THB #310: Riseborough: The Drama
I lost a writing day to Twitter and the “discussion” of The Academy and Best Actrees nominee Andrea Riseborough.
I put “discussion” in parentheses because this is one of those areas where there seems to be a lot of position-taking and not a lot on conversation.
To start with, I have not seen a single claim that strongly suggests that Team Riseborough - which appears to have been led by the wife of To Leslie’s director Michael Morris, Mary McCormack - actually cheated in any way. What claims that there are floating around are all rather ticky-tacky, more looking for a way to declare the effort to get Riseborough nominated “cheating” rather than really having a reasonable argument that there was intentional, situation-changing bad behavior.
At the same time, the entire issue has taken on an aggressively racial tone based on the assumption, grounded on the guessing of pundits, that a Black actress (either Viola Davis or Danielle Deadwyler) would have been nominated had Ms. Riseborough not been.
From that assumption, I have seen a number of pile-ons of ideas, assuming various meanings to the one sure fact… that Ms. Riseborough was nominated and very few people expected it and it as barely on anyone’s radar at all mid-December.
The first match to be struck was by the director of Till, responding to the Oscar nominations…
Variety’s Marc Malkin printed part of a private e-mail sent by Mary McCormack to friends within hours of the nomination announcement on the 24th.
After Riseborough nabbed a Spirit Award nomination, McCormack got to work with help from publicity powerhouses Shelter PR and Narrative PR. McCormack sent an email to friends asking them to publicly support the movie and Riseborough’s performance, even including images and suggested hashtags and accounts to tag in social media posts. “If you’re willing to post every day between now and Jan 17th [the last day of Oscar nomination voting], that would be amazing!” she wrote in one email obtained by Variety. “But anything is helpful, so please do whatever makes you comfortable. And what’s more comfortable than posting about a movie every day!”
Was this private e-mail sent to Malkin or another Variety reporter that morning or before nominations even happened? I don’t know.
It is worth noting that Narrative has worked with Riseborough as personal publicists in the past. I was invited to see the film back on November 11, hosted by Charlize Theron, in an invitation send out directly from CAA. It was the end of a week that featured the first showings in L.A. of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, The Fabelmans, and The Whale. None of those screenings featured talent. This one did.
The CAA screening room doesn’t allow any of us to “escape” after a movie without being seen by colleagues and publicists. For a movie that had already fallen off the radar in October, starring at least one actor I have a friendship with over the years, this was not where I wanted to be. If you love it, great. If not, it is awkward. So I didn’t attend, figuring that if it was important for me to see the film, there would be more opportunities.
There was a press day on December 6 and 7… invite from 42 West… right in the mix of A Man Called Otto and Avatar: The Way of Water having their first screenings. Another pass. I decided not to ask for a screener, without the intention to be part of the press day because I was both overwhelmed with movies that demanded serious consideration and because I didn’t want to be rude. But again… if it was that important, as a pundit and as a member of a voting group, I figured the film would turn up without me requesting it. It didn’t.
The next time the movie reared its head for me was really at The Golden Globes with Cate Blanchett.
On the 24th, after the nominations, Variety’s Clayton Davis wrote:
Riseborough has garnered much respect from the Hollywood community and cinephiles, with roles in past best picture winners like “Birdman” (2014). Her inclusion is worth celebrating and will likely inspire future campaigns from actors whose studios don’t have the financial means to mount awards campaigns for their performers.
Two days later, on the 26th, insight-challenged gossip columnist Matt Belloni published a rambling, fact-light screed headlined, “Was the Andrea Riseborough Oscar Campaign Illegal?” like a scandal rag would, include the comment that he had been told that “the Academy is looking at this.”
By the next afternoon, The Academy declared that it was, indeed, looking into this, with this unclear, somewhat inflammatory release:
“It is the Academy’s goal to ensure that the Awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner, 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. We have confidence in the integrity of our nomination and voting procedures, and support genuine grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances.”
No mention of the movie or category. But suggestive, especially in the use of “genuine Grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances.”
