The bizarre ‘To Leslie’ Academy Awards controversy, explained

Just a few years after awarding Best Picture to the wrong movie(Opens in a new window), we might see a surprise nomination get revoked before the Oscars air on March 12.

When the Academy Awards nominations were announced last week, one of the more shocking revelations was that Andrea Riseborough had been nominated for her role in To Leslie. If you haven’t heard of To Leslie, don’t worry; the film garnered less than $30,000 at the box office. It’s a small independent production about a single mother who wins the lottery, and many big Hollywood names like Edward Norton and Kate Winslet publicly endorsed the film in a grassroots campaign during the Oscars voting period.

That’s all well and good, right? After all, box office success has nothing to do with the quality of a film or the performances therein. However, according to the Academy, something might be awry about the whole situation. Per Deadline(Opens in a new window), the organization released a statement announcing a review of the nomination process on Friday. It didn’t name Riseborough or To Leslie directly, but everyone seems to agree that’s what the statement is about:

It is the Academy’s goal to ensure that the Awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner, and we are committed to ensuring an inclusive awards process.

We are conducting a review of the campaign procedures around this year’s nominees, to ensure that no guidelines were violated, and to inform us whether changes to the guidelines may be needed in a new era of social media and digital communication.

We have confidence in the integrity of our nomination and voting procedures, and support genuine grassroots campaigns for outstanding performances.

It’s unclear what, if any, rules have been broken here. The Academy has a long list of guidelines(Opens in a new window) for the nomination process, but that doesn’t provide a smoking gun. Per Vanity Fair(Opens in a new window), some Academy voters were contacted with the suggestion that they watch the movie and support it online, which could theoretically breach the Academy’s lobbying rules.

For reference, Academy Awards nominations can be revoked, but it’s rare. The handful of times it’s happened have usually involved something like the film premiering on TV before it was in theaters, or a film coming out in the wrong year. Most relevant to To Leslie‘s case is that a Best Original Song nomination was revoked(Opens in a new window) in 2014 because songwriter Bruce Broughton had emailed Academy members during the voting period.

The Academy will meet on Tuesday, but Vanity Fair also reported that a rescinded nomination is unlikely.

Aside from the surprising nature by which To Leslie found its way into Oscars history, there are other angles to the controversy. As pointed out in the Vanity Fair report, Riseborough (who is white) got nominated while Black actresses in higher-profile roles like Viola Davis in The Woman King or Danielle Deadwyler in Till were left out. For an institution with a notable history of snubbing Black women(Opens in a new window) in particular, it’s easy to see why some would not be happy about Riseborough’s nomination from that perspective.

Some people could also feel that To Leslie is being unfairly punished for the crime of not being mainstream enough. It’s receiving a level of scrutiny that bigger films haven’t had to worry about, even though there’s a long, well-reported history(Opens in a new window) of movie studios engaging in backroom politicking during awards season.

Regardless of where you land on To Leslie‘s nomination, at least those who care more about Oscars drama than the actual awards have something to care about again this year.

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