Career Character: In Praise of Melissa Leo


Melissa Leo in “Racing Daylight”

I have often been known to say, “I could sooner play a black man then a grown-up lady.” You know, just like one of those ladies in an office, somebody’s wife or something. That feels like the most distant character in many ways. And why bother? There are plenty of girls who, that’s what they do.

– Melissa Leo, Interview with the AV Club, 2008

Life has etched a distinctive beauty upon Melissa Leo’s face. She doesn’t look like anybody else; she is a character actor of the old school, and proud of it. Perhaps, as the quote above reveals, the only part that would not interest her is a “lady in an office” or “somebody’s wife”. Leo brings something very unique to the table, a fearlessly weatherbeaten aspect that can look beautiful, in a faded but resilient way, like an old photograph from another time. Or it can be grittily unattractive, as befitting characters whose lives, often on the edge of ruin, have no place for vanity.

“21 Grams”

Leo did not have the pampering enjoyed by young “breakout” stars, the pretty young women who are pushed to the forefront in prestigious projects, who look adorable and desirable on red carpets. Leo’s ship is starting to come in, with two Oscar nominations under her belt (one for her performance in 2008’s Frozen River and the second for the Mass-accented juggernaut that is her portrayal of Alice Ward in this year’s The Fighter, for which she already scooped up a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe). But she has been doing excellent work for decades.

Leo has been very lucky as an actress: for over 26 years she has constantly worked on the stage, in feature films, shorts, student films and television. But luck can only play a small part in such a long and diverse career. There is a fierce act of will behind Leo’s kind of success. I get the sense that Leo would be equally happy doing regional theatre productions, spending the spring season as Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House followed by a comedic summer as Sybil in Private Lives, and on and on. She sometimes gives rather prickly answers to questions about her dedication (“are you always in character on-set?”), but it comes from a place where the work is and always has been paramount. Why else do it?

“Homicide: Life on the Street”

Her battles with NBC over her role as Kay Howard, the tough-as-nails homicide detective on Homicide are by now well-known. She wanted Kay to wear trousers, not the tight sweater-and-skirt ensembles so typical of female characters on such shows. She also asked that the script not “track” Kay’s personal or romantic life. A woman operating in an all-male environment has to do what she must to be perceived as “one of the guys”, a character emphasis upon which Leo strongly insisted. She was eventually let go from Homicide; Leo openly admits it was a missed opportunity on the network’s part to explore the realities of a woman in Kay’s situation. But no matter: Leo moved on.

She is known for lending support to short films and student films: if the script is good and someone asks her to be involved, she is likely to say yes. That was how Frozen River came about. Writer-director Courtney Hunt had written a short script about a woman smuggling illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, and had contacted Leo to play the lead. Leo was very impressed with the amount of research Hunt had done, and she clearly recognized that here was a good story that had not yet been told. The short was made, after a couple of years the financing came through to make the feature. It was a short, brutal shoot, with almost no amenities for the cast and crew. Leo’s agent hadn’t wanted her to take the job because they couldn’t give her a trailer.

“Frozen River”

But Leo seems to thrive on the challenge of discomfort, especially if it helps to immerse her in the world of the character. From the first closeup of Leo in Frozen River, huddled in her battered truck, smoking, teeth stained yellow, her face worn with desperation, we know that we are in the presence of something genuine, yet also a throwback to the American films of the 60s and 70s when someone like Donald Sutherland could be considered a leading man, and someone like Ellen Burstyn could be a leading lady. These were unglamorous individuals with unresolved issues and flaws, jagged edges exposed. Stephen Holden wrote in his New York Times review of Frozen River that Leo “brings the same kind of gravity to the role that Patricia Neal did to Alma Brown in Hud 45 years ago. This weathered, redheaded actress makes you believe in her character’s resilience.”

“Resilience” is a word that comes up often in regard to Leo’s characters. I think of her scrubbing down the grille of her husband’s truck in 21 Grams, weeping because she knows that this time there will be no way out. The truck must be cleaned of all evidence, and her husband (Benicio Del Toro) has disappeared, and she’s the one left to do the dirty work.

