The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided not to revoke actor Andrea Riseborough’s Oscar nomination in the Best Actress category, following an investigation into whether aggressive campaigning from her Hollywood peers helped her secure the nod. Riseborough’s nomination prompted extra scrutiny from the Academy after public backlash following its announcement, with critics raising questions about whether the grassroots campaign violated any rules and if the nomination should have instead gone to a Black woman, such as Viola Davis (for The Woman King) and Danielle Deadwyler (for Till). The ongoing controversy marks the latest instance of the Academy being called out for its lack of diversity when considering who gets an Oscar.
To Leslie and why Riseborough’s nomination is being criticized
This is Riseborough’s first Oscar nomination for her role in To Leslie, an independent film about a woman who, estranged from most of her friends and family years after she spent all the money she won from a lottery jackpot on drugs and alcohol, tries to rebuild her life. Though critically acclaimed, Riseborough’s Oscar nomination came as a surprise because most of the public hadn’t heard of the low-budget film—since its release last March, it has grossed just $27,000 at the box office. To Leslie was also missing from the usual For Your Consideration campaign cycle, which this year included films like Elvis and Everything Everywhere All At Once that went on to secure nominations.
Instead, buzz for Riseborough in To Leslie came almost entirely by word-of-mouth, with incredibly influential figures in Hollywood praising her performance on social media ahead of the Oscar nominations, which were announced on Jan. 24. Notably, Titanic actor Frances Fisher posted nine times on her Instagram page advocating for her fellow Academy members to include Riseborough in their Best Actress nominations and rankings.
“IMO I’m nominating Andrea in first position because I think all the other ladies are a lock,” she wrote in a caption, suggesting that the other actresses she explicitly named, like Davis and Deadwyler were already likely to be nominated in the category (they weren’t).
Joining Fisher’s show of support were a slew of A-listers, many of whom were past winners in the category, like Gwenyth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, and Jane Fonda. Celebrities hosted screenings of the film and filled Twitter and Instagram feeds with adulation for Riseborough.
“Andrea should win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet,” wrote Paltrow on Instagram.
Oscar nominations are selected and voted on by about 9,500 voting members of the Academy. Members submit recommendations for nominees in their respective branch (for example, acting or directing) and then rank their preferred nominations via preferential voting. The votes are then sorted, starting from first-place rankings, to determine the final nominees for said category. Once all nominations are final, members of Academy vote across all categories for each award’s winner.
Grassroots efforts don’t break nomination rules, but lobbying and “any tactic that singles out ‘the competition’ by name or title,” is forbidden, according to the Academy’s regulations. The aggressive and successful campaigning from Riseborough’s peers raised questions about whether any rules were broken in the process.
Riseborough’s To Leslie co-star Marc Maron criticized the Academy’s decision to investigate what he said was a win for lesser-known films. “Millions of dollars [are] put into months of advertising campaigns, publicity, screenings by large corporate entertainment entities, and Andrea was championed by her peers through a grassroots campaign, which was pushed through by a few actors,” he said on his podcast, WTF With Marc Maron.
Did Riseborough’s nomination ‘push’ out Black actors?
This year’s Best Actress category has no Black nominees, despite the buzz and studio-backed campaigning for Davis and Deadwyler’s performances. Controversy over the Academy’s longtime lack of diversity came to a head in 2015 after the Academy chose all white actors for all 20 acting nominations, prompting the viral #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.
Davis and Deadwyler not making the nominations list did not come as a surprise Frederick W. Gooding, Jr., an associate professor of John V. Roach Honors College at Texas Christian University and author of Black Oscars: From Mammy to Minny, What the Academy Awards Tell Us about African Americans. “Overall the Academy’s patterns are always consistent,” he tells TIME in reference to Black actors’ year-after-year snubs in the acting categories. It’s been over 20 years since the first and only time a Black actor has won in the Best Actress category: Halle Berry for her performance in 2001’s Monster’s Ball.
Considering Riseborough’s film didn’t come close to Davis and Deadwyler films’ box office numbers, Gooding says that her close connections with those within the academy likely played a significant role in her nomination. “Hollywood operates in an environment based on if you know somebody that will have the social capital to help. For many people of color, and African Americans in particular, they may not have the advantage of these social resources or informal networks that happen to be white dominated.”
Stephen Tapert, an instructor at the New York Film Academy and author of Best Actress: The History of Oscar-Winning Women notes that Michelle Yeoh making Oscar history this year as the first Asian woman to be nominated in the category, marked some progress. “I didn’t look at this year’s list of nominees as a step back, but you do have to wonder why this particular category of Best Actress is the one that seems to not get as much diversity,” he says. Since the Oscars began in 1929, there have only been 20 women of color nominated throughout the approximately 475 nominations of the Best Actress category.
What has the Academy said?
On Jan. 27, the Academy released a statement that they’d review this year’s nomination campaigns, but did not explicitly mention To Leslie, nor Riseborough. The investigation could have resulted in Riseborough’s nomination being revoked.
On Feb. 1, it was determined all nominations would stay the same. “The academy has determined the activity in question does not rise to the level that the film’s nomination should be rescinded,” Bill Kramer, the academy’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “However, we did discover social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern. These tactics are being addressed with the responsible parties directly.” In a statement to TIME on the matter, a representative for Kramer said, “I am not sure there is much else to say publicly from our side at the moment.”
Rules can potentially change in regards to social media tactics moving forward. “Given this review, it is apparent that components of the regulations must be clarified to help create a better framework for respectful, inclusive, and unbiased campaigning. These changes will be made after this awards cycle and will be shared with our membership,” the statement said.
On the diversity front, the Academy has issued inclusion standards for their best picture category under their Aperture 2025 initiative that are expected to take effect in 2024. The guidelines require meeting two out of four diversity on and off-cam standards to be eligible for the top award of best picture.
Gooding says he is not confident these efforts will be the solution to the multi-layered problem of the Academy’s diversity issues, noting how despite the celebration of fantasy films like Avatar and the Lord of Rings franchise, 80% of all Black Oscar nominations are for roles that deal with themes of racism and poverty.
“It feels like an illusion of inclusion,” he says. “What is it gonna take for me to see images that look like myself or my daughter saving the world? I want to fly too.”
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