One might ask, at that point, who is watching the watchers. The Academy, even though campaigners will complain about restrictions, has let marketing to Academy member go wild in the decade reign of Dawn Hudson. The Penske Trades routinely market directly to Academy members in ways that were considered completely illegal under Academy rules in the decades prior to Hudson taking the CEO role. In fact, she cleared out Board of Governors members based on their speaking about films in contention in public. And later, changed the official rules to allow just that.
The Academy has been very clear about what the rules are for parties and screenings and such… but not only barely enforces some of the toothier changes these days, they have allowed the media to front for distributors at event after event after event.
So, as a participant in the annual rituals, the idea that what was, clearly, a low-budget, low-profile, very hands-on effort amongst a group of motivated actors to honor one of their own is now the subject of all this pearl-clutching makes me laugh… and then, as it becomes a racial issue, makes me recoil in horror.
Is there anything (that is not criminal) for which a person can be publicly accused in this moment in history that is worse than being accused of being a racist… or a misogynist… or a religious bigot?
If you argue that it’s not a racial issue or that race is not a central issue, you are attacked for being a racist or more gently, that as a white person, you should shut up because you have been disqualified from having an opinion.
After fighting my way through the Tweet storm yesterday, I believe that the people aggressively accusing Team Riseborough of rule breaking are honestly trying to defend what they see as an attack on 2 black actresses, not damage Andrea Riseborough.
But they are, in my view, caught up in a narrative mostly devoid of facts about what is actually happening now, in this case. After going through the details, the focus in almost every series of exchanges came down to The Academy having a history of not embracing Black Actresses.
Yes! That ugly history is 100% true.
I would add, at my risk, that there is not a very deep history of “Oscar-y” roles for Black Actresses and that, as a result, the paring down to a group of 5 performances over a year is unavoidably weighted against Black Actresses. If there are 30 performances by White Actresses legitimately in contention and 5 by Black Actresses, the odds against a nomination are huge.
This season, in an even greater rarity than Black Actress nominations, there are 3 Asian women who have been nominated out of the 10 possible nominations. Also, 1 Asian Actor, 1 Black Actor, 1 Black Actress, and 1 Latina Actress. 7/20.
If these nominations were to look like America, there would be 9 or 10 nominations for people of color… some years more than 10, some years fewer than 9.
All this is just factual. But to look to The Academy to have racial parity with the U.S. popular as it honors an industry where there is nothing close to parity, either in executive suites or the movies that are made, is asking something unrealistic. Same with gender bias, unfortunately.
The Academy is not a monolithic voice. “It” does not set standards, “it” responds to them. Sometimes, “it” shows terrible biases. Sometimes, “it” overcompensates for the biases that have existed.
But essentially, it is a large swath of the industry, split into areas of work specialty, spread out over 2 dominant populations centers, with significant groupings in a half dozen others, and another dozen city groupings large enough to command marketing focus when Oscar season is happening.
Every award season, especially in the last few years, Q&A season comes along and every single movie considered serious in the season looks to use celebrities of various stripes to “host” and create a sense of need to participate in seeing the films and meeting the talent in these Q&As. The bigger the name, the better.
If a celebrity “host” is not available, they hire professional Q&Aers, who throw up softballs and laugh heartily at whatever joke the talent tells, leading the crowd. The talent, on the other hand, has been aggressively prepared to say what they need to say. There are few things funnier - though you can’t laugh when it happens - when a stray question is asked and the talent focuses in and reroutes it right back to the movie or performance they are selling that day.
I remember at the height of Johnny Depp (positive) hysteria, whatever studio it was had two theaters in Westwood with overflow RSVPs in one afternoon to see the movie and Depp’s Q&As.
Studios calibrate screening choices to maximize opportunity, inviting this group or that, mixing and matching voting groups, theaters booked months in advance.
Ironically, given the current fighting, the very same CAA screening room where there the Charlize Theron-hosted screening of To Leslie also was home to a Patty Jenkins screening of The Woman King and a Helen Mirren-hosted screening of Till.
The argument that Andrea Riseborough has more powerful friends than Viola Davis or even rising-name Deadwyler is not easily measured and Friends of Riseborough did take an unusually active role… but it’s a dubious distinction.
If the always-passionate Frances Fisher had all the power she is being portrayed as having these days, Fran Drescher wouldn’t have become SAG/AFTRA president with a large percentage of the vote.
