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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced on Friday that it is “conducting a review” of this season’s Oscar campaigns, with the grassroots effort that resulted in a surprising best actress Oscar nomination for Andrea Riseborough’s performance in the independent film To Leslie almost certainly the main focus of their inquiry.
The nom for Riseborough, a 41-year-old British actors’ actor, evoked audible gasps when it was announced last Tuesday because few people except members of the Academy’s actors branch, which solely determines the acting Oscar nominees, had ever even heard of the film it came for, which cost — and grossed — virtually nothing. But given the tremendous critical response to Riseborough’s portrayal of a spiraling alcoholic following the film’s premiere at last year’s SXSW film festival, and the lack of financial resources possessed by the film’s U.S. distributor Momentum Pictures, the film’s director, Michael Morris, and his wife, the actress Mary McCormack, appealed to famous friends in the actors branch to post about Riseborough’s performance on social media and to host in-person or virtual Q&As with the actress.
Among those who shared their endorsements of Riseborough’s work on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram were Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt, Zooey Deschanel, Mira Sorvino, Constance Zimmer, Rosie O’Donnell, Alan Cumming and Riseborough’s Birdman co-star Edward Norton (Norton tweeted that Riseborough’s performance “just knocked me sideways”). Among those who hosted events for the film were Charlize Theron, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Minnie Driver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Amy Adams, Frances Fisher and Kate Winslet. (Winslet said of Riseborough’s To Leslie performance at her gathering, “I think this is the greatest female performance onscreen I have ever seen in my life.”)
Many industry observers expressed admiration and awe that so many famous people went to bat — and ultimately came through — for Riseborough. Others, however, have criticized the campaign, noting that not every Oscars hopeful has access to the kind of Rolodex that Riseborough’s champions do and suggesting that some of them were out of line in urging people to rank her No. 1 on their weighted ballot. The latter contingent apparently prompted the Academy to launch its review — but, as a longtime student and observer of the Academy, I highly doubt, based on the information currently in the public domain, that the organization will take punitive action against Riseborough or her nomination.
Nor should they.
That’s because unabashed solicitation of Oscar votes is a tradition almost as old as the Academy itself, and an unavoidable outgrowth of dangling a prize that could change the fortunes of a film or filmmaker.
In the first years of the Academy Awards, a small jury — known as a “central board of judges” — picked the winners. Ahead of the second Academy Awards ceremony, Mary Pickford, one of the organization’s founders and the star of that season’s mediocre film Coquette, invited the board of judges to join her for tea at Pickfair, the fabled mansion that she shared with her husband, the Academy’s founding president Douglas Fairbanks — Hollywood’s equivalent of an invitation to the White House or Buckingham Palace. Guess who was subsequently awarded the best actress trophy?
When Oscar voting was shortly thereafter opened up to the broader Academy membership, campaign tactics shifted. At the time, most Academy members — and, indeed, most people in Hollywood — were “under contract” to a specific studio, and most studios leaned on their contracted employees (through ways subtle and unsubtle) to back specific “ponies” in each year’s Oscars derby. Most happily complied because, as Joan Crawford famously declared, “You’d have to be some kind of ninny to vote against the studio that has your contract or produces your pictures.”
As a result, the Oscars became a race to see which studio could get the most employees accepted as members of the Academy, even paying their dues in some cases. The late publicist-turned-producer Walter Seltzer once recalled a 1939 meeting of the MGM publicity team, of which he was then a young member: “Our boss, Howard Strickling, announced that through the generosity of the studio, all of us as of now are members of the Academy. He had enrolled everyone and paid the initiation fee. There was general jubilation and thanks; then he proceeded to tell us how we were to vote.”
This is not some sort of deep dark secret. In 2016, I was speaking with Steven Spielberg about the year that his 1998 film Saving Private Ryan lost the best picture Oscar to Shakespeare in Love thanks, in no small part, to Harvey Weinstein’s total-war campaign for the latter. Spielberg noted that trying to game the Oscars is nothing new: “Back in the ’40s and ’50s, there was bloc voting. Academy members at Fox were voting against Academy members at Warner Bros., and they were all being trounced by the Academy members at MGM that won so many Oscars year after year. I mean, this is not foreign to anyone who has had experience growing up in this town. It’s just a reality. It’s something we live with.”
Though bloc voting faded considerably with the demise of the studio system, it endures, to a degree, because many members of the Academy’s executives, marketing/public relations and short films/feature animation branches still work for — and therefore often support the product of — a specific studio.
