Movie Review: A Surprise Oscar nomination comes with Controversy, “To Leslie”

It was an Oscar field that seemed, if not set in stone, at least more or less sketched-in, the way “awards seasons” go. But then expectations were upset when the favorite, a Best Actress winner in years past, took her bully pulpit acceptance speech in an earlier awards show to herald a little-seen turn by an actress no one had been talking about.

Another Oscar winning actress turned full-time influencer also weighe- in.

And then, surprise of surprises, Andrea Riseborough comes “out of nowhere,” as they say, to join the field of five nominees when the Academy Awards voting was done and the nominees were announced.

The striking, English actress’s actress, noticed back in “Birdman” and acclaimed in “Brighton Rock” and “W.E,” so in demand that she was in everything from “Amsterdam” to “Roald Dahls Matilda The Musical” just last year, was finally given recognition and the spotlight for playing a Lotto-winning/Lotto-squandering alcoholic in “To Leslie” thanks to the efforts of sister actresses Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Colleagues took it on themselves to see to it that a wonderful performance in a movie that barely cleared $20,000 at the box office in the U.S. was recognized, taking the decision out of the hands of the frauds at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the nobodies of the National Board of Review, and the ever-growing TV, radio and online American-Canadian Critics Association.

Good for them, you think. Every entertainment award should be more in the hands of the people who do the work and recognize what it takes to be great doing it and less about “For Your Consideration” campaigns and lobbying, more Screen Actors Guild Awards voting and less how much Netflix, Disney, Apple et al want to spend promoting the work.

Then you see “To Leslie,” now available via Amazon Prime. And maybe you have to take seriously the blowback and shade fans and peers and activists are throwing at this turn of events, many of them insisting that this action “robbed” Oscar winner Viola Davis of a nomination for “The Woman King,” or more poignantly, Danielle Deadwyler of her moment in the spotlight for her moving performance in the riveting, important, timely and also-little-seen “Till.”

As a longtime fan of Riseborough, I’m happy to see her finally a part of this annual, self-congratulatory conversation. As the title character in “To Leslie,” she is transformed, an impulse-control trainwreck whom we meet years after she drank and “partied” through $190,000 and burned every bridge to friends and family she ever had.

Riseborough, like most actresses, is a beautiful woman, and does the classic “dressing down” that earned Charlize Theron an Oscar for “Monster” and joins a long tradition of plunges into alcoholism that earned Oscar notice, from “The Lost Weekend” to “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Tender Mercies” and “Leaving Las Vegas.”

Leslie, “Lee” to the one or two ex-biker friends (Allison Janney, fierce as ever, and Stephen Root at his scariest) who still acknowledge her, is a wreck, an emaciated walking liquid-diet stick aged far beyond her years thanks to decades of abuse.

It’s almost shocking to see Riseborough as Leslie, her often-blackened eyes hollow sockets and hair reduced to a stringy blonde dye job that “grew out” months before. We are stunned by her commitment to the part, an Englishwoman who morphed into rural Texas honkytonk trash forced to come “home” to a place that remembers her and the bar where she won her Lotto ticket just six years before because she’s betrayed her now 19-year-old son (Owen Teague, Riseborough’s “Bloodline” co-star) one last time.

It’s great work, a top drawer performance. The film? It doesn’t move the needle, doesn’t improve on the many “rock bottom looking to climb out” tales that came before it and seems pat and pre-ordained in many of its story beats.

We catch Leslie’s peak moment, hooting and hollering “Drinks on ME” as she’s interviewed for a local TV story on her “big win.” And then “six years later” we see her stagger out of a bar, onto a bus and off it as Leslie summons her son to pick her up at a bus stop. She long ago ran out of cash, and now cadges drinks and lives hand to mouth, kicked out of her last apartment — her sweet talking pleas for help shifting to a profane tirade when neighbors and the landlord she hit up finally turn her down.

Her son James picks her up off the bus, her few possessions stuffed into a worn pink suitcase. His furtive phone call with the people who raised him has him admitting “I can’t smell it on her breath” and that “She’s not gonna hurt me,” with “again” implied.

Of course that’s what she does. The script spares no time at all in showing Leslie’s manipulations and “act,” James heading off to work and Leslie’s pleading smile turned to stern purpose as she rifles through his flat and his roommate’s belongings for cash to hit the bar just as “the shakes” set in.

That’s how she ends up where she started, not with the parents she blames for how she turned out, but with pals from her bars and booze “good times.” It’s just that Dutch and Nancy (Root and Janney) are done with her nonsense, too. They try to make her work, try to turn her around. But even if they’re probably barely functioning alcoholics themselves, or people who just “know when to say when” as they push 60, they have no tolerance for the trap that’s become her life.

One night of stumbling around — drunk and homeless — later and she’s even lost the suitcase. But the two guys who find it, running a rundown dive of a motel, could be salvation. Royal, the owner (Andre Royo of “The Spectacular Now,” another alcoholic drama) may remember Leslie as bad news. But Sweeney (Marc Maron) has a little compassion left in the tank. He charmingly tricks her into accepting what could be her last lifeline.

Veteran TV producer (“Better Call Saul”) and director Michael Morris, working from a Ryan Binaco script, immerses us in this world and makes sure to give Riseborough the scenes it takes to dramatize her journey and make us empathize with it.

Leslie’s in denial and in a death-spiral, tarting up just enough to pass drunken barfly pickup muster, buying that first “beer and a bump,” cadging and even stealing other drinks until that moment she takes in the meaning of Willie Nelson’s boozer-at-rock bottom ballad, “Are You Sure (this is where you want to be?)”

Teague and Riseborough find the pathos in a son constantly let down by his mother’s addictions. Janney and Root give us a taste of the last round of “tough love,” where the love is gone. And Maron is sweetly-affecting as a man of limited circumstances himself who sees someone he recognizes and ignoring the fact that he should know better, attempts a sort of arms-length rescue of someone who won’t rescue herself.

The movie’s story arc isn’t novel, and turns downright pandering and predictable by the third act.

But Riseborough’s performance is in the pocket, letting us reach for her instead of assaulting us with needy antics. The way she switches from feeble come-ons and pleas for help into furious F-bomb tantrums is a marvel. It’s totally-committed acting, no doubt about it, a now stunning turn well worth tracking down now that Oscar attention has been cast on it.

Did she “steal” somebody else’s nomination, through no actions of her own save for impressing a couple of her Oscar-winning peers? Who can say?

We don’t know and can never know, thanks to the secret ballot Academy voting and the death-oath taken by the accountants who tally it, who was left out. Perhaps Carey Mulligan’s searing turn in “She Said” or another Margot Robbie nomination for the divisive flop “Babylon” or who knows who else?

But when you’re done checking out “To Leslie,” make it your Black History Month vow to watch Deadwyler in “Till,” too. She will break your heart. And if you’ve got Netflix, track down Deadwyler’s equally impressive performance in “The Devil to Pay,” and maybe Riseborough’s turn the unjustly-ignored kiddie musical “Roald Dahl’s Matilda” as well.

Because they’re both great actresses, even if only one got Gwyneth to look up from her GOOP to notice.

Rating: R for language throughout and some drug use.

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Allison Janney, Owen Teague, Stephen Root and Marc Maron.

Credits: Directed by Michael Morris, scripted by Ryan Binaco. A Momentum release, now on Amazon Prime.

Running time: 1:59


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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