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Best Actress nomination for Andrea Riseborough raises eyebrows

Andrea Riseborough nomination for Best Actress for "To Leslie" generating controversy

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Well, you know what they say.

It’s not the Oscars unless someone’s upset about the nominations.

Actually, I’m not sure that’s true, but it sounds pretty good.

This year’s Oscar-So-Upsetting kerfuffle has gravitated to the Best Actress category.

Namely, people are upset that a little-known Brit named Andrea Riseborough in a little-seen movie called “To Leslie” got nominated, and two actresses who were expected to get a nod ­– Viola Davis (“The Woman King”) and Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”) – were not.

Movie poster for “To Leslie”

Granted, there are some noises being made about the Academy’s Oscar-So-White heritage, but that doesn’t seem to be the center of the controversy. After all, Davis already has an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress for “Fences”) and a quarter of the acting nominees are people of color (with, finally, some Asian representation).

Still, a lot of Hollywood folks are questioning Riseborough’s inclusion. The reason? Not that she isn’t a fine actress (check out her movie in which she plays a scrawny West Texas screw-up who, after squandering her lottery bucks, falls back into a cycle of drink and drugs).

Not that she doesn’t have a strong resume (“Birdman,” “Battle of the Sexes”).

She didn’t even mount an aggressive campaign. But that’s apparently the problem. i.e., the Big Names who did, on her behalf. Charlize Theron hosted a screening of “To Leslie.” So did Courteney Cox, Jennifer Anniston, Edward Norton, Minnie Driver and – gasp – Gwyneth Paltrow.

Yes, the Goop Princess herself.

Riseborough’s co-star in the movie, Marc Maron, chatted her up on his popular podcast. Fellow nominee Cate Blanchett talked about her at the recent Critics Choice Awards. And just days before voting closed, social media erupted with praise from stars like Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts, Jane Fonda, Demi Moore, Frances Fisher and Laura Dern, among others.

Danielle Deadwyler’s performance in “Till” did not receive an Oscar nomination                      

Let me repeat. Riseborough is really good in “To Leslie.” But something about her last-minute momentum has stuck in somebody’s craw.  I’d call it the Fancy-Schmancy Factor. Or maybe Popular Girls Syndrome. How dare the likes of Paltrow, Winslet, Watts, etc., throw their collective sculpted weight around?

Complaints about Oscar campaigns are about as old as the Oscars themselves. One of the most memorable erupted in 1960 when a character actor named Chill Wills let his hankering for Oscar gold get out of hand. Wills had a fairly prominent supporting role in John Wayne’s “The Alamo” (which the Duke starred in as Davy Crockett, as well as directed).

Wayne spent $75,000 in 1960 dollars on ads in the trade papers (Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, etc.) touting his epic. But that was business as usual (still is). He also equated a vote for his picture with support for Mom and apple pie.  Not exactly business as usual – mogul Darryl Zanuck accused the star of “vulgar solicitation of votes” – but not really all that out of the ordinary.

Viola Davis’ performance in”The Woman King” failed to get an Oscar nomination

Or, more to the point, not really the problem. The problem was Wills’ shameless campaign. Not content to put his fate in Wayne’s (actually, Wayne’s publicist’s) hands, the actor hired his own PR guy. A series of ads appeared in the trades, listing every member of the Academy alphabetically, with a picture of Wills and the line, “Win, lose or draw, you’re all my cousins and I love you all.”

Groucho Marx responded with an ad of his own: “Dear Mr. Chill Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo.”

Things went downhill from there, though not for Variety, etc. which made a mint off every ad. Ultimately, Oscar night came, and Wills lost to Peter Ustinov in “Spartacus.”

No telling whose name will be read out on March 12. I’m guessing it won’t be Riseborough, but the good news is that maybe, just maybe, some movie-lovers will check out “To Leslie.”

No matter how they feel about Goop.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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