Today, though, most filmmakers and talent are in business with a studio for a single project, and when that project turns out well, the studio spends money highlighting that achievement — in close consultation with filmmakers and talent and their representatives. In most cases, those advertising/marketing spends — which can cover everything from FYC ads to billboards to lunches, receptions and parties to related travel costs — are not inconsiderable. But the studios are willing to incur them because they know that any Oscar recognition that results will boost the film’s financial value — in theaters, on a VOD platform or as a library asset — and/or further endear them to the filmmakers and talent whose work they are touting. And make no mistake about it: Filmmakers and talent are very much aware of and rarely object to such promotion. In fact, they almost always aid it by granting interviews and making appearances, because they, too, recognize the value of the exposure and potential recognition.
But what happens when good work is done by filmmakers or talent who are not backed by the infrastructure and deep pockets of a big studio? Most of the time, not much. Outstanding indies of recent years like Dee Rees’ Focus-distributed Pariah (2011), Destin Daniel Cretton’s Cinedigm-distributed Short Term 12 (2013), Kent Jones’ IFC-distributed Diane (2018) and Rod Lurie’s Screen Media Films-distributed The Outpost (2020) simply faded away.
Over the years, however, some filmmakers and talent associated with these kinds of movies have refused to go down without a fight. Some argue that a self-funded grassroots campaign is embarrassing and looks, in the parlance of our time, “thirsty.” But a handful of folks have calculated that one is worth mounting anyway — out of pride in their work and/or a feeling that recognition could lead to life/career-changing opportunities — and have taken matters into their own hands.
“For your consideration” ads in trade papers like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, which have always been read by a sizable portion of the Academy’s membership, date back to Ah, Wilderness in 1935. (For the record, that film received zero Oscar nominations.) Most have been bought by studios on behalf of their filmmakers and talent, but some have been paid for by filmmakers and talent who felt they were being inadequately supported by their studio. And, oftentimes, those investments paid off. See: Robert Vaughn’s best supporting actor nomination for The Young Philadelphians (1959), Nick Adams’ best supporting actor nom for Twilight of Honor (1963), Cliff Robertson’s best actor nom and win for Charly (1968), and Candy Clark’s best supporting actress nom for American Graffiti (1973).
But the first time that an FYC ad — or rather, several FYC ads — went completely overboard was during the 1960-61 season, when the veteran character actor Chill Wills grew desperate for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance in John Wayne’s directorial debut, The Alamo, and hired an eccentric friend, W.S. “Bow-Wow” Wojciechowicz, to act as his publicist. Wills was indeed nominated, at which point Wojciechowicz — with or without Wills’ knowledge, it’s not clear — took out a series of unbelievably over-the-top ads, including one ostensibly written by Wills’ “Alamo Cousins” claiming that they were “praying harder — than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo — for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.”
The comedian and Academy member Groucho Marx was so disgusted by that one that he took out an ad of his own in which he said he was happy to be Wills’ cousin, but that he voted for Sal Mineo. And Wayne himself publicly slammed his star: “I refrain from using stronger language because I am sure his intentions were not as bad as his taste.” Unsurprisingly, Wills lost the Oscar, and henceforth the Academy began issuing annual statements warning against unbecoming solicitation of votes — although there was no clear “line” delineated.
Backlash to the Wills campaign contributed to a number of subsequent Oscar nominees and winners questioning the integrity of the Academy and value of the Oscars: George C. Scott rejected his best actor Oscar for Patton (1970); Marlon Brando rejected his best actor Oscar for The Godfather (1972); and Dustin Hoffman and Sean Penn both accepted multiple best actor Oscars, but not before publicly expressing conflicted feelings about the whole enterprise.
As a result, long-shot campaigning died down for a time, but then came back with a vengeance in the 1980s.
Margaret Avery, for her performance as a larger-than-life singer in Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985), received a best supporting actress nom alongside her co-star, Oprah Winfrey. She then proceeded to take out a trade paper ad that was addressed to “Dear God” and pleaded — in a written-out dialect that wasn’t even like the one her character employed in the film (“Now I is up for one of the nominations fo’ best supporting actress …”) — for consideration. She ended up losing to Anjelica Huston for Prizzi’s Honor.
Two years later, character actress Sally Kirkland gave a critically acclaimed performance as an aging Czech movie star in a tiny film called Anna (1987), distributed by Vestron Pictures, which apparently wasn’t in a position to do much on Kirkland’s behalf. So, the actress sent letters to every Academy member that she knew who belonged to the organization’s actors branch (and perhaps to a few that she did not) requesting that they check out the film and consider her performance. She also bought trade ads and retained a veteran publicist to do unusual, grassroots things like cook dinner for guests at an event to which she would invite Academy members and press. She received a best actress Oscar nom, won a Golden Globe and then lost the Oscar to Cher for Moonstruck.
