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Hollywood Hypocrisy & HFPA Payola


Despite the Press Kerfuffle, TO LESLIE is a Great Film About Alcohol Addiction

Remember the Gamestop saga? Just to refresh your memory: Some Joe & Jane-Q-Six Pack investors who communicated with each other via social media platforms like Reddit turned bullish and began to plow their meager savings into Gamestop stock, the brick-and-mortar video game retailer that you often see at stripmalls. They drove the price sky high, which meant the fat-cat Wall Street hedge fund investors who had shorted the stock (wagered on the price going down), began to lose billions. For reasons that are murky, trading was halted and investigations were launched. It seems Wall Street was pissed that the little guys were making so much money while the big investment managers were losing their lavish homes in the Hamptons.


Yes, Wall Street is a racket. The people at the top of the financial food chain take the lion’s share of the wealth, while the people at the middle and the bottom scramble around to make decent returns on their IRA’s and beleaguered stock portfolios. At this point, most people would be happy just to keep up with inflation; forget about actual returns. The Gamestop saga was a classic David vs. Goliath moment where the “little guy” took the “house for everything it’s worth.” Of course, this was not acceptable, so Wall Street stopped the trading; they had to. Like the Las Vegas pit boss who tries to “cool down” a gambler the minute they get on a hot hot streak, when the racket doesn’t service the game-maker, everyone assumes they’ve been gamed.


And so it went with a little indie film called TO LESLIE. Its lead actress, Andrea Riseborough, received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as a small town gal with a pretty severe alcohol use disorder that leads her to squander her lottery winnings and alienate everyone close to her. The nomination led to an instant backlash. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences launched an “investigation” to see if the Oscar nomination process had been “unduly affected.” It seemed “out of the ordinary” that an actress would receive a nomination without the usual big-money “Oscar campaign” behind her and the film.


To understand how ridiculously hypocritical this is, I want to let you in on a not-so-well-kept secret: The Oscar are a racket too. Any Oscar nomination for a film or its performers in any large award category can mean a sizable boost in box-office and ancillary revenue. In fact, the Hollywood studios put their “award season” films into limited release in December in order to qualify for the award. If the film receives nominations, then the marketing dollars start to flow in earnest. And if a film or actor actually wins, then even more marketing dollars get spent. 


We see this reflected in movie ads. Right after the Oscar nominations are announced in late December, we start to see billboards that read “Nominated for this-and-that Academy Awards!”  And then, if the film and/or actors actually win the Oscars in March, the ads are swiftly swapped out to read “Winner of this-or-that Academy Awards!”  So in effect, the Oscars are part of a wider business model. And sadly, this business model is largely based on a subtle type of studio payola.


I know this from personal experience because I worked in the marketing departments of two Hollywood Studios and several blue-chip indie film labels. There are basically three film marketing strategies: 1) Go Big or Go Home, or the typical $100 million+ blockbuster P&A spend (prints and advertising); 2) The Oscar Dance, described above; 3) Cut Your Losses and go direct to digital. Option #2 is the one that interests us here. Studios and independents spend a great deal of money trying to “recommend” their films and actors for major awards like the Golden Globes and the Oscars.


But the money isn’t all spent on billboards. Much of it is spent on exerting influence to “persuade” members of the Hollywood Foreign Press (who stage the Golden Globes) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (Oscars). This “payola” takes the form of off-the-hook parties, special “events”, private screenings, gifts and perks - all designed to curry favor with the HFPA and Academy voters. The undisputed God-King of this strategy: Harvey Weinstein. And we all saw what happened to him.


I witnessed some of this payola first hand when I attended parties where my bosses and their studio expense accounts wined and dined members of the HFPA. In Cannes, we would host them on a $50 million yacht catered with tapas from Jose Luis, washed down by endless magnums of Veuve Clicquot champagne. In Hollywood, we would throw banquets at the Beverly Hilton, complete with wine tastings and goodie bags full of “gifts” worth several hundred dollars. 


What special qualifications would one need to get on this amazing guest list to enjoy these amazing perks? Very little. Although they have made drastic changes in recent years, the HFPA used to admit into voting membership any “journalist” with press credentials from their home country. The implicit Faustian bargain here was fairly obvious: You can join the HFPA and go to all these parties so long as you write, publish, or televise stories about the films we “support.”


I used to date a nice young woman from one of the Balkan countries who worked for a local newspaper. Her readership must only have been a couple thousand people. All she had to do to get us into these insane parties was to write and publish an article about a movie every so often. They were always puff pieces designed to get butts into movie theater seats. And since her small newspaper only paid her a pittance for the stories, she had to supplement her income working as a waitress. I guess this explains why she  would bring a oversized purse to these parties and cleverly stash away food and drink items when nobody was looking.


That’s all changed today because literally anybody with a podcast or YouTube channel can call themselves a “credentialed” member of the press. So the HFPA admission guidelines have been made much more strict. But the basic lobbying that occurs between the award-granters and the award-seekers is unchanged. We like to think that awards are given based on “quality,” but they’re largely given based on influence. And perks are the currency of influence.


