Oscar Blitz 2023 – Best Actress

The controversy surrounding this year’s Best Actress category has been, in an odd way, rather fascinating. This is mostly because of which aspects of the situation people tend to get offended by, and which they’re perfectly fine with. For those blissfully unaware, THE big shock of the nomination announcement was that Andrea Riseborough got the nod for her performance in To Leslie over much more ballyhooed candidates like Viola Davis for The Woman King or Danielle Deadwyler for Till. Riseborough had been previously nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for this role, same as Brian Tyree Henry and Paul Mescal, who were also surprise nominees, but this one felt different for a number of reasons.

The first is that the campaign to get Riseborough on the ballot was extremely late in the process. A massive social media effort was launched in the final days of preliminary voting, spearheaded by her friends, co-stars in the film, and (according to some rumors) her talent agency. The second is that Riseborough, while by no means a bad actress, is far from a household name, and had no real breakout roles to this point. Arguably her biggest part was as legendary divorcee Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s critically-panned historical drama, W.E. I’m pretty sure the top Google search on January 25th was, “Who the fuck is Andrea Riseborough?” This leads into the third reason for the shock, the fact that basically no one saw To Leslie before the nomination. It only had the minimal one-week qualifying run in Los Angeles back in October, and its worldwide gross was $27,000. Not 27 million dollars, 27 THOUSAND, somewhat ironic and fitting given that the film is about a woman who squandered her lottery winnings, winding up even poorer than when she started. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a strong average score 0f 95%, but it should be noted that 27 of the 81 reviews currently listed were published after Riseborough’s Oscar nomination, and three more after the Spirit nod, meaning that 37.5% of the reviews for this movie were in response to her recognition, rather than seeing it without prior knowledge.

The backlash was instant, and inspired largely by the first of these three factors. On one side of the spectrum you had people calling foul because the campaign likely violated Academy rules, which state that you can’t directly campaign to members, and if you’re advertising in general, you can’t advocate against the competition. A direct effort, spearheaded by the film’s director and publicists he and Riseborough hired, seemed to do just that, not only by going straight to other actors and encouraging them to watch and promote the film, but also in social media posts and emails where language from the people involved indicated the presumption that Davis and Deadwyler were locks for nominations, so they could stand to lose a few votes. That last part earned the ire of minorities in the industry, as the result left two women of color out of the equation.

The other criticism was that this campaign violated the spirit of the competition, as it was not a marketing-driven campaign from the film’s studio. This in turn invited its own public rebuttal, as people argued that To Leslie was being made an example because it didn’t have the massive war chest for advertising that Disney or Warner Bros. have for their respective For Your Consideration lobbying efforts.

In the end, the Academy upheld Riseborough’s nomination, promising to re-evaluate campaign rules for next year. But to me, all of this brouhaha misses the point entirely. The real problem is two-fold. One is that we have these campaigns in the first place. If a film – or any element therein – is worthy of consideration or award, it should stand on its own merit, with no marketing at all. Think of all the money that could be spent to make the actual movies better if we didn’t waste tens of millions every year just to convince a few thousand members that they already are better. This also indicts the membership itself, because if they’re that susceptible to such tactics, it means they’re not actually watching the entries, betraying the public trust and their own responsibilities as a part of the Academy.

The second is that To Leslie was marketed – and Riseborough nominated – despite the general public not being able to see the film. That is unacceptable. Mescal and Henry’s nominations were out of left field as well, but at least their films were widely released so that the public could consume them. Instead, To Leslie paid lip service to the eligibility rules with just one week in theatres (the same week that Tell it Like a Woman had for its own transparently craven run) before disappearing entirely until its rental release on VOD platforms. This exclusivity extended to the campaign itself, as many of the high profile celebrities who became champions for the film hosted screenings for their fellow voters in the Acting Branch (open to the public, but you’d have to be constantly refreshing trade publications to know about them), basically ensuring that they could watch and vote, but the average movie-goer couldn’t.

