Haven’t Heard of Andrea Riseborough and ‘To Leslie’? The Academy Has
Her surprise Best Actress nomination may have more moviegoers wanting to give the film a watch, and at least one scene strikes our reviewer as Oscar-worthy.
The biggest surprise of this year’s Academy Awards nominations announcement was Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress nod for the independent movie “To Leslie.” A few industry sites called the nomination “shocking,” and reactions on Twitter ranged from expressions that she was deserving to “never heard of the movie.”
As it turns out, social media actually played a huge part in creating buzz for Ms. Riseborough’s performance, with celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Edward Norton promoting the movie through gushing posts in early January. Acting titan Kate Winslet called it “the greatest female performance on-screen I have ever seen in my life.”
Hyperbole aside, there are of course others vying for the award beside Ms. Riseborough: Cate Blanchett for “Tár,” Michelle Williams for “The Fabelmans,” Michelle Yeoh for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and Ana de Armas for “Blonde.” For those keeping count, that’s three white actresses, one Asian, and one Latina. A few pundits have pointed out that there are no Black nominees in the category, despite Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler giving strong lead performances in “The Woman King” and “Till,” respectively.
One commentator lamented that he never sees white celebrities apply their influence on behalf of person-of-color actors — though it has happened, one example being the 2012 Best Actor nod for Mexican actor Demián Bichir, who was feted by some major players during the nomination process for his performance in the indie “A Better Life.”
Expect more to be written about the issue of representation at the Oscars in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, what is “To Leslie” about, and is Ms. Riseborough’s performance really that good? It’s a story about a mother overcoming alcoholism in small town Texas, and my response to the second query is a qualified yes. While her portrayal of the down-and-out Leslie generally lacks vanity and stands out for its emotional insight, Ms. Riseborough cannot escape moments of self-consciousness, such as kicking up dirt outside a bus station or pausing dramatically before a telling line. One factor may be that the actress is English and she’s playing a woman from the American South; her accent and mannerisms come off as authentic but never entirely lived-in.
The story begins in retrospect: We see Leslie as she celebrates winning the lottery, a sum of $190,000, and discussing what she’ll do with the money. “Have a better life” is what she tells a local TV reporter, with her adolescent son beside her, and then proceeds to tell the gathering townsfolk that drinks are on her.
It’s not a stretch to imagine what happens after this point, and the movie, quickly cutting to six years later, isn’t terribly concerned with detailing where the money went when we see her reaching out to her now almost-adult son for help. Her drinking hasn’t abated, though, and their re-connection is cut short when he sends her back to their hometown.
This return to the Texas town in which she lived with her son is when the movie really starts to cook, albeit in slow-burn fashion. It’s the last place Leslie wants to be, as it rekindles all her regrets about her life choices, forcing her to engage with people and places from her past. One of these people is former friend Nancy, played by the always-welcome Allison Janney, who doesn’t cut Leslie any slack for her past mistakes, especially the abandonment of her son during her days of free-wheeling spending.
Another person she encounters is a new local named Sweeney (Marc Maron), who runs a local motel and gives her a job cleaning rooms. Am I disclosing too much when I say that Sweeney is also interested in Leslie romantically, or is it par for the course that even a somewhat-realist, serious-minded movie must have a redemptive love story?
The unconvincing romance aside, “To Leslie” does effectively center its characters in a believable social environment of a typical rural community, with the local bar the main point of contact for the residents. It’s at this bar, the same one in which she celebrated her lottery win years earlier, where Leslie has an epiphany while Willie Nelson sings “Are You Sure.”
Leslie resists the song at first, even asking the bartender who plays it for last call whether it’s meant as a joke, but then she settles into its gentle strumming and the song’s lyrics begin to seem prophetic rather than just ironic. Ms. Riseborough is riveting as the camera slowly moves closer to her across the bar, with her character’s internal dialogue almost visible.
It’s an exquisite scene — definitely Oscar-worthy — and it proves that sometimes all a filmmaker needs is a great soundtrack, an entrancing visual atmosphere, and an exceptional performer to create a moment that will be remembered for years to come.