The biggest surprise of the 2023 Oscar nominations, Andrea Riseborough's Best Actress nod, has sparked controversy within the Academy and raised questions of whether campaign rules were violated. Could the actress' nomination actually be revoked as a result? Here's what you need to know:
What's with all the hubbub over Andrea Riseborough's Oscar nomination?
Leading up to this year's Oscar nominations, Andrea Riseborough didn't appear to have any chance of earning a Best Actress nod. She played an alcoholic in the fairly obscure indie movie To Leslie, which grossed less than $30,000 in theaters, and she wasn't nominated at any of the major precursor ceremonies that help predict the Academy Awards (though she did receive a nod at the Independent Spirit Awards, which honor smaller movies that the Oscars often overlook).
But then, around the middle of January, celebrity after celebrity suddenly began raving about Riseborough's performance on social media, surprising followers of the awards race who had barely even heard of her little-seen film. "It's about the most fully committed, emotionally deep, physically harrowing performance I've seen in a while," Edward Norton tweeted. Praise continued rolling in from other stars, some of whom hosted events for the film and/or posted virtually identical tweets praising To Leslie as a "small film with a giant heart." The social media blitz ramped up just before Oscar nomination voting opened on Jan. 12, and Best Actress frontrunner Cate Blanchett even praised Riseborough in a speech at the Critics' Choice Awards on Jan. 15.
Sure enough, when the nominations were announced on Jan. 24, Riseborough earned a shock nod for Best Actress. It was unusual for someone to swoop in out of nowhere to earn a nomination solely thanks to a last-minute, apparently grassroots effort driven by celebrity endorsements. But the nod also sparked some backlash, in part because The Woman King's Viola Davis and Till's Danielle Deadwyler didn't earn nominations that they were expected to receive, so there was a perception that the Riseborough campaign played a part in that. "We live in a world and work in industries that are so aggressively committed to upholding whiteness and perpetuating an unabashed misogyny toward Black women," Till director Chinonye Chukwu said after Deadwyler's snub.
What went into the campaign for Riseborough?
Getting any film or performance nominated for an Oscar typically involves an often expensive push by a dedicated awards campaign, which can, for example, purchase "for your consideration" advertising and billboards. But To Leslie director Michael Morris told The Hollywood Reporter that his film was so small that "we can't even afford an ad," so "our only strategy has been to get people to see the film."
That's not to say all the celebrity endorsements just popped up organically. The PR companies Narrative PR and Shelter PR were involved in the campaign, though according to Deadline, Riseborough used "largely her own money to bring attention to" To Leslie. But Morris and his wife, actor Mary McCormack, are also well-connected in Hollywood, so they reached out to "nearly every" famous person they know asking them to watch the movie and spread the word about it, according to The Los Angeles Times, which says Riseborough and her publicists also "started working the phones." (Among those to post the "small film with a giant heart" tweet was McCormack's former West Wing co-star Dulé Hill.)
At one point, McCormack emailed friends requesting that they post about the film on social media "every day between now and" the end of Oscar nomination voting and included images and suggested hashtags, Variety reports. Puck also reports that Jason Weinberg, who manages both McCormack and Riseborough, was one of the masterminds of the push.
This effort was so aggressive that it has raised questions about whether it may have broken the Oscars' rules regarding lobbying. The Academy confirmed on Jan. 27 it is "conducting a review of the campaign procedures around this year's nominees" to "ensure that no guidelines were violated," without mentioning Riseborough's name.
How might this have violated the Oscars' rules?
The Academy has a variety of rules in place that regulate how Oscar campaigns can operate. For one, as Puck noted, the rules state that "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." So there's a question of whether the emails sent by McCormack and others were in violation of this rule. Puck also notes that "there's an Academy-managed e-blast system you're supposed to use," but Riseborough's campaign relentlessly contacted people "outside the Academy's official middleman service."
The Academy also has a rule about "references to other nominees," which forbids "ads, mailings, websites, social media (including Facebook and Twitter) or any other forms of public communication by anyone directly associated with an eligible film attempting to cast a negative or derogatory light on a competing film or achievement." The rules go on to say that "any tactic that singles out 'the competition' by name or title is expressly forbidden."
