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Countdown to Oscars

Tuesday, February 8, 2011
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IN DEFENSE OF MY FRIEND, MELISSA LEO

As an Oscar blogger, I strive to not just regurgitate studio press releases and publicist-implanted narratives, but rather to take my readers with me behind-the-scenes of the awards race and provide them with the unvarnished truth about the films and people who are at its center.

Today, I want to set the record straight about one of them, Melissa Leo. Leo, 50, is the veteran character actress whose electric performance in “The Fighter” as Alice Ward — the irrepressible mother/manager of boxers Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) and Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) — recently earned her best supporting actress honors at the Critics Choice Movie Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and led to her second Oscar nomination in three years. She is also my friend.

Last week, as Oscar ballots were mailed out to Academy members, Melissa took out an ad in the Hollywood trade papers that featured a glossy image of herself — as opposed to herself underneath the clothes, hair, and makeup of her character, which rendered her almost unrecognizable — alongside the word “Consider.” For this, she was the subject of a lengthy post on a prominent blog that implied that this was the behavior of a self-important diva and likened it to some of the most tasteless “for your consideration” ads in Oscar history.

That post’s characterization couldn’t be further from the truth, as Melissa herself eloquently explained to its author, and as several other prominent journalists quickly pointed out in posts on their own sites. Ray Pride felt that the journalist went “out of his way way to prove he’s not Melissa Leo’s friend.” Jeff Wells wrote, “Ads are always judged in terms of style, class and tone, and Leo’s now-disappeared ads, I feel, got it right. They were fine. She looked great. No harm done.” Tim Appelo emphasized, “Her integrity’s still intact… It’s clear that she’s not just out for herself. She genuinely yearns to strike a blow to reform ageist sexism in the biz.” Melissa Silverstein added, “This is a woman who toiled for years, decades, in anonymity, and now she is being smart and taking advantage of her newfound platform.” Jenelle Riley chimed in, “The fact that they direct to her homemade website… which hasn’t been updated since the Golden Globes… indicates we’re not dealing with a manipulative mastermind here, but just an excited actor.” And David Poland urged Academy members, “Vote for the performance. Vote from the heart. Don’t penalize an actor for wanting it too much. Melissa Leo is one of you. She is, as the Brits say, a jobbing actor. She is a survivor. And no one handed her any of this.”

Nevertheless, the seed has been planted: journalists are writing about it, readers are inquiring about it, and the whole to-do could very well hurt Melissa’s Oscar prospects in the remaining days before voting closes… and that’s not right. I’m not here to say that you should support Melissa — I certainly believe that she’s worthy of your support, but that’s ultimately up to you. What I am here to say, though, is that you shouldn’t not support her because of this non-issue.

Consider Melissa’s predicament…

She gave the performance of her lifetime in “The Fighter,” but — unlike the film’s three other principal cast members — her name was not listed in large print next to the title on the film’s poster, but rather in microscopic print below it.

She received mountains of critical acclaim upon the film’s release, but — unlike many of her fellow best supporting actress contenders, including Amy Adams, her much younger co-star/friend — she couldn’t score an invite to appear on a talk show (sorry, not famous enough) or magazine cover (sorry, too old) until she started winning major awards. Even in the time since, it has been a struggle.

She has won virtually every best supporting actress award out there, but — because of a long-standing policy at Paramount, the film’s distributor (and presumably also because the studio doesn’t want to offend Adams, who is nominated in the same category as Leo) — she has been been the subject of no solo “for your consideration” ads highlighting her as an individual. The same cannot be said for the two best supporting actress contenders from other studios’ films, who have been heavily promoted as individuals.

All of this — along with not infrequent encounters with people from within the industry who can’t pronounce her name or mistake her publicist for her — has become frustrating for Melissa, particularly because there is no guarantee that she will ever have another or better shot at an Oscar. So, characteristically, she took the bull by the horn, had a few friends photograph her, and purchased a few ads of her own in the trade papers.

Some have interpreted this — and her unbridled excitement upon taking the podium to accept various awards this year — as eccentric or vain behavior, but there’s more to the story than that. Unlike Colin Firth, Natalie Portman, and Bale, who have won virtually all of the awards in the other acting categories, Melissa is not — by the standards of the industry, at least — a youngster, or a sex symbol, or a household name. Instead, she is — as she has always been — a working actress who just wants to keep working, and she rejoices when she wins awards because they mean that she will probably be able to continue to work at a high-level for at least a few years more.

How do I know this? Because I’ve gotten to know Melissa over the past few years.

I first spoke with her in August 2008, when what was supposed to be a 15-minute interview about “Frozen River” (2008) evolved, thanks to her generosity, into an hour-long conversation about all sorts of things, and ended with an exchange of email addresses that has enabled us to keep in touch ever since.