Kirkland was not the last Oscar hopeful to put pen to paper on behalf of her own prospects. Diane Ladd, a best supporting actress nominee for Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), felt that she had a shot at another nom in the category 16 years later, for her work in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, but that the Samuel Goldwyn Company wasn’t going to be able or willing to do enough to get her across the finish line. So she sent handwritten letters to a bunch of members of the Academy’s actors branch. And she wound up with a nom in the category not just that year, but also the next year, for her turn in Rambling Rose.
A generation later, in 2006, Ladd’s daughter Laura Dern had only one Oscar nomination to her name — also for Rambling Rose — and many, including Dern’s most frequent collaborator, Lynch, felt that was a mistake that needed to be corrected. So, following Dern’s strong turn in Lynch’s weird film Inland Empire — which was distributed by some place called 518 Media that apparently had no resources of its own to mount a campaign — Lynch set out in search of some “free media.” He set up a lawn chair on the busy corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue and plopped himself down next to a cow and a large banner marked “For Your Consideration: Laura Dern,” and then happily chatted and posed for photos with anyone who cared to visit. He later told Wired, “People solve problems with money normally. Well, I don’t have any money. And I also feel that the Academy members must be sick of seeing ad after ad after ad costing a fortune, with no one really paying attention. Honestly, I’m out there with the cow, and meeting the greatest bunch of people.” (Dern did not receive a nomination that season.)
Four years after that, Melissa Leo, a then-50-year-old character actress competing for the best supporting actress Oscar for The Fighter opposite a number of younger and more famous nominees, including her co-star Amy Adams, felt that she was not landing the sort of post-nomination magazine covers or TV talk show appearances that they were and that it could cost her the Oscar. So, she commissioned a photographer to shoot some photos of her for one-pagers, which ultimately ran in the trades alongside the word “CONSIDER.” Some mocked the ads as corny and desperate — the faux fur she wears in them was a little over the top — but others, particularly fellow women of a certain age who understood what she was up against, empathized with her predicament. And sure enough, she took home a little gold man on Oscar night.
The Academy didn’t have much of anything to say about any of those post-Wills campaigns, mostly because nobody was really “hurt” by them. But the organization has taken punitive action of one form or another when it has concluded that campaigns disparaged other films/filmmakers or that contenders solicited votes for themselves in inappropriate ways.
For instance, in 2010, Nicolas Chartier, a producer of The Hurt Locker, emailed some friends — or people who he thought were his friends — in the Academy urging them to vote for his picture rather than “the $500 million film,” a clear reference to Avatar. Someone reported him to the Academy, which punished him by revoking his tickets to the ceremony, costing him the opportunity to publicly accept in front of the world the best picture Oscar that The Hurt Locker eventually won.
Meanwhile, Bruce Broughton, a best original song nominee for “Alone Yet Not Alone,” a tune he co-wrote with Dennis Spiegel for a tiny 2014 indie of the same name, and Greg P. Russell, a best sound mixing nominee for 2017’s 13 Hours, which was co-mixed with Jeffrey J. Haboush, Mac Ruth and Gary Summers, both had their nominations rescinded after it was found that they had reached out to Academy members via email and phone, respectively, during the period of Oscar nomination voting. (Broughton’s fellow nominee also lost his nom. Russell’s fellow nominees retained theirs.)
Broughton — whose email to members of the Academy’s music branch contained “a request ‘For Your Consideration,’ a hope that the song will get noticed and be remembered among the many worthy songs from more highly visible films” — may have faced a harsher penalty than others would have because he was a past member of the Academy’s board of governors, representing the music branch, and therefore may have had contact info for branch members that other contenders did not have. According to the Academy, his conduct was not consistent with the spirit of “the Academy’s promotional regulations, which provide, among other terms, that ‘it is the Academy’s goal to ensure that the awards competition is conducted in a fair and ethical manner.’” But it struck many that the punishment did not fit the crime.
After losing the nom, Broughton told The Hollywood Reporter: “I’m devastated. I indulged in the simplest grassroots campaign, and it went against me when the song started getting attention. I got taken down by competition that had months of promotion and advertising behind them. I simply asked people to find the song and consider it.”
Russell, meanwhile, was turned in and penalized for telephoning fellow members of the sound branch seeking their support, a clearer violation of Academy rules. (The behavior that got him in trouble can be better understood, if not excused, when one realizes that he had already been nominated on 15 prior occasions, losing every single time. That’s rough.)