That could be a problem because the official To Leslie Instagram account posted a quote from critic Richard Roeper stating that "as much as I admired [Cate] Blanchett's work in Tár, my favorite performance by a woman this year was delivered by the chameleonlike Andrea Riseborough." Blanchett is the frontrunner to win Best Actress, so this might be a violation of the rule regarding singling out the competition. The Instagram post has since been deleted.
On Jan. 14, Titanic star Frances Fisher also urged her fellow actors on Instagram to vote for Riseborough and nominate her in the first position on their ballot, writing that it "seems to be that Viola [Davis], Michelle [Yeoh], Danielle [Deadwyler] & Cate [Blanchett] are a lock for their outstanding work." This could be another potential violation of the rule about singling out the competition, with Fisher suggesting followers need not vote for Davis and Deadwyler because they're guaranteed to be nominated. (It turns out, they weren't.)
But it's not clear that Fisher, who doesn't appear in To Leslie, was directly associated with Riseborough's campaign. Deadline also reports that, according to one source, "under no circumstances" did the To Leslie campaign "ever say something like, 'Vote for Andrea Riseborough.' The goal was just to get the film seen, against all odds." In its Jan. 27 statement, the Academy said it's exploring "whether changes to the guidelines may be needed in a new era of social media and digital communication," suggesting it could implement new rules in response to the controversy.
Is there precedent for revoking Riseborough's nomination?
There has been a long history of similarly aggressive Oscar campaign tactics, some of which have been permitted and some of which have prompted action from the Academy.
In 2010, for example, a producer of The Hurt Locker was banned from attending the Oscars after he emailed Academy members calling on them to vote for his movie over a "$500 million film," meaning Avatar. This was found to be a violation of the Academy's campaign rules, though the producer's nomination was not revoked.
In 2014, though, Bruce Broughton had his nomination for Best Original Song revoked after he emailed other "members of the branch to make them aware of his submission during the nominations voting period," the Academy said. Part of the issue there was that Broughton was a former Academy governor and current executive committee member, so the organization said he used his position "to personally promote" his nomination and created "the appearance of an unfair advantage." In 2017, Greg P. Russell also had his Oscar for Best Sound Mixing revoked after he "called his fellow members of the sound branch during the nominations phase to make them aware of his work on the film, in direct violation of a campaign regulation that prohibits telephone lobbying."
But Variety pointed to a 2004 incident where newspaper advertising for actress Shohreh Aghdashloo referenced her performance as being superior to Renee Zellweger's — sort of like the To Leslie Instagram post referencing Blanchett — and Aghdashloo's nomination was not revoked.
Would someone else replace Riseborough if her nomination is revoked?
When Bruce Broughton's Best Original Song nomination was revoked in 2014, he wasn't replaced in the category. So if Riseborough's nomination were to be rescinded, this would mean Best Actress would just consist of four nominees rather than five, as opposed to another actress getting Riseborough's slot.
What has been the reaction to all this?
The controversy, and the Academy's plan to investigate Riseborough's campaign, has sparked mixed responses.
At Puck, Matthew Belloni argued the push for Riseborough "feels wrong" because it "reinforces what many outsiders already think about Hollywood: it's all politics and nepo babies." In the Los Angeles Times, critic Robert Daniels also questioned what it says "that the Black women who did everything the institution asks of them," e.g. Davis and Deadwyler, are "ignored when someone who did everything outside of the system is rewarded."
Others, though, have defended Riseborough by arguing none of this was that different from the way movies are campaigned for awards every year. The Hollywood Reporter awards editor Scott Feinberg wrote that "unabashed solicitation of Oscar votes is a tradition almost as old as the Academy itself," while an anonymous Oscar voter told Variety, "[Riseborough's] team didn't do anything more than what I see yearly." Actress Christina Ricci also defended Riseborough, asking, "So it's only the films and actors that can afford the campaigns that deserve recognition? Feels elitist and exclusive and frankly very backward to me."
And Riseborough's To Leslie co-star Marc Maron slammed the Academy on his podcast WTF, suggesting the group is investigating because her nomination "threatens their system" and that "they're completely bought out by corporate interests in the form of studios."
Update: The Academy confirmed in a statement on Jan. 31 that Riseborough's Oscar nomination will not be revoked. However, Academy CEO Bill Kramer said an investigation found "social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern," and these "tactics are being addressed with the responsible parties directly." The Academy also said it will clarify its rules to "create a better framework for respectful, inclusive, and unbiased campaigning."