Leo gives one of her most remarkable but unremarked performances in Racing Daylight (2007), written and directed by Nicole Quinn. Leo plays a dual role in a story where time bends back to meet itself. First she plays Sadie, a painfully shy woman who takes care of her sick grandmother and who lives primarily in a fantasy world, deeply and secretly in love with the family handyman (played beautifully and humorously by David Strathairn). Leo is first seen carefully plucking a hair out of her chin, peering anxiously at her reflection in the mirror, fear flickering at the edges of her eyes. There’s something in her mind that she can’t quite look at, or admit. She says in voiceover : “I always knew I’d go insane.”

“Racing Daylight”

Leo also plays Anna Stokes, Sadie’s Civil-War-era ancestor, whom the current-day Sadie obsesses over to the degree that she starts to believe she is Anna Stokes, much to the consternation of her gossipy neighbors. Strathairn, looking on as this strange inarticulate woman starts to unravel, turns to the camera at one point and says simply, “This chick is seriously twisted.”

The film is broken into three parts, where different characters come to the forefront in succession; we perceive how they all see one another (everyone plays dual roles), and we also perceive how claustrophobic and incestuous small-town life can be, especially a small town with such a long memory. The boundary between past and present is highly porous, and Sadie slips through. The first part, told from is Sadie’s point of view, is haunting in its portrayal of a woman who lives cocooned in her own unexpressed need, and her own sense that life has passed her by. Her fear of madness is real. Sadie peeks into mirrors cautiously, afraid of what she might find there. She tries to interact with others, but her loneliness and her need for human contact is so acute that it makes her odd, “too much to take”. She does her best to behave like a normal person, and her attempts at flirtation with Strathairn’s character are painful to watch. Sadie’s loneliness vibrates palpably on the surface of her skin, an ache that the whole world can see.

Leo has rarely revealed such vulnerability, such open need, as she does in Racing Daylight. When she touches herself, in unguarded moments, lost in her fantasies of the Civil War drama in the past, she becomes so aroused by the sensation that it leaves her breathless and helpless She lives in the world of other people’s stories. Can she ever star in her own, or is it too late?

“The Fighter”

It seems a far stretch for Leo to go from such a delicate turn in Racing Daylight to her portrayal of Alice Ward in David O’ Russell’s The Fighter, where she chomps the scenery, chews it up voraciously, and spits it out in big messy chunks. She smokes like a dragon, stalking around in her carefully-matched outfits and helmet of frosted tips, and her devotion to her family is confrontational and full of rage. Devotion like this is little more than an open threat: “Do not mess with my tribe.” Alice, as is often the case with matriarchs of dysfunctional families, seems to have backed the wrong son, throwing her considerable emotional support behind Dicky, the crack-addicted former boxer (Christian Bale), leaving Micky, the more stable and promising brother, out in the cold. Leo’s performance has been described almost universally as “over-the-top”, but I beg to differ. There are certain pubs in southern Rhode Island and south Boston filled with larger-than-life people like Alice. I recognized that woman immediately. She’s a gun moll without the gangster (and the gun), an even lower-rent Lilly Dillon from The Grifters, ruthless in her goals, and motivated by blood loyalty. Alice is followed around by a terrifying brood of dead-eyed daughters with spritzed bangs, who sit around aimlessly waiting to see what their mother will do, anticipating her battle cry so that they can follow suit. Leo’s performance is an attention-getter, for sure, loud and tough and funny, with big gestures and even bigger hair.

As Patricia Neal and Gena Rowlands had done before her, Leo has the capacity to crack open a character’s inner life like very few actresses working today. She is in this job for the mess, for the unresolved issues of her characters, and this has led her through an unconventional and unglamorous path.  Now that she’s flush with critical acclaim and Hollywood awards, she needs more than ever to keep taking risks and stay on the edge. Her characters have miniscule comfort zones; they are rarely settled, and never complacent. Life is too dangerous, too urgent, and watching Leo’s characters do what it takes to survive, in all its ugliness and brutality, is nothing less than a thrill.

At one point in Racing Daylight, David Strathairn’s character turns to the camera, and says of Leo’s complex and neurotic Sadie,

“She’s tuned into some other channel and ….. it’s very seductive.”

The same could be said for Melissa Leo.

Sheila O’Malley writes about movies, books and actors at her site The Sheila Variations

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