There are a bunch of crazy psuedo-claims out there. One person insisted, endlessly, that somehow To Leslie faked a grassroots campaign and that this was somehow cheating its way to a nomination. To me, this argument makes as much sense as claiming that my favorite chocolate chip cookie is somehow tricking me into loving it by putting “Homemade” in big letters then “style” in small letters on the package. Forget that I would have to be a dunce to think a package of cookies in the store was actually made in someone’s home. I ate the cookie. I loved the cookie. I buy the cookie. People don’t buy Keebler’s because they think elves made it and no one buys vegetables because they believe a giant runs a farm somewhere.
To even consider the possibility of disqualifying a nomination because a friend of the film sent out an e-mail quoting Richard Roeper (oy, to start!) and in the quote, he mentions another movie or performance as not being as good as this one. Seriously?
Thing is, for real people, not soaking in the cesspool of Hollywood, I can understand making the leap to, “same old Academy racism.” I don’t agree in this case. For many years, I was the only one who would actually say that the was a racist and sexist streak in The Academy. I am still one of the few who will outright say that Brokeback Mountain lost because The Academy was not ready to put its stamp on gay love. Or that Dreamgirls was not nominated for Best Picture because it was a Black musical. Or that Eddie Murphy hasn’t got an Oscar or two on his mantle because of a bias against comedy and a racial bias against the “uppity” black superstar.
Just a few years ago, I would have argued, carefully and quietly, that there was a “Black slot” for movie and/or acting categories and there were not likely to be more than one Black person or film nominated in the high-profile categories.
This has changed.
The expansion to 10 films in Best Picture made for a big change. And not just for Black Hollywood. The 10 slots meant that a whole range of nomination opportunities opened up.
Life of Pi, Django Unchained, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Amour in 2012.
12 Years A Slave, Philomena, and Dallas Buyers Club in 2013.
Selma and the 2nd year of 1 of the 3 Amigos being nominated with Birdman in 2014.
Another Iñárritu and the A24 breakthrough with Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, Room in 2015.
Then Moonlight beats La La Land, aside nominees Hidden Figures, Fences, and Lion in 2016.
The 3rd Amigo’s The Shape of Water wins and gay-themed Call Me By Your Name, and Get Out in 2017.
Green Book won, but got the crap kicked out of it on social media, along side BP nominees Black Panther, BlackKklansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Roma in 2018.
Parasite became the new landmark in 2019, a non-English-language winner. Ironically, it was a very white, straight, US/UK year aside from that Korean moment.
Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, and deaf-drama Sound of Metal in 2020.
CODA won, next to Drive My Car, Belfast, King Richard, Nightmare Alley, and The Power of the Dog in 2021.
I was in denial for a lot of that run. I didn’t believe The Academy had changed that much. It wasn’t just the more-than-doubling of the Academy voter rolls. Old white men became more expansive thinkers about Oscar-worthy film as well. I know me saying this pisses some people off… they prefer the narrative that older, white, male voters (still the largest demo in the organization) are and will forever vote only for their own reflection.
This season, we have 3 Best Picture nominees with various degrees of non-English language being used significantly (or completely). We have a very fecking Irish film. We have a movie whose name defines the unique demo, Women Talking. We have the almost completely female Tár. We have Spielberg, as we do. And we have 3 big hit movies, 2 about white people and 1 about blue people, which is about white colonialism.
So is this good or bad?
Well, if you are Black and worried about Black inclusion over all other inclusion, it is not a very good season. Were The Woman King and Till the delivery methods that would assure Black inclusion in the season? No… so the results say.
If you are Chinese or, I suspect, other nationalities of Asian, this Everything Everywhere All At Once moment is Parasite on steroids, whether it wins or not. Four acting nominations, with 3 of the actors being quite famous over a long period and one on the rise, not just in his film. A newly-known directing team. Screenplay. Etc.
Women Talking didn’t get as much as many of us felt was right, but it’s there and so is Tár and Michelle Williams dominates The Fabelmans, so not a bad season for women.
The 3 big hit movies were all big hit movies worldwide… so combined with the internationally-oriented foursome of Best Picture nominees… it feels like one of the most internationally-minded seasons ever.
But I can understand why the Black Culture group would feel left behind this season. They were. As always, it is about the movies, how they were received and how they were sold. The Academy doesn’t control any of that.
