A Messy Oscar Scandal From “a Little Movie With a Giant Heart”


On the morning of Oscar nominations, when Andrea Riseborough’s name was announced as a nominee for lead actress, a loud gasp went through the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. The nomination took many by surprise because her awards campaign for her performance in To Leslie had only begun about two weeks earlier. Many had not even heard of the small independent film, which centers on a woman with substance abuse issues who makes attempt after attempt to right her life, but a celebrity-driven grassroots campaign took the town by storm—and landed her an unexpected nomination. 

Now, just a few days later, a new report from Puck indicates that there are questions being raised about whether Academy rules for campaigning have been broken. A source tells Vanity Fair that there has not been a formal complaint filed to the Academy yet, but the conversation around the topic has reached a fever pitch, with the Academy releasing this statement on Friday: “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.”

While the statement from the Academy did not specifically name To Leslie, it’s clear that this review is targeted at the campaign, which has become the talk of the town. “Even if it’s not expressly written in the rules, it’s not really in the spirit of how this should be done,” one awards strategist tells VF. “There is something that just doesn’t sit right with this.” 

In case you missed it, about a week before Oscar voting, several high-profile actors, including Edward Norton, Bradley Whitford, Jennifer Aniston, Melanie Lynskey, and Helen Hunt, began tweeting out effusive praise for the film and Riseborough’s performance.

Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a screening while Amy Adams moderated a Q&A. And during a virtual Q&A, Kate Winslet called it “one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in my life.” And Cate Blanchett, now Riseborough’s competitor in the best-actress category, even mentioned her onstage when she accepted the Critics Choice Award. Things began to look dodgy when some eagle-eyed people noticed that many of the tweets of support, like this one from Mia Farrow, used the same phrase: “a small film with a giant heart.” Joe Mantegna, Dulé Hill, and Meredith Vieira also tweeted about the movie using similar language.

What became obvious is that even though this is being labeled as a grassroots campaign without a lot of money behind it, it’s still a campaign, and a very well orchestrated one at that. Sources say Mary McCormack, the wife of the film’s director Michael Morris, was one of the biggest advocates for the film, reaching out to her wide network. (Vanity Fair has reached out to McCormack for comment.) McCormack is a veteran actor who starred in TV series like The West Wing and In Plain Sight. Riseborough’s PR team, agency, and manager also used their networks, and the awards PR firm Shelter was brought on to coordinate the campaign. 

According to the report from Puck, an email being sent out to A-list talent (and voters) encouraged as much social media promotion as possible: “If you’re willing to post every day between now and Jan 17th, that would be amazing! But anything is helpful, so please do whatever makes you comfortable. And what’s more comfortable than posting about a movie every day!” 

It was an almost unheard of way to campaign for a film—most studios launch awards campaigns that begin at the fall festivals and continue for months with screenings and events and lots of press—but they were successfully able to get many influential actors to endorse the movie, just as voting opened. “It’s always been about word of mouth, and how you get the movie on the radar, and while this seems unconventional, it’s really not—this just happened to garner more attention because it’s high-profile people,” says an awards strategist. In some cases, it’s easy to draw a bright line between Riseborough and her A-List supporters—for example, she stars opposite Winslet in the upcoming limited series The Palace—but in others, it appears to be a case of aggressive networking and Rolodex-sharing. 

So now the question is, did they really break any rules? The Academy has a strict list of campaigning guidelines, put in place to protect the process from any abuse. “It is the Academy’s goal to ensure that the Awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner,” the regulations state. “The Academy requires that voting members of the Academy make their choices based solely on the artistic and technical merits of the eligible films and achievements.”

Some of the rules are quite specific. For example, only one mailing can be sent out to voters per week; a film’s synopsis has to be “300 characters or less including spaces.” Others leave a bit of room for interpretation. There are a couple of rules that could possibly be relevant vis-à-vis the To Leslie campaign. First of all, under “Lobbying,” one rule states, “Contacting Academy members directly and in a manner outside of the scope of these rules to promote a film or achievement for Academy Award consideration is expressly forbidden.” We know that many voters in the Academy branch were contacted and encouraged to watch the movie and use social media to support the film. 

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