“To Leslie,” the indie drama scored by Andrea Riseborough to one of the most exciting Oscar nominations in history, opened at the Monica Film Center in Santa Monica on October 9, where it came and went after play to an empty house for five days.
It ended its theatrical run soon after with a worldwide box office of $27,000 — that’s a thousand, not a million. Marc Maron, who co-stars with Riseborough in the heartbreaking drama about an addict returning to her West Texas hometown to rebuild her life, was upset when distributor Momentum Pictures handled the film, talking on his WTF podcast : “The f— distributor dropped the ball on facilitating something that would bring much more attention to the film. And now this movie with a score of 100% Rotten Tomatoes everyone should see [has] entertained by the people who were responsible for putting it out there.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Riseborough, a talented English actor who has worked with everyone from Mike Leigh to Alejandro G. Iñárritu and won many admirers and allies in the process, has somehow entered the awards season conversation. You didn’t see her face on billboards along Sunset Boulevard or in trades appraisal ads. There was no money for that.
But she had connections. “To Leslie” director Michael Morris knows plenty of actors and celebrities from his long career, as does his wife, actress Mary McCormack, and they’ve contacted almost all of them, asking their friends watch the film and, if they want it, spread the word.
Charlize Theron was the first to sign on, hosting a screening for the film at the Creative Arts Agency in Century City in November. “It’s the kind of film that sticks in your mind. It stays in your bones. [It] it even stays in your skin,” Theron said, introducing “To Leslie”. a throwback to 70s indie films. Edward Norton and Jennifer Aniston lent their support later that month, opening their homes to private screenings.
Shortly afterwards, Riseborough met with Shelter PR, who agreed to run a campaign. Beyond what Riseborough and Morris were willing to spend, there was no money. Riseborough and the Shelter team drew up a list of actors they could enlist and, with the support of McCormack and Morris’ contacts, began working the phones. Over the holidays while the rest of Hollywood laid low and tried to navigate the streaming platform of the film academy, they put together a foundation of support to release when the calendar reached 2023.
“He went from zero to 100 faster than anything I’ve ever seen,” says a source close to the campaign. “It was a movement of support and love to perform.”
Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a screening in early January, calling the film a “masterpiece”. Courteney Cox followed suit. Oscar nomination voting began on January 12, and the following day, Rosanna Arquette introduced “To Leslie” to a packed theater at the Directors Guild on Sunset. After the credits rolled, Riseborough, Morris and actors Allison Janney, Maron and Andre Royo took the stage to talk to Demi Moore. No one left in the theater.
The virtual campaign went the next day with Kate Winslet, who worked with Riseborough on the upcoming drama “Lee,” leading a Q&A. “You should be happy with everything,” Winslet told Riseborough. “You should have won everything. Andrea Riseborough, I think this is the greatest portrayal of a woman on screen that I have ever seen in my life.” Amy Adams led a similar event hours before voting closed last week, saying she was “happy to spread the word … about this great filmmaking achievement.”
Meanwhile, social media was abuzz with raves from the likes of Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt (“If you’re out there voting for a performance, don’t make it until you see Andrea Riseborough”), Melanie Lynskey, Mira Sorvino, Minnie Driver and perhaps too many others to mention. Cate Blanchett, who would eventually join Riseborough among the Oscar-nominated leading actresses, even gave her a shout out while accepting a tribute at the Los Angeles Film Critics dinner the weekend before the ballot deadline. (Blanhett reiterated the support the following night during the low-rated Critics Choice Awards on television.)
With all that in mind, can Riseborough’s nomination really be considered terrible? If you just go with the work itself, says Winslet, the answer is no.
“I’m so happy for her that the acting community spoke up for her amazing performance,” Winslet told me on Tuesday. “No matter how many voices have been singing her praises over the past few weeks, those voices have not given that expression. She made.”
“This nomination was hard-earned,” Winslet continued. “She has worked and worked and pushed herself for years. None of that is easy. This nomination is deeply and richly deserved.”
That said, Riseborough herself was “very surprised,” telling Deadline that “it was so hard to believe it could ever happen because we weren’t really in the running for anything else. Even though we had a lot of support, it seemed like it could happen far away.”
How much support did she need? The acting branch of the academy has 1,336 members, which means if all of them voted Riseborough would need about 200 or so mentions. But in the Oscars’ preferential voting system, where members rank their choices, a passionate core of first-place votes can push nominees higher in the race. I’m no expert in mathematics, but, given the low visibility of “To Leslie,” Riseborough must have sat at the top of many ballots.
Riseborough’s phenomenal success could inspire every actor in Hollywood to call their managers next year, pressuring them for a similar campaign next door. “It’s probably only limited to actors,” says a veteran awards consultant. “It is less likely that such a campaign would happen on the ground inside other branches. I can’t see directors being asked to jump on a bandwagon to lobby hard for another director, or cinematographers, or producers, who are in competition with each other. You’d have to believe there’s selflessness in Hollywood for that.”
Immediately after her nomination, there were whispers that Riseborough’s campaign might run afoul of film academy regulations, which specify and limit the type of contact allowed to contact voters. Others took to social media, expressing outrage that no Black women were nominated for lead actress, despite powerhouse performances from contenders Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”) and Viola Davis (“The Woman King “).
But Riseborough did not replace either woman. She earned her nomination by delivering a stunningly uncompromising performance that attracted a wave of love. Who knows? She may have been third or fourth on the ballot. The academy doesn’t release those figures, so we’ll never know.
Riseborough’s campaign team understands the speculation about how she won the nomination. (“It’s their right to do that,” says a representative.) But they’ve already moved on to the next chapter: Getting Riseborough the leading actor Oscar.
“There’s really no time to enjoy this,” said the representative. “We have more work to do.”