How is that any different than when a studio buys a Golden Globe nomination? More money is involved, yes, but the (lack of) principle is the same. Get the voters on your side, garner the attention, and get the reward before any of us can actually see the thing and judge for ourselves. That way, the studio, regardless of size, can artificially inflate their profile and profits under the insulting guise of “promoting art,” purchasing prestige rather than earning it.

There is no upside to this. Riseborough basically has no chance to win the Oscar due to the trajectory of the competition so far, and now this controversy will be the thing she’s most associated with. Any major role she takes on in future will have this scarlet letter attached to it, and she’ll either be framed as the person who tried to cheat the system, or in a more charitable light be described as trying to redeem herself from it. Either way, she’ll never be able to have another job where she’s judged on the merits of her performance solely within the context of the film. In trying to “help” her, the people behind this have created a mark that will follow her the rest of her career and prevent any true and serious consideration for her work going forward.

This year’s nominees for Best Actress are…

Cate Blanchett – Tár

Cate Blanchett is an unquestioned titan of acting, and like Blue Jasmin before, Tár provides her with all the space she needs to flex her dramatic muscles. The descent from elitism to mediocrity is remarkable to behold, because even in her lowest moments, Blanchett as Lydia Tár effortlessly makes herself the center of attention.

As I’ve noted before, the New Yorker lecture that opens the film is a moment of pure perfection, as Blanchett recites lengthy monologues as part of the interview, in a sequence that rarely cuts the shot, meaning she had to memorize or improvise large amounts of dialogue to deliver each take. This is a challenge for even the best stage actors, because while they have to commit all of their lines to memory, there are allowable gaps outside of their cues. Blanchett is rarely afforded such luxury in the film’s early scenes, as she has to carry the vast majority of some very verbose scripting.

The performance never truly falters, but there are a few moments, particularly in the middle bits as Lydia’s spiral starts to redefine and shrink the scope of her role, where she seems to just talk for the sake of talking. This is especially true in the scenes where she fires the assistant conductor and refuses to hire her own protégé. These are the bits that feel more pretentious than the character is intended, and where you notice more than any other time that this picture truly is a Showcase Film meant to get Blanchett her third Oscar. These scenes are still effective, but they do temporarily take you out of the experience of the movie and remind you that there’s a larger, less genuine agenda at play.

Ana de Armas – Blonde

Ana de Armas is one of the best rising stars in Hollywood, and she’s never given a truly bad performance. However, Blonde was one of the worst movies of 2022, and like Kristen Stewart last year with Spencer, the fact that she’s not actively terrible results in her being graded on the most generous of curves, resulting in a raised profile and a nomination because she was the best part of a really bad thing.

Objectively speaking though, this performance is nothing special, and nothing we haven’t seen before. Just like Michelle Williams and Mira Sorvino (among others), de Armas plays Marilyn Monroe as a breathy ditz with extreme daddy issues, which is fine if you’re making a porno, but utterly meaningless if you’re trying to assert her agency and intelligence. There’s nothing about de Armas’ performance that differentiates itself from any other before it, other than the fact that it lasts longer and has more nudity, which again, I’m fine with in… certain contexts, but it does nothing for me if you’re trying to convince me that she gave the best performance of any leading film actress last year.

This is Bart Simpson’s “At Least You Tried” cake reshaped into a movie role. She wasn’t awful, but the movie was on every other level. So because she gave it her all, here’s a consolation nomination. From the standpoint of an actual performance, I’m far more offended that this got nominated over Davis and Deadwyler than Riseborough. Speaking of which…

Andrea Riseborough – To Leslie

This isn’t a good movie, but Riseborough does give it what little credibility it has. The character of Leslie is just terribly written, to the point that when I finally saw the flick, I repeatedly shouted back at my TV, “Oh for fuck’s sake, AGAIN?!” every time she relapsed. The movie plays like an R-rated Afterschool Special like Flight, only without Denzel Washington or John Goodman’s charisma.

