It’s the fairy-tale story of every Oscars — the complete outsider who comes from nowhere to challenge the big studios and stars, and show that talent can win over money and power in Hollywood.
And it became a possibility again this year when British actress Andrea Riseborough was unexpectedly nominated for her critically acclaimed but little-seen performance in To Leslie, an independent film about a single mother who becomes an alcoholic and drug addict after squandering a huge lottery win.
Yet instead of being able to bask in her remarkable success, Riseborough has been thrust centre stage in America’s increasingly bitter debate over race.
For Riseborough — the child of ‘working-class Thatcherites’ from the Tyneside town of Wallsend — is unfortunate enough to have completed a shortlist for this year’s Best Actress Oscar with no black performer on it.
Controversy: Andrea Riseborough walks the red carpet at the 76th Venice Film Festival in 2019
And, in particular, neither Viola Davis, star of controversial historical drama The Woman King, nor Danielle Deadwyler, who plays the mother of 1950s lynching victim Emmett Till in the movie Till, made the nominations.
It has prompted accusations that the Oscars has ‘snubbed’ two prominent African-American films and their stars.
An embarrassed Academy has since launched an investigation into how a low-budget film company could possibly have campaigned so successfully to get its lead actress onto the shortlist.
To Leslie — set in West Texas but shot in LA over just 19 days during the pandemic — was directed by British film-maker Michael Morris.
As the Mail went to press, the Academy was due to discuss the film over accusations that it may have broken its campaign rules.
The film made only $27,000 (around £21,800) on its release last October and, until now, had earned Riseborough little recognition. It was ignored at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards, both usually seen as reliable predictors of the movies likely to win big at the Oscars.
Unlike Till and The Woman King which were backed by deep-pocketed Hollywood studios United Artists and Sony respectively, To Leslie lacked millions to spend on Oscar promotion campaigns. Michael Morris and his wife, the well-connected U.S. actress Mary McCormack, relied instead on a high-profile word-of-mouth push.
They showed the movie to their friend, ‘shock-jock’ radio DJ Howard Stern, who liked it and touted it on his show.
Snub: Danielle Deadwyler as the mother of 1950s lynching victim Emmett Till in the movie Till
A ‘celeb-backed campaign’ to promote the film then went into overdrive, as Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Demi Moore, Courteney Cox and Edward Norton all hosted screenings.
Kate Winslet and Amy Adams moderated virtual Q&As with Riseborough, while Cate Blanchett mentioned her performance in her acceptance speech at the Critics’ Choice Awards.
After McCormack emailed friends asking them to support the movie on social media, stars including Jane Fonda, Liam Neeson, Sally Field and Geena Davis were among those who obliged.
‘It just knocked me sideways,’ enthused Paltrow. ‘Andrea should win every award there is.’
Academy membership is divided into 17 branches, with each picking the nominees in their area of expertise. With around 1,300 members in the actors’ branch, a nominee needs just over 200 votes to make the shortlist.
The support of high-profile white stars for 41-year-old Riseborough has hardly endeared the Oscars process to critics, who say the saga is further proof that the Academy’s commitment to racial diversity is just token. Ominously, the hashtag ‘OscarsSoWhite’ has reappeared on Twitter.
For others, however, the expectation that black stars should feature among the nominees raises troubling questions about what should be an entirely subjective artistic judgment.
Race has become a touchstone issue for U.S. awards ceremonies.
The academy’s membership — whose eligibility is based on having credits in feature films — has grown dramatically over the past five years, largely in response to criticism that it was too white, male and old.
Overlooked: Viola Davis starring in the controversial historical drama The Woman King
White stars and Oscars judges are free to rally behind other white actors in the nominations process, but since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, they risk having their motives questioned.
Furious Nigerian-American director Chinonye Chukwu did so this week after the star of her film, Till, having won both Bafta and Screen Actors Guild nominations, was ignored by the Oscars.
‘We . . . work in industries that are so aggressively committed to upholding whiteness and perpetuating an unabashed misogyny towards black women,’ she said in an Instagram post. ‘And yet. I am forever in gratitude for the greatest lesson of my life — regardless of any challenges or obstacles, I will always have the power to cultivate my own joy, and it is this joy that will continue to be one of my greatest forms of resistance.’
Her cause was quickly taken up by others. In the Los Angeles Times, Robert Daniels, a black film critic, contrasted the ‘surprising’ nomination of a white British actress in a ‘little-seen’ film with the movie industry’s ‘problem’ with recognising black women.
‘What does it say that the black women who did everything the institution asks of them — luxury dinners, private academy screenings, meet-and-greets, splashy television spots and magazine profiles — are ignored when someone who did everything outside of the system is rewarded?’
Daniels — like the director of Till — doesn’t appear to have considered the possibility that the judges didn’t believe Viola Davis (who won an Oscar for 2016 period drama Fences, and has been nominated three other times) and Danielle Deadwyler were worthy of Oscars nods.
In Davis’s case, her performance was marred by another race controversy, this time over The Woman King’s failure — despite being billed as being ‘based on powerful true events’ — to address the fact the African kingdom of Dahomey was as committed to slavery as European interlopers.
Rave reviews: Riseborough plays motel owner Sweeney in To Leslie, which is based on a true story of a West Texas woman who wins the lottery and squanders her fortune
Others said it was ironic critics were complaining about racial representation when this year marks the first time an Asian woman — Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh — has been nominated for Best Actress.
Some observers believe Academy bosses have only themselves to blame if some now expect black contenders to be nominated in the major categories every year.
Organisers crumbled in the face of the OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015, when all 20 nominations in the acting categories were white. Campaigners claimed winners were overwhelmingly white because the judges were, too.
Despite studies suggesting this wasn’t the case, Hollywood went full throttle on ‘diversity’.
In 2020, the Academy unveiled its ‘Representation And Inclusion Standards Entry’ policy (RAISE), which insists that for a film to qualify for Best Picture, producers have to meet two of its four diversity standards.
These are designed to ensure ethnic minorities, women and the disabled are included in the film-making process, from the on-screen performers to the behind-the-camera creators.
The film world has until next year’s Oscars to comply with these strict new rules, which some have attacked as ‘Orwellian’.
That an immensely talented but under-acknowledged British actress should be made to suffer essentially for being the wrong colour seems deeply Orwellian, too.