So when it comes to the fine film TO LESLIE, the claim of “undue influence” is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. No undue influence was even needed. Riseborough’s performance as the titular character in the film is nothing short of astonishing. Comparisons have been made to Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-winning turn in LEAVING LAS VEGAS (which I cover in Chapter 2 of my book ADDICTED IN FILM). She inhabits the Leslie character so completely that it’s hard to distinguish her from the unfortunate individuals I sometimes observe in back alleys scrounging around for enough CRV cans to buy their daily supply of Olde English 800 malt liquor or MD 20/20. This is what I imagine (or have seen) later-stage alcoholism to look like. Weighing in at no more than 90 pounds, Riseborough looks demoralized, helpless, hopeless, and exhausted. Her chain-smoking completes the picture.


The film starts with a flashback to the happiest moment of Leslie’s life: Winning the lottery. But it’s also the saddest too, because megajackpots are known risk factors for self-destruction, bankruptcy and suicide. There are dozens of widely-reported cases of individuals’ lives being totally wiped out by winning megajackpots. The reasons for this are numerous, and too complex to cover here. In Leslie’s case, winning money seems to have exacerbated and financed her pre existing relationship with alcohol, culminating in the first few minutes of the film - where she’s evicted from a seedy motel room and left to wander the streets with nothing but a cheap pink suitcase filled with old photos of a presumed happier life that she has allowed alcohol addiction to destroy.


The setup of this film reflects one of the sad truths about addiction: For some individuals, no amount of generosity, good luck, or money is ever enough for them to want to change. A case in point is Chris, a homeless gentleman I once befriended and tried to help, and briefly mentioned in my book. He lived under a bus shelter at my local park drinking cheap vodka all day. Social Services had offered him free rehab, an apartment, and even a job if he would stop drinking - but each and every time he refused.


At one point he inherited $80,000 from a deceased relative back in England. Since he didn’t have a bank account (or even a photo ID), I agreed to receive the funds via wire transfer and give him all the money in cash. I begged him to use some of the  money to get cleaned up, buy some clothes, rent an apartment, and just try to regroup. Chris’ response was always the same…why waste the money?  He was the living embodiment of the cyclical old missive “don’t throw good money after bad” - the business term to describe the futility of staving off an inevitable bankruptcy. Chris blew through the entire $80,000 in a little over three weeks, and died a few months later, physically and existentially bankrupt.


Now it shouldn’t take a film two whole hours to convey this sad truth alone (although it does), and luckily TO LESLIE instead becomes a thrillingly beautiful examination of how some individuals can actually turn their “bad luck” around. Not with the sudden luck of a lottery win, or generous state intervention, but with a subtle willingness to accept and leverage simple human kindness and compassion as catalysts for change.


The source of this kindness is Sweeney, played by the simply superb rebel comedian turned serious dramatic actor Marc Maron. He manages a roadside motel along with Royal, his unhinged but gentle assistant, played by Andre Royo (who was Timothee Chalamet’s sponsor in BEAUTIFUL BOY, which I discussed in Chapter 8 of the book). Sweeney finds Leslie squatting in alcohol withdrawal misery next to his back alley recycle bins. Bafflingly kind, compassionate, and therefore reluctant to just push her back out onto a rainy highway, he offers her a job as a cleaning lady at the motel. Baffling, because we soon learn that Sweeney’s ex-wife had a drinking problem that destroyed their marriage. Just like the Maggie Gyllenhaal character in CRAZY HEART (Chapter 6 of the book), Sweeney can see as plain as day that Leslie’s life has gone up in flames, but he’s ready to walk right into that house fire anyway.


And yet, something about Sweeney’s kindness and compassion towards her motivates Leslie to try to quit drinking and give life another shot. She has few other options. Her son James - who offered her a warm apartment at the beginning of the film - throws her out because she can’t stay sober. Her closest friends - Nancy and Dutch (played expertly by Allison Janney and Stephen Root) - are now her bitterest enemies. What started out as jealousy that Leslie won the lottery turned into resentment that she squandered all the money and forced them to step in and raise her son, James. These are deep, deep emotional fault lines - and the past cannot be undone - but with Sweeney’s gentle guidance, Leslie musters up the courage to try and mend the fences.


TO LESLIE deftly depicts Leslie's alcohol withdrawal, and there’s a wonderful scene where she wages an all-out war against the urges to simply walk across the street to a liquor store and hop back on the treadmill. Been there; done that. And of course, quitting is just the tip of the recovery iceberg. As Leslie slowly starts to crawl out of her shell and interact more with local townsfolk, we come to realize just how many bridges she’s burned. Her reputation as “the lady who blew her lottery winnings on drugs and alcohol” comes back to haunt her everywhere she goes, like sucker punches to the gut; even local children know what a screw-up she is. And yet, throughout all of this, Leslie fights on. 


And why? Well, it’s because like most people struggling with addiction, Leslie eventually realizes that escaping from problems through continued use doesn’t solve any problems at all. There’s literally nowhere left to run. She must forge a new path, any path, towards somewhere and possibly with someone. The somewhere becomes a dilapidated diner across the street that Leslie decides to clean up and reopen. And the someone becomes Sweeney - who has fallen in love with her despite every red flag imaginable. Does Leslie deserve any of this good fortune after what she’s put everyone through? No, probably not. But who are we to judge? TO LESLIE reminds us that no matter how badly an individual screws up their life, they can still get “lucky” one last time if they roll up their sleeves, do the work of recovery, and create their own luck from then on.

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