In November 2008, long before it was clear that she would be nominated for the best actress Oscar (or anything else), I invited her to come out to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where Alice Kelikian, the head of film studies, and I, in my former capacity as a blogger for the Los Angeles Times, were hosting a series of awards-related screenings and Q&As for undergraduate film and theater students. (Other guests included Alan Alda, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Jenkins, Mark Ruffalo, and Michael Shannon.) Over the course of dinner during the screening and the Q&A that followed it, Alice and I couldn’t have been more impressed with Melissa; she was the most down-to-earth actor we had ever met. She offered genuinely thoughtful (as opposed to canned) responses to my questions during the Q&A; she stayed until she had answered every one of the dozens of questions from students; and then she stuck around even longer to chat with everyone in the lobby.

Over the remaining months of that awards season, I ran into her again and again on the awards trail. We chatted on the morning that she was nominated for the SAG Award for best actress; on the morning that she was nominated for the Academy Award for best actress; and at the Kodak Theatre on the night of the Oscars themselves. From the start to the finish of that unlikely awards run, she was the same lovely, real person. And not long after I got back to the east coast after the Oscars, I opened up my mailbox and found something that I had never received from an actor before and have never received from an actor since: a handwritten postcard thanking me for my kindness to her. I couldn’t believe it.

Over the two years since, Melissa and I have continued to keep in touch, and my admiration for her has only grown. I learned that she spends most of her time flying from one film or TV show set to another, gamely taking on roles of all sorts and sizes in order to keep working. I learned that she divides the rest of her time between a small home that she owns in upstate New York and a small home that she rents in Culver City. And, most movingly, I learned about her roommate in Culver City, Adam Davenport, a young man who has since become my own friend.

Adam and Melissa first connected five years ago, when he was an undergraduate film student at Yale University. He had been so blown away by her performance in “21 Grams” (2003) that he looked her up online, found her publicly-listed in the White Pages, and wrote her a letter asking if she would consider appearing in his thesis film. He did so assuming that he would never receive a response, but he was wrong. Not only did Melissa write back, but she agreed to be in his film; spent several days shooting it; and demonstrated so much kindness to him that he felt comfortable enough to share his story with her — namely, that his parents had effectively disowned him after he came out of the closet to them — at which time she invited him to come and live with her. They became as close as can be — he calls her “Nana” and says she is like a mother to him, and she has taken him with her to places around the world, including to the Academy Awards two years ago. (Now 26, he’ll be her Oscar date again later this month.)

I haven’t seen Melissa as much this awards season as I did two years ago — we caught up a bit at a New York City luncheon for “The Fighter” in November, at the film’s New York City premiere and after-party in December, and on the night that she won her Golden Globe in January (see photo at the top of this post) — but I have continued to follow her closely from afar, and I have been overjoyed to see her finally receiving long overdue recognition for her work. She’s more than just another bold-faced name; she’s a real person, and I hope that people will give her a break and not punish her for getting excited about the prospect of holding an Oscar, as any of the rest of us real people would, too. We need more people like Melissa Leo in this industry — and, frankly, in this world — not fewer.

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  • http://twitter.com/damourparamour Amouramour

    Thank you for this, is really informative, i don’t really understand why people are so offended by those ads.

    • Ohalloran Rich

      I agree – thanks. Too many haters out there. Wonderful actress sublime performance in an awesome film. Let her enjoy and take advantage of her moment.

  • anonymous

    But her ads weren’t classy. She looked like a Dynasty diva that missed the boat due to a crack binge the night before.

    Melissa was fantastic in The Fighter, and she’s won a great number of awards, sweeping all of the major supporting titles so far. She’s a clear front runner for the Oscar, and most importantly, her work was speaking for itself. She was being rewarded — not because she was beautiful (which she is) or because she’s an oldie that has paid her dues — because her performance was great.

    These ads were an act of desperation. She wanted more attention (to be on magazine covers as she’s been quoted), and it’s embarrassing — especially because her competition in the category is her own co-star!

    Have some humility and REAL class, Leo. Your performance was fantastic. Let it be.

    • Love Cali

      I find your post offensive, but I guess that is why you did not have the guts to write your name. Pathetic…

    • screenRIOTer

      Consider: If a nominee goes on a talk show or featured on a magazine cover, they are self-promoting. No one balks. Why should a nominee who is not being supported by their studio not be allowed to pick up the slack? Why should it matter if the studio paid for the ad or the nominee? Self-Promotion is a fact of Hollywood life. I guess it’s more humble and classy to HIRE a PR firm to do the self-promotion for you. “I’d like to thank my publicist!”

