What the Hell Is Going on with Andrea Riseborough’s Celebrity-Backed Oscar Campaign?

If there's anything indie "To Leslie" doesn't have, it's money, one campaign insider told IndieWire. So why are celebs from Gwyneth Paltrow to Kate Winslet suddenly backing it?
To Leslie
"To Leslie"
Courtesy Everett Collection

In the Six Degrees of Separation between Gwyneth Paltrow and Andrea Riseborough, the dotted line isn’t so clear. So what the hell is going on with the Best Actress Oscar campaign for Riseborough’s indie “To Leslie,” and why are celebrities from Paltrow to Kate Winslet, Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Courteney Cox, Demi Moore, Mia Farrow, Joe Mantegna, Mira Sorvino, Charlize Theron, Sarah Paulson, Edward Norton, Jennifer Aniston, and Jane Fonda suddenly backing it?

During a recent Q&A with Riseborough that Winslet herself moderated, the fellow actress called Riseborough’s turn in the film directed by Michael Morris “one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in my life.” (Not one to be left behind, Amy Adams is on deck to moderate her own Q&A later today.)

Paltrow called the film a “masterpiece” and said she was “stunned” by Riseborough, whom she said deserves “to win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet.” While onstage accepting her Critics Choice Award win for “TÁR” on Sunday, Blanchett singled out Riseborough’s performance as an alcoholic West Texas single mother chasing redemption after squandering her lottery win as one of the best overlooked pieces of acting this year.

Memes emerged over the weekend — Baby Annette stans Riseborough for Best Actress! Barack Obama has revised his best films of the year list to include “To Leslie”! — that smacked of a conspiracy. Remember when Melissa Leo went rogue in 2011 with “The Fighter” FYC ad campaign, filling the pages of print trade publications with a glamour shot that invited voters to “Consider…”? Or when Sally Kirkland managed her way to a Best Actress nomination in 1987 for “Anna”? Or when Mark Rylance won Best Supporting Actor for “Bridge of Spies” in 2016 despite not campaigning at all? None of those were entirely out of left field — all were in the conversation in some form, even if in fifth or tenth place — but “To Leslie” is an unusual precedent.

On the one hand, is Hollywood really so cynical and jaded that pundits can’t believe that goodwill for a genuinely great performance by one actress from others would merit their weight behind it? And on the other, “To Leslie” grossed just $27,000 in a tiny October release from Momentum Pictures, so how does this happen otherwise?

IndieWire spoke with insiders close to the campaign, and there’s less intrigue to untangle here than you’d think. Riseborough is represented by the moneyed and powerful CAA, so it’s hard to take baldly that Hollywood would suddenly advocate for a relatively (in Hollywood star-studded terms) obscure actress without some sweetening of the deal. Morris told THR, “We can’t afford an ad.”

As insiders explained to IndieWire, word of mouth began roiling for SXSW premiere “To Leslie” back in October, when Charlize Theron and Ed Norton came on board to help with screenings after a few well-placed calls from filmmaker Michael Morris, who’s directed episodes of “Better Call Saul,” “13 Reasons Why,” “Shameless.” “Bloodline,” and more. (“To Leslie” is his feature debut.)

As filmmakers and talent started reacting to the film, Riseborough and her team got serious about a late-breaking campaign in December, abetted by her Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Actress. Then, it was the Instagram post from Paltrow, who has 8.2 million followers, that piqued all of her celebrity friends’ interest. Because, as one insider pointed, if there’s one thing this movie doesn’t have, it’s money.

Still, while it may be too late for Riseborough to kick out one of the actress currently on the Best Actress Oscar bubble, if anything this campaign has illuminated what more people should’ve known all along: Riseborough is a brilliant, daring actress who can wear any hat from “Matilda” the musical to body-hijacking in Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor.” She also gives the best performance in any “Black Mirror” episode, 2017’s unforgiving Scandi-noir-inspired “Crocodile.”

Voting closes today, so it’s a little too little too late. Even if Riseborough doesn’t land the nomination — and she’s at least in a better position to win the Film Independent Spirit Award in March — more people know who she is, which gets her that much closer to a nomination next time.

And if she does get nominated, well, then maybe good things can happen in Hollywood.

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