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Defector At The Movies

Andrea Riseborough’s Oscar Nod Is A Nomination For The Past

Andrea Riseborough
Screenshot: Momentum Pictures

Before all the To Leslie stuff happened, I knew about the movie for two reasons. I knew Marc Maron had acted in it because—for my sins—I listen to his podcast and he mentioned it a few times in the context of working with the film’s star, Andrea Riseborough, whom he spoke about with the kind of adulation usually reserved only for the Gods. I also saw the poster on iTunes, which is mostly just Riseborough’s hair (mid-headbang?) which reminded me of the ’60s musical Hair. None of this made me really want to see To Leslie, but I watched the trailer anyway and then I really didn’t want to see it. As much as I like indie movies in which very little happens, this was an indie movie directed by Michael Morris based on screenwriter Ryan Binco’s alcoholic mother, and I swear to God I could imagine the entire thing from the opening shot. But everything that repels me about this film is everything that attracts Hollywood to it. Leslie is exactly the kind of role actors “sink” their teeth into, and few stars would deny loving a character-driven redemption story. But To Leslie, shot on film in 19 days on a budget of under $1 million, is not just a prime acting showcase; it’s a showcase for analog cinema, which is to say it’s a showcase for a Hollywood of another time, what many would call a better one. And that’s precisely the reason Riseborough was nominated for an Oscar despite nobody knowing her name less than a month ago.

If you missed this little storm in a teacup, here’s the gist: To Leslie got a limited release at the beginning of October and no one saw it (it made less at the box office than I have in my bank account). “We can’t even afford an ad. We live or die by people’s reactions to the film,” Morris told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’ve been so under the radar and our only strategy has been to get people to see the film. I don’t want it to become another title in the library. I want it to be seen.”

As luck would have it, between Morris’s decades in television, his wife Mary McCormack’s decades in television, and Riseborough’s decades in film, they knew a LOT of A-listers. Which is why in January you started hearing about screenings like Demi Moore’s at CAA, the massive talent agency that represents a whole bunch of other stars, including Gwyneth Paltrow, who claimed Riseborough should “win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet.” Oscar winner Kate Winslet (who stars with Riseborough in the upcoming Lee) then found the time to moderate a Q&A for the film and called Riseborough’s turn “the greatest female performance on screen I have ever seen in my life.” Even fellow nominee Cate Blanchett took a moment out of her own Critics’ Choice Awards speech for Tár to namedrop Riseborough.

The media might not have noticed any of this, except that the praise then migrated to social media and canned lines by various stars—“small film with a giant heart,” “performance of the year”—proliferated and critics started wondering why what appeared to be a growing grassroots campaign for To Leslie was clogging their feeds, not to mention why it was so tone-deaf. Apparently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wondered the same thing once all of this culminated in, out of nowhere, Riseborough securing an Oscar nomination on Jan. 24 over more favored stars like Viola Davis in The Woman King (she’ll be fine, she’s now an EGOT) and Danielle Deadwyler in Till. Apparently, you are not allowed to openly beg voters to watch your film (“for your consideration” is a euphemism) and this seemed to walk the line, so The Academy began a review of To Leslie's PR blitz. A number of actors, including Maron, rightfully balked at the stuffy academy for hypocritically calling out a penniless campaign amid the historic need for a studio’s fortune to bag a nomination. The Academy, perhaps noting the irony, let it go. And Riseborough gets to maybe win her first Oscar on March 12.

The problem with an actress like Riseborough is that she’s chameleonic. This is the opposite of what you want if you fancy a star-spangled Oscars ceremony. A star is recognizable, they are a brand. Riseborough isn’t a character actor either; those are equally recognizable, just less photogenic by Hollywood standards (see Riseborough’s To Leslie co-stars Allison Janney and Stephen Root). Riseborough, on the other hand, is an enigma. She has the kind of face you barely remember, which is precisely why she’s so arresting. It’s as though she chemically adapts her entire being to each role. This is what makes her an actor’s actor, the kind of performer her peers deify, because she is the essence of transformation—the becoming down to your very soul. Riseborough is the sort of great where you could probably make a good argument for an Oscar for anything she’s done, her standard is so high. Unfortunately, she is also the kind of actor your average person is unlikely to remember. If actors like Riseborough are recognized at all by the Academy, it is usually too late and it’s usually for a film that’s less deserving because the nomination is more about making up for ignoring them  all those years prior.