But the historical “case study” that I find most pertinent to the Riseborough situation is this one: In early 2003, Weinstein’s Miramax was promoting the film Gangs of New York and trying to get its director, Martin Scorsese, his first Oscar. William Goldman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, wrote an op-ed that ran in the Feb. 2 issue of Variety under the headline “Crashing the Party for Poor Marty” in which he asserted that Scorsese, who he called a “giant ape director” (whatever that means), “sure doesn’t deserve” to win for Gangs because the film “is a mess.” (The Academy had nothing to say at the time about one member slamming another.)
A month later, on March 6, an op-ed appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram that was credited to Robert Wise, the then-88-year-old Oscar-winning director of West Side Story and The Sound of Music. In it, Wise said of Gangs and Scorsese, “It is a film that is, for me, both a remarkable movie in its own right, and in many ways, a summation of his entire body of work,” adding, “Could this be the year that Oscar catches up with the rest of us and recognizes the wonderful body of work of this great director, and the huge achievement that is Gangs of New York?” Days later, Miramax took out ads in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety that blared, “Two-Time Academy Award Winner Robert Wise Declares Scorsese Deserves the Oscar for Gangs of New York.”
Frank Pierson, the president of the Academy at the time, shortly thereafter cried foul, calling the ads featuring Wise’s quote an “outright violation of Academy rules” and claiming that numerous Academy members had been so offended by them that they had requested their ballots be returned so that they could cross off Scorsese’s name. (They were not accommodated.) A week later, the situation took another twist when the Los Angeles Times revealed that Murray Weissman, a veteran publicist who was consulting with Miramax that season, had, at the company’s request, solicited an op-ed from Wise and then, at Wise’s request, drafted the piece himself.
But Pierson was not really in a position to take punitive action against anyone, given that both Stanley Donen and Wise had provided similar endorsements-turned-ads the prior season for Fox’s Moulin Rouge! without anyone involved facing sanctions. Plus, Pierson himself had hosted a cocktail party to highlight the Mexican film Y Tu Mama Tambien. Weissman told me years later that there was only one consequence for the brouhaha: “I was a member of the public relations [branch of the Academy’s executive committee], and when that happened, they invited me off the committee.” But the Academy did implement “the Murray rule,” as Weissman dryly called it, which forbade the use of quotes from Academy members in advertisements.
Twenty years later, though, in the age of social media, it is almost impossible to distinguish between an advertisement and a regular post — our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok accounts are all effectively billboards that we use to share our thoughts and feelings with the world. So, I don’t see how the Academy can penalize a contender because he, she, or, in the case of Riseborough, a contender’s friends and supporters, have chosen to utilize these platforms to champion a film or performance, especially when there is no evidence that they disparaged anyone else in the process. In the United States of America, we call this “free speech.”
And to me, it’s particularly understandable why Riseborough’s friends and supporters adopted this approach. All of her higher-profile competitors who ended up not nominated on Tuesday — including Jessica Chastain for The Good Nurse (Netflix), Olivia Colman for Empire of Light (Searchlight), Viola Davis for The Woman King (Sony), Danielle Deadwyler for Till (UAR), Jennifer Lawrence for Causeway (Apple), Rooney Mara for Women Talking (UAR), Margot Robbie for Babylon (Paramount), Anya Taylor-Joy for The Menu (Searchlight) and Emma Thompson for Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (Searchlight) — had way more money spent on their behalf by the studios distributing their films. Riseborough’s friends and supporters had to act scrappier because they, unlike their competitors, didn’t have the resources not to.
As the actress Christina Ricci posted to Instagram on Saturday: “Seems hilarious that the ‘surprise nomination’ (meaning tons of money wasn’t spent to position this actress) of a legitimately brilliant performance is being met with an investigation. So it’s only the films and actors that can afford the campaigns that deserve recognition? Feels elitist and exclusive and frankly very backward to me.”
But beyond that, I think that the Academy should show a little faith in its own members. Riseborough’s friends and supporters didn’t have some magical potion that compelled other Academy members to vote for something, in the privacy of their own homes, that they didn’t actually like. They just mobilized voters to watch the movie so that they could, well, consider the performance at the center of it. And apparently, once voters did, they — like the critics whose raves propelled To Leslie to a 97 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes — were sold.
If, in the future, a campaign truly does go over the (invisible) line, I would trust Academy members to notice that and dole out the worst punishment of all: withholding their vote.
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