That said, the illusion that the expansion, more than doubling the membership, has been a big success for Black Hollywood… this just isn’t what happened. The Academy focused on worldwide diversity, selling its numbers of improvement each year, and on building the ranks of Black Hollywood. As a result - and certainly not by intent - there is a much bigger voting bloc for international films than for Black Hollywood films. The Academy also did better building the percentage of women… so their tastes as a demographic are more reflected now. The white guys are still around. The Woman King and Wakanda Forever both crossover… but both also play like action films more than the dramas The Academy tends to embrace… unless you are Avatar or Lord of the Rings or, this year, Top Gun.
The amount of Black political clout inside The Academy is greater than the Black membership population. No one wants to talk about it… out loud. But it is undeniable. And that is fine and evolving and there is really nothing specific to discuss. But Black Hollywood thought that they landed on Wilshire Rock… and to some degree, Wilshire Rock landed on them. I can sympathize with that frustration. The work ahead in fairly integrating the industry has a long journey ahead.
But to me, taking it out on Andrea Riseborough is, well… just shitty.
Riseborough is not only one of the best actresses of her generation… she is certainly one of the most modest and least career-oriented. I am not saying she is not thrilled to be nominated. But there is a reason why she isn’t a bigger star… she gets lost in the characters are really doesn’t repeat herself in a way that people recognize from film to film.
And yeah… unless something really unusual happened, Riseborough was never going to get an Oscar nomination unless someone as single-minded and effective as Mary McCormack took up the cudgel in her name and pushed superhard.
Getting on the Academy Oscar server, a profit center for The Academy, costs $20,000, which is more than the film made in theatrical. The film has had no phyical media release, though it has been available on VOD for months.
Did McCormack, wife of the director of the film To Leslie, write some checks? Probably. It’s in no way illegal or immoral or against the spirit of the pricess. It is 99.9% unlikely that you will find another film with a nomination that spent any less.
One must also note… there is no proof of any kind that either Viola Davis or Danielle Deadwyler would have been nominated if Andrea Riseborough had not. If Davis had been nominated and Ana de Armas had not, would Riseborough still be under attack?
Finally, let’s decide how wide open we want this closet to get… because if we are getting down to what a supporter said to other voters or the idea that phone calls were made, everyone is going down. Everyone.
Do you know how many times I hear, “I’m not saying anything about that other movie, but…” in each and every award season?
Ads for Till ran, proudly, on this newsletter. And I had already had discussions about Phase II ads for The Woman King. I didn’t get a single call or e-mail about To Leslie, aside from the aforementioned screening and junket day invites.
To close… I wholly embrace the concerns about the status of Black Actresses and The Academy Awards… now and then.
I wholly reject the idea of trying to come up with excuses to make a very rare, late, passion-driven, underfunded nomination effort that succeeded into the poster child for the history of problematic choices by The Industry and The Academy. Unless there is some big smoking gun out there, this mess should stomped out ended immediately.
It is not as cruel as history has been to Black Hollywood. But it is cruel.
The Academy should have done this in private, over this weekend. Instead we got a statement that inferred everything and said almost nothing, stoking the flames of gossip and racial anger.
Had Viola Davis gotten nominated for the 5th time and Riseborough had not, not a head would have turned… but literally nothing, aside from the numberic outcome, would have changed. So where does that leave us?
Excellent thoughtful piece David. Thank you for making sense of all this.
Didn't read all of this 'cause I'm in the midst of my Sunday box office obligations, but I agree with most of what I did read except for this being some sort of proof that the Academy has something against black women. Angela Bassett is RIGHT THERE, and she's likely to win, making her the ... well, I don't have time to count... number of black women who have won the Supporting category in the past 20 years. Sure, it would be great to have Viola Davis or Danielle Deadwyler in the lead category, since they're both more than deserving, but I think the ire launched against Riseborough or anyone involved with To Leslie (which I still haven't had time to see for many of the reasons you mentioned but adding Sundance to the mix) is fully misguided. I mean, getting Paul Mescal into the mix could just as much be seen as a grassroots campaign by critics and #FilmTwitter, except Aftersun at least had a major studio behind it, even if A24 was more focused on EEAAO.