Watch: Trailer for Andrea Riseborough drama To Leslie
In March 2022, the South by Southwest Festival played host to the premiere of To Leslie, a new film starring beloved British screen actor Andrea Riseborough. The drama received strong reviews, with Riseborough singled out for particular praise for her performance as an alcoholic Texan woman trying to repair her relationships with her family after squandering lottery winnings on drugs and booze.
The film got a limited cinema release in the States in October, followed by its UK bow in November. It's a small movie, and nobody noticed it. According to Box Office Mojo, it has earned just over $27,000 (£22,000) worldwide. Avatar: The Way of Water made around 5,000 times that figure in just the USA in its opening weekend alone.
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But people are noticing To Leslie now. Seemingly out of nowhere, Riseborough has made it on to the shortlist for Best Actress at the Oscars. Highly-fancied, big-hitting performances like Danielle Deadwyler in Till, Margot Robbie in Babylon and Viola Davis in The Woman King didn't make the cut, but Riseborough did.
So how has this happened, and could Riseborough actually win her first Oscar for the film?
An underdog tale
It's not quite fair to say that To Leslie came out of nowhere. It was one of the more respected indie releases of 2022 and has a 98% approval rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes. That's a better critical hit rate than any of the 10 nominees for Best Picture — albeit from a much lower number of reviews.
Riseborough has also received some acclaim from awards bodies. She was nominated in November for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Lead Performance and the National Board of Review selected To Leslie as one of its 10 best independent releases of the year. The film and Riseborough also won a handful of festival awards, including on UK shores at the Raindance Film Festival, where To Leslie was recognised for Best Actress and as Film of the Festival.
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But this is all pretty quiet in terms of awards buzz. Riseborough got nothing when nominations arrived from the Golden Globes, Baftas or Screen Actors Guild Awards. Even among the myriad critics' associations and smaller precursor awards bodies, it was only the Chicago Film Critics Association which nominated Riseborough for Best Actress.
So in order for that to translate to the Oscars, something somewhere had to happen.
An unusual campaign
Oscar campaigning is often perceived as a business of dark arts. Before he was imprisoned for his horrific array of sex crimes, Harvey Weinstein was considered to be the master of this underbelly of the awards season. He could take a liked-but-not-loved movie — Shakespeare in Love, for example — and transform it into a Best Picture winner via aggressive campaigning and smearing the competition if necessary.
However, it doesn't seem like there has been a Weinstein-like figure behind To Leslie. Money has been in short supply, with director Michael Morris telling The Hollywood Reporter that the movie couldn't even afford a campaign ad. He added: "We live or die by people’s reactions to the film. We’ve been so under the radar and our only strategy has been to get people to see the film."
That doesn't sound like enough, until you see the list of names of people who have not only seen the film, but chose to champion it publicly. To name just a few: Gwyneth Paltrow, Edward Norton, Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Aniston, Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Zooey Deschanel, Howard Stern, Alan Cumming, Amy Adams, Kate Winslet and Minnie Driver.
Paltrow — a friend of director Morris — was among those to enthusiastically share their enjoyment of the film, writing on Instagram that "Andrea should win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet".
So it seems that Riseborough's awards strategy ultimately used the most simple tool in the book for a business like Hollywood — "it's not what you know, it's who you know".
Friends in high places
She's a well-liked figure who has never really made the awards season splash she inarguably deserves and Morris — a feature debutant, but a veteran of TV like Better Call Saul and 13 Reasons Why — has his fair share of famous buddies too. A lot of them were seemingly happy to take just a few moments to post about a film they enjoyed, starring a colleague for whom they have a great deal of respect.
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But it's not quite as wholesome as that sounds. An eagle-eyed Redditor on the /r/OscarRace page noted earlier this month that many of the tweets from celebs praising the film used very similar text, including the now-viral phrase "a small film with a giant heart".
We're all familiar with this technique from the onslaught of near-identical tweets from Conservative MPs whenever they respond to a government scandal, having presumably been sent some example text in a WhatsApp group somewhere.
So in summary, the To Leslie nomination likely came about as a combination of many things — canny use of Hollywood relationships, WhatsApp group campaigning and the genuine desire to support an underdog star for their daring work.
Playwright Jeremy O. Harris tweeted that Riseborough's manager Jason Weinberg deserves much of the credit, saying: "This man did a group chat Oscar campaign for a client he has seen work her ass off for years with little to no recognition who gave a daring performance in a small picture and it worked. This should be studied."
Some have expressed concerns at the optics of a white actor using her array of predominantly white friends to secure a nomination, ahead of Black performers like the aforementioned Deadwyler and Davis. While this might seem a churlish criticism — Riseborough didn't "take a slot" any more than Michelle Williams or Ana De Armas did, for example — it's certainly valid to question whether people of colour in the industry could call upon the same groundswell of goodwill to trigger a last-minute voting surge.
Whatever happened, Riseborough is now a bona fide Oscar contender — albeit very tertiary to the main race between Cate Blanchett's bold work in Tár and Michelle Yeoh's gonzo action turn in Everything Everywhere All at Once — and there are many more eyes on To Leslie than there were before.
The movie is available to stream in the UK via various digital platforms.
Even those who are critical of the dynamics that led to Riseborough's nomination have very little that's negative to say about the star, who has worked extraordinarily hard during her career.
Last year alone, she appeared in five incredibly varied movies, including Amsterdam and Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical as well as the considerably more serious To Leslie.
Sometimes, Hollywood is just driven to get behind something like this — a small film with a giant heart.
Watch: Andrea Riseborough responds to Oscar nomination