Emails From the Controversial “To Leslie” Oscar Campaign Raise Questions


Since Andrea Riseborough’s Oscar nomination for best actress was announced last week, there’s been an increasing amount of noise around the awards campaign for To Leslie, prompting the Academy to release a statement Friday that it would be “conducting a review of the campaign procedures around this year’s nominees, to ensure that no guidelines were violated.”

What “guidelines”? That’s where it gets a bit hazy. The Academy’s campaign rules have changed over the years, and while some rules are very specific, others are more vague, especially given the social media era we’re in now. But new emails provided to Vanity Fair paint a clearer picture of what the potential issues could be with this unusual campaign. 

First, a little background for those who may need to catch up. To Leslie is a small independent film starring Riseborough as a woman with substance abuse issues who is trying to right her life. Directed by Michael Morris in his feature directorial debut, the film premiered at South by Southwest in March and was given a limited release in October, earning only $27,322 at the box office. It garnered favorable reviews (97% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), and Riseborough earned an Indie Spirit nom in November. But the film did not have a traditional awards campaign in any sense, and wasn’t on most people’s radars—until the week before voting. Suddenly, several A-list actors were touting this “small film with a giant heart” and praising Riseborough’s work. Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a screening, and Kate Winslet moderated a virtual Q&A. Around a week later, Riseborough earned her first Oscar nomination. 

A lot of the credit for this “grassroots” campaign goes to Riseborough’s well-connected manager, Jason Weinberg, but the person who seems to have done much of the outreach to talent is Mary McCormack, a veteran TV actor, as well as the director’s wife. She’s been reaching out to actors and other contacts since December, inviting them to official screenings or to watch the film on the Academy’s website. Her emails are filled with enthusiasm for the film and her husband’s work. “We think you will love it,” she wrote in an email sent in early January. “Other than how proud I am of my husband Michael, we feel so strongly about beautiful films being seen whether or not they have millions and millions to spend on publicity. Films like TO LESLIE are important for the future of film making, so we want to support it and get the word out especially because we know that it doesn’t have the financial means for marketing. In a sea of multi-multi-million dollar award campaigns it is almost impossible for a small independent film like TO LESLIE to break through.”

The email, sent to a small group of people, some of whom are members of the Academy’s actors branch, had the subject line “An invitation from Allison Janney and Mary McCormack.” It also included kind words about the film’s lead actress from Riseborough’s To Leslie costar, Janney. “She’s incredible in it. I want as many actors to see it as possible…Actors truly understand what makes her performance so special,” Janney wrote. (Vanity Fair has reached out to Janney for comment.)

But after all these words of praise, the first potential red flag crops up: an invite to an event at McCormack and Morris’s home. “Please watch it, and if you respond to it, then join us at a very intimate reception on January 11th at our home…around 5pm. Come have a drink and chat with director Michael Morris, lead actress Andrea Riseborough, and Allison, and me, and fellow actors. We can have only about 25-30 people, so it will be small.”

That small reception might have breached Academy rules. One regulation for campaigning, under the heading “Receptions, Parties and Other Non-Screening Events,” states that “members may not be invited to, and members may not attend, any dinners, lunches or other such events that are intended to promote an eligible film for awards consideration.” The rules state that the exception is made for “providing non-excessive food and beverage at the time and place of a screening” or “inviting members to an event that is unrelated to promoting an eligible film for awards consideration (e.g., a company party or DVD release event).” Essentially, any campaign reception must have a screening that precedes it, at the same location. This rule was created in 2016 as a crackdown on the lavish parties, dinners, and lunches that were taking place as a part of awards campaigns. 

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