But in a weird way, I do have to give Riseborough credit for this. It takes skill to play such an objectionable character this convincingly. The more I hated everything Leslie did, the more I realized that it was Riseborough’s committed performance that was making me hate it. I compare it to Amy Adams a couple years ago in Hillbilly Elegy (which had its own set of insulting issues). On the surface, the two roles hit the same notes, with Adams as a drug addict and Riseborough as an alcoholic. But in the former, Adams’ character and performance are treated as mean-spirited jokes by a tone deaf asshole who got his comeuppance by becoming… a United States Senator (God we’re fucked). While clunky and heavy-handed as all get out, you can at least tell there are good intentions behind To Leslie, a desire to see the character redeemed. And while the script leaves a lot to be desired, Riseborough never lets up because the film doesn’t let her. I have to acknowledge and admire that even if I don’t agree with the content or tone of the film.

Also, for what it’s worth, her accent is very convincing. Given that she’s English, I never once doubted that she was white trash from Texas.

Michelle Williams – The Fabelmans

I said it when I first reviewed the movie, and I’ll say it again now. This is a nothing performance. First of all, nearly every role Michelle Williams has played as an adult has been some form of sainted/aggrieved mother character, and I’m sick of the typecast. She’s infinitely more talented than this, and the fact that she keeps getting reduced to these pedestrian turns is tiresome and insulting to our collective intelligence.

Second, as Mitzi, the entirety of her role consists of exactly five moves: 1) Grin like an idiot whenever Sammy makes a movie; 2) Occasionally cry or shout whenever anything is less than perfect; 3) Stare with lovesick puppy dog eyes at Bennie; 4) Recite mindless platitudes like “Movies are dreams!”; and 5) Try to talk like Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl at random intervals.

If that’s what counts for Oscar-worthy, the Academy has a much bigger problem on its hands than social media campaigning. Then again, it’s only been eight years since Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor for sitting in a chair for two hours, so what the fuck do I know?

Michelle Yeoh – Everything Everywhere All at Once

The main reason Michelle Yeoh is the cream of this year’s crop is for basically the same reason as I discussed with the likes of the rest of her co-stars. It’s not just that she’s playing a kickass character who goes on an incredible journey that we’ve basically never seen before. It’s the fact that she’s doing it several times over, playing a different version of Evelyn Wang in dozens of different universes, all with different contexts and demands of the role. The other four actresses here played one part, while Yeoh for all intents and purposes played 30.

In the main timeline, “our” Evelyn is unhappy, stressed out, and at a loss with her family. She’s constantly overwhelmed by things she can’t handle in the way others want it handled, but she does her best and always acts in good faith. In another universe, she’s a struggling hibachi chef. In another, a blind opera singer. In yet another, she’s a martial arts master. In order to convince herself that she could love Deirdre, we have to find a world where she literally is in a loving relationship with her… and she also has hot dogs instead of fingers and toes. And of course, there’s a world where she’s literally Michelle Yeoh, world-renowned actress.

The whole point is to show just how endless the possibilities are, and as the film evolves, so does Yeoh’s performance. She adapts to each reality, taking the necessary skills and lessons from them to inform her current situation and save her universe, becoming a more complete version of herself each time. And through it all, she remains a being of pure empathy, willing to suffer through the end of every world if it means saving Joy and proving to her daughter how much she is loved. That is just goddamn beautiful.

When we talk about the best actors out there, we always like to mention their range, the array of character types they can play over the course of their careers. For most performers, this is demonstrated from one role to the next, over years of different works. Yeoh (and the rest of the core cast of Everything Everywhere for that matter) has to show that incredible range just within this one role, which is a degree of difficulty that goes far beyond what anyone else was able to put forward last year. I said that the women’s side of the acting field was stronger than the men’s in this year’s race, and I stand by it. That said, this is a two-horse race, and if there’s any justice, Yeoh has this by a country mile.

My Rankings:
1) Michelle Yeoh
2) Cate Blanchett
3) Andrea Riseborough
4) Ana de Armas
5) Michelle Williams

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Up Next, it’s the last of the technical categories, and the one where I actually have the most practical experience and expertise to speak on, so I might actually know what I’m talking about for once. It’s Film Editing!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which performance was your favorite? Should Riseborough’s nomination have been allowed to go forward? What would you do with $190,000… other than, you know, pay rent for one year in New York City? Let me know!

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