How the small, West Texas drama 'To Leslie' entered the Oscars race

Thanks to some famous friends, Andrea Riseborough, star of the little-seen, low-budget film, is competing in a stacked Best Actress race.

Photo of A.A. Dowd
Andrea Riseborough in To Leslie

Andrea Riseborough in To Leslie

Momentum Pictures

The nominations for the 95th Academy Awards were announced early Tuesday morning, and as usual, a list dominated by foregone conclusions (like the big showing for A24 crowdpleaser Everything Everywhere All At Once) also included a few genuine surprises. One in particular is provoking a lot of conversation and ink today, and that would be the star of a low-budget, low-grossing, little-seen West Texas drama managing to secure a spot within the very competitive Best Actress category.

The star is Andrea Riseborough, who plays a recovering alcoholic reuniting with her estranged son in To Leslie. It's no exaggeration to say that the movie, which premiered in Austin at SXSW last March—alongside aforementioned, increasingly apparent frontrunner Everything Everywhere—is the most obscure title represented in the major Oscar categories this year. It made only about $27,000 during its brief theatrical run in the fall, and while it's now available to digitally rent, it hasn't enjoyed the visibility afforded to films available to stream on Netflix or Apple TV+. Nor has To Leslie shown up regularly among the critical darlings and guild favorites of this awards season, having only picked up a few nods before today.

Still, it can't really be said that Riseborough's nomination came out of nowhere. It is, in all likelihood, the result of an uncommonly coordinated celebrity grassroots campaign. About two weeks ago, timed to ballots going out to Academy members, famous actors began simultaneously expressing their love for the performance. While stars like Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, and Jennifer Aniston are said to have hosted screenings of To Leslie, the real pro bono, get-out-the-vote movement happened on social media, where dozens of Hollywood names tweeted support for Riseborough. Some simply circulated a prepared line of copypasta, which really underscored the impression of an organized attempt to sway the vote.

To some, the success of this campaign has been cause for celebration. To Leslie is the kind of movie—genuinely independent and intimately scaled, with no giant stars—that's often overlooked by the Academy. What's more, its distributor, Momentum Pictures, lacked the resources to launch a full-court-press For-Your-Consideration effort, the kind that benefited almost all of the other nominees, this year or any other. In theory, a word-of-mouth campaign is a victory over the pay-to-play economics of awards season, in which the studios that spend the most tend to win the most.

On the other hand, Riseborough's nomination can also be seen as proof that Hollywood really is a big clubhouse. Did every member who voted for this "small movie with a big heart" actually see it? How about every celebrity singing its praises? The reused copypasta suggests maybe not. Some of the conversation Tuesday has pivoted around who lost a spot in the Best Actress race thanks to the collaborative efforts of famous friends with big followings and microphones. As some have pointed out, this surprise nomination may have come at the expense of two Black actresses widely considered top contenders, Danielle Deadwyler for Till and Viola Davis for The Woman King. Where were their grassroots celebrity campaigns?

Without the vote tallies, there's no way to know how close either woman—or really anyone else—came to landing a nomination. And it's not as though admiration for Riseborough has emerged from out of nowhere. She's a consummate character actor who's built an impressive, versatile resume over the years, punching up the margins of past Oscar winners (Birdman) and big-budget blockbusters (Oblivion), while delivering knockout lead performances in similarly "small" pictures like Nancy and Possessor. No one is owed an Oscar nomination. But before today, Riseborough would have made an appropriate addition to the list of performers both consistently excellent and consistently overlooked by the Academy.

Whether she has any chance of actually winning the Oscar is debatable. Just how influential is Gwyneth Paltrow anyway? But the fact that Riseborough is even competing is a reminder that in the movie business, as in so many other industries, it's who you know that matters.

To Leslie is now available to digitally rent from the major services.

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