Masterpiece of a film’: why is every A-lister trying to get To Leslie an Oscar?

‘Masterpiece of a film’: why is every A-lister trying to get To Leslie an Oscar?

A surge of celebrity endorsements for Andrea Riseborough’s performance in a little-seen indie drama offer a strange case study in Oscar campaigning

Andrea Riseborough in To Leslie.
Andrea Riseborough in To Leslie. Photograph: Momentum

Depending on one’s interest in film awards, it may or may not be apparent that the business of the Oscars is a nearly year-long affair. The pieces for an Oscar campaign – a full-time job with its own PR, schmoozing schedule and the momentum of smaller awards to achieve enough votes for a nomination – are usually in place months ahead of time. The window provides time to tweak and build a narrative; there is nothing Hollywood loves more than a comeback or underdog story (see: this year’s supporting actor frontrunner Ke Huy Quan or best actress contender Michelle Yeoh). Yet even most seasoned awards-followers have been surprised by the very late-breaking, star-studded campaign to garner Andrea Riseborough, a British character actor, an Oscar nomination for her leading role in To Leslie, a little-seen indie drama that has made barely $27,000 since a small theatrical release in October.

Even in the smoke-and-mirrors world of Hollywood myth-making, the display of public celebrity muscle for Riseborough’s performance in recent days has seemed strange. Before the past two weeks, there had been almost no buzz for To Leslie, the feature debut by veteran television director Michael Morris – a few screenings, but no visible awards campaign. Yet in recent days, a sizable squadron of celebrities have come to bat for the film and, more pointedly, Riseborough’s performance as an itinerant, alcoholic mother from west Texas reeling from six years of shame after squandering a $190,000 lottery prize.

Cate Blanchett, a best actress frontrunner for Tár, used the opening minute of her Critics Choice award acceptance speech on Sunday to single out Riseborough as one of the most overlooked performances by “arbitrary” acting awards. Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a screening for the “masterpiece of a film” and said Riseborough deserves “to win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet.” In a Q&A she moderated, Kate Winslet called Riseborough’s work “one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in my life”. In her own virtual Q&A hosted on Tuesday evening, Amy Adams praised Riseborough’s “remarkable” performance as a “soul transformation”.

There are more: Jane Fonda (“brave and unsparing performance”, “go see it!”), Jennifer Aniston (“beautiful”), Edward Norton (“the most fully committed, emotionally deep, physically harrowing performance I’ve seen in a while. Just raw & utterly devoid of performative BS”), Helen Hunt (“If you’re out there voting for performances, don’t do it till you see Andrea Riseborough”), Melanie Lynskey (“even for her this is next level”). Numerous celebrities have suddenly and publicly sung Riseborough’s praises with suspiciously similar phrasing – in social media posts, Mia Farrow, Joe Mantegna, Dulé Hill and Meredith Vieira all called To Leslie “a small film with a giant heart” with Riseborough “giving the performance of the year”.

The abrupt tide of superlatives – as well as the seemingly cut-and-paste praise – has drawn fair online skepticism (and memes, such a tweet revising Barack Obama’s “best films of 2022” list to include To Leslie and an endorsement of Riseborough from Baby Annette.) What is going on? Is this a genuine groundswell of goodwill for a talented and less name-recognizable actor? A last-ditch strategy of favors? An A-list lovefest?

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