzie nominations also came out last week. The Razzies are a dumb award show for movies and performances that the folks at the Razzies think were bad. Every year people complain about them for various reasons. This year, the main reason people complained is that they nominated the 12-year-old star of the film Firestarter, a remake of the 1980s cult classic starring Drew Barrymore as a girl who can make fire.
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