‘Masterpiece of a film’: why is every A-lister trying to get To Leslie an Oscar? | Andrea Riseborough

Ddepending on one’s interest in film awards, it may or may not be apparent that the business of the Oscars is a nearly year-long affair. The pieces for an Oscar campaign – a full-time job with its own PR, schmoozing schedule and the momentum of smaller awards to achieve enough votes for a nomination – are usually in place months ahead of time. The window provides time to tweak and build a narrative; there is nothing Hollywood loves more than a comeback or underdog story (see: this year’s supporting actor frontrunner Ke Huy Quan or best actress contender Michelle Yeoh). Yet even most seasoned awards-followers have been surprised by the very late-breaking, star-studded campaign to garner Andrea Riseborough, a British character actor, an Oscar nomination for her leading role in To Leslie, a little-seen indie drama that has made barely $27,000 since a small theatrical release in October.

Even in the smoke-and-mirrors world of Hollywood myth-making, the display of public celebrity muscle for Riseborough’s performance in recent days has seemed strange. Before the past two weeks, there had been almost no buzz for To Leslie, the feature debut by veteran television director Michael Morris – a few screenings, but no visible awards campaign. Yet in recent days, a sizable squadron of celebrities have come to bat for the film and, more pointedly, Riseborough’s performance as an itinerant, alcoholic mother from west Texas reeling from six years of shame after squandering a $190,000 lottery prize.

Cate Blanchett, a best actress frontrunner for Tár, used the opening minute of her Critics Choice award acceptance speech on Sunday to single out Riseborough as one of the most overlooked performances by “arbitrary” acting awards. Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a screening for the “masterpiece of a film” and said Riseborough deserves “to win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet.” In a Q&A she moderated, Kate Winslet called Riseborough’s work “one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in my life”. In her own virtual Q&A hosted on Tuesday evening, Amy Adams praised Riseborough’s “remarkable” performance as a “soul transformation”.

There are more: Jane Fonda (“brave and unsparing performance”, “go see it!”), Jennifer Aniston (“beautiful”), Edward Norton (“the most fully committed, emotionally deep, physically harrowing performance I’ve seen in a while. Just raw & utterly devoid of performative BS”), Helen Hunt (“If you’re out there voting for performances, don’t do it till you see Andrea Riseborough”), Melanie Lynskey (“even for her this is next level”). Numerous celebrities have suddenly and publicly sung Riseborough’s praises with suspiciously similar phrasing – in social media posts, Mia Farrow, Joe Mantegna, Dulé Hill and Meredith Vieira all called To Leslie “a small film with a giant heart” with Riseborough “giving the performance of the year”.

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The abrupt tide of superlatives – as well as the seemingly cut-and-paste praise – has drawn fair online skepticism (and memes, such as tweet reviewing Barack Obama’s “best films of 2022” list to include To Leslie and an endorsement of Riseborough from Baby Annette.) What is going on? Is this a genuine groundswell of goodwill for a talented and less name-recognizable actor? A last-ditch strategy of favors? An A-list lovefest?

The answer is, most likely, somewhere in between. To Leslie, which co-stars Marc Maron, Owen Teague, Allison Janney and Stephen Root, is the type of gritty, poverty-adjacent indie drama that draws critical praise and awards attention but struggles to find distribution and audience. The film, made for under a million dollars and filmed over the course of 19 days, made, again, barely $27,000 in a limited release; writer and director Morris told the Hollywood Reporter that they couldn’t even afford an ad. Riseborough’s committed performance, in which she transforms into a woman breaking down from years of alcohol abuse and plays several stages of drunkenness and withdrawal with almost comically pink-rimmed eyes, is in a recognizable awards genre of, for lack of a better term, “ going ugly” or poor. Which is not to say her work her is insensitive; she is remarkably good at playing an uncomfortably loud, pitiable yet resilient drunk. Her dela Leslie dela is a vortex of need nearly vibrating with shame and the weight of a shadow self, one on the earlier side of potential who did n’t make her mistakes. Though the film’s redemption arc feels too pat (and her rock-bottom job at a motel is an indefinably Hollywood-ized vision of working-class struggles), Riseborough’s mutability rises above.

In other words, it’s the type of intense, full-immersion transformation (on a “cellular level”, according to Adams) that would draw the respect of other actors. You’d have to be pretty cynical to believe that some of the enthusiasm for Riseborough’s work wasn’t genuine. Still, as IndieWire reported, it’s unlikely there wasn’t some behind-the-scenes dealing. Riseborough is represented by powerhouse agency CAA; the intra-celeb buzz originated at the film’s SXSW premiere when Norton and Theron agreed to host screenings after “a few well-placed phone calls” by Morris, who has directed episodes for Bloodline, Better Call Saul, Shameless and 13 Reasons Why.

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On the heels of some Hollywood word of mouth and Riseborough’s nomination for a Film Independent Spirit award, Riseborough’s team strategized a late-breaking Oscar push in December, the final stretch for what is now a relatively concrete template to campaign for awards. The celebrity blitz, inspired at least in part by Paltrow’s screening and her Instagram post last week in support of her dela “friend” Morris, seemed timed as a Hail Mary for voters in the final hours. (Academy members voted on nominations from 12-17 January, which will be announced on 24 January.)

Whether goodwill or favors or both, the Instagram posts and screening quotes and shout-outs have accomplished what a lack of marketing budget could not: interest (or bewilderment) for To Leslie, which has been otherwise overshadowed by films with larger budgets, star wattage , distribution and critical discussion. And moreover, boldfaced appreciation for Riseborough, a respected and talented actor heretofore best known as a supporting player rather than a commanding lead. The Andrea Riseborough movement was probably too little, too late in terms of garnering an Oscar nomination, let alone a win over the more structured campaigns. But as a case study of celebrity networks and the strategies for courting Academy attention, it has been, brief and blazingly, a success.

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