It would be kind of sweet if Riseborough were being lauded simply for being so quietly good. But if you look closer, that’s clearly not all that’s at work here. Start paying attention to the press around To Leslie and you notice it being offered up as a symbol for a specific type of small, “character-driven” film that has over the past 50 years been pushed out by an industry that now focuses on big budgets, big concepts, and big stars. In an interview with Deadline back in December, for instance, Riseborough said, “We shot it in 19 days, all on film, and the feeling you get from that ignites people into being reminded what an intimate experience cinema can be.” Morris was a little more directly nostalgic when he told THR, “This is an endangered species kind of movie, and I want to be mindful of that and work to protect it. It’s so rare.” In another interview with Gold Derby, both Morris and Riseborough said they were inspired by Barbara Loden’s 1970 movie Wanda, about an aimless woman who ends up on the run, while Sarah Paulson also referenced the era in THR. “I felt like I was watching a movie from the '70s, a time when so many of my favorite films were made. Coming Home, Tender Mercies, Badlands. Movies about the human experience,” she said, adding, “Movies like this, made for little money, that are this powerful and true, should be given the same attention and consideration as those that have huge studios and therefore budgets behind them.”

What the To Leslie controversy has highlighted, however, is that not all huge studios and budgets are alike. Soraya Nadia McDonald, noting the lack of even technical nominations for films driven by black talent this year, wrote at Andscape, “The academy’s celebration of high-flying, big-budget maximalism (See: Elvis, Top Gun: Maverick, and Avatar: The Way of Water), mysteriously did not extend to Nope or The Woman King.” Till director Chinonye Chukwu, whose film was frontrunner for best actress for Deadwyler in a category which ended up with no black nominees this year despite acclaimed turns by Davis, Keke Palmer, and my personal favorite, Guslagie Malanda in Saint Omer, can’t really be disputed when she writes, “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.” Robert Daniels elegantly summed up the events of the past few months in The Los Angeles Times when he asked, “What does it say that the Black women who did everything the institution asks of them—luxury dinners, private academy screenings, meet-and-greets, splashy television spots and magazine profiles—are ignored when someone who did everything outside of the system is rewarded?”

In the end, is Riseborough worthy of her Oscar nomination for To Leslie? As my psychiatrist would say, I don’t like the question. Which would be his way of saying: Besides awards truly meaning nothing in the wider more spiritual sense, the system is not a meritocracy. Nominations are never based on worthiness in the first place (this is another less clichéd way of saying “awards are political”). But I’ll give my opinion anyway: To Leslie is the kind of indie movie that audiences think is pretty good (which is to say, it makes you cry even despite yourself) when they are at a festival, but no one remembers afterwards. The plot is underdeveloped, the characters are underdeveloped, and it has that icky familiar feeling of Hollywood engaging in lower-class tourism. I won’t go so far as to say it’s emotionally manipulative if only because it’s based on the writer’s own life, but, like Jockey, this is a film in which the power of the performance at its core far outweighs the project as a whole. Yes, Riseborough is amazing, pushing the limits of a fairly one-note character. She is ageless, genderless, her expression mostly focused around her Edward Scissorhands eyes and forehead as she seesaws between drunk and sober over and over and over. Her smile in the first half is a grimace, a grid of confusion scores her forehead, and her entire body seems to be sobbing, all of which relaxes in the second half as she is emotionally, for want of a better word, ironed out. It really is a “tour de force” performance. But that’s not really the point here, is it?

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