  • Vshtabnoy

    she’s so pretentious it makes me wanna puke. every single speech she has given for her awards comes off as her saying “i’m a magnificent actor…finally you guys recognize me. I’m amazing, and I am important because I’m an actor”

    • http://StephenHoltShow.Wordpress.com Stephen Holt Show

      And now…she’s been cut out of Paramount’s “The Fighter” TV ads, which cost a fortune, to air if not to make, and they now focus EXCLUSIVELY on Christian Bale.

      Which is the industry, a major studio, sending a message…

      She WAS featured equally to Christian in the ads…and now you see the back of her head.

      DOES she have a personal publicist? I can’t believe she had professional advice in all of this.

      One vote. One vote in a VERY close four-way contest like this year’s Supporting Actress is…ONE VOTE could make all the difference.

      Paramount, according to the first article on this, which Scott isn’t naming, said that they weren’t taking out ANY For Your Consideration ads for either of the THREE Supporting Actress Nominees they have this season.

      That is “For Your Consideration” in the trades, Variety or the Hollywood Reporter.

      But it isn’t the ads themselves, Scott, it’s WHAT SHE SAID about Paramount & their publicists, who I’m sure felt they were working extra hard for her.

      And then, blindsiding them with all this. They feel betrayed pissed off, etc. etc.

      Scott would YOU risk pissing Paramount, a major studio off? I wouldn’t.

      And she’s basically handed Harvey Weinstein who IS promoting Helena Bonham-Carter all over the place, the win.

      And tonight on E!’s coverage of the Academy Luncheon, they interviewed Amy and Helena, and had a short coversation with Hailee who just giggled – again – her usual response, but Melissa was NO WHERE!

      It’s like she’s suddenly vanished off the face of the earth. And she’s a brilliant actress. I totally agree with you, Scott. One of the best. But a movie star, who knows how to play as Sasha and Jeff Wells call it “Oscar Poker” she doesn’t have a clue. Sadly.

      Personally, I adore her.

      But I’m afraid the damage has been done.

      • David

        If that is how you treat someone you adore Stephen – i would hate to see what you do to someone you can’t stand! You are doing your level best to drag her name through inflammatory references and red herring gossip. Go back to your Turner Classics movies and stop being a shit stirrer.

      • Brett

        Stephen stop acting like you know what you’re talking about you homeless moron and go back to making a fool of yourself in your stupid interviews

        • Sashastone

          Brett, I’m afraid you’re the moron. Way to argue your point. Jackass.

      • Michael

        Stephen Holt, what you’re saying about Paramount pulling the TV spot for Leo is simply not true. They are still running on television. What a blatant deceptive manipulation of the truth, completely lacking in objectivity and ethics. This is not responsible journalism or blogging.

      • Linx

        No you do not “adore” her. Stop lying. Nobody who “adores” someone would MAKE UP completely imaginary inflammatory quotes and attribute them to her. At no point in any of the pieces written about this dust-up did Leo ever trash-talk Paramount or blame the studio for her inability to get magazine covers. You are lying, or you are delusional – or likeliest of all, you are an hysteric who gets a thrill and a charge out of any whiff of scandal, and do your level-best to stir the pot.

    • http://StephenHoltShow.Wordpress.com Stephen Holt Show

      And now…she’s been cut out of Paramount’s “The Fighter” TV ads, which cost a fortune, to air if not to make, and they now focus EXCLUSIVELY on Christian Bale.

      Which is the industry, a major studio, sending a message…

      She WAS featured equally to Christian in the ads…and now you see the back of her head.

      DOES she have a personal publicist? I can’t believe she had professional advice in all of this.

      One vote. One vote in a VERY close four-way contest like this year’s Supporting Actress is…ONE VOTE could make all the difference.

      Paramount, according to the first article on this, which Scott isn’t naming, said that they weren’t taking out ANY For Your Consideration ads for either of the THREE Supporting Actress Nominees they have this season.

      That is “For Your Consideration” in the trades, Variety or the Hollywood Reporter.

      But it isn’t the ads themselves, Scott, it’s WHAT SHE SAID about Paramount & their publicists, who I’m sure felt they were working extra hard for her.

      And then, blindsiding them with all this. They feel betrayed pissed off, etc. etc.

      Scott would YOU risk pissing Paramount, a major studio off? I wouldn’t.

      And she’s basically handed Harvey Weinstein who IS promoting Helena Bonham-Carter all over the place, the win.

      And tonight on E!’s coverage of the Academy Luncheon, they interviewed Amy and Helena, and had a short coversation with Hailee who just giggled – again – her usual response, but Melissa was NO WHERE!

      It’s like she’s suddenly vanished off the face of the earth. And she’s a brilliant actress. I totally agree with you, Scott. One of the best. But a movie star, who knows how to play as Sasha and Jeff Wells call it “Oscar Poker” she doesn’t have a clue. Sadly.

      Personally, I adore her.

      But I’m afraid the damage has been done.

  • Vshtabnoy

    she’s so pretentious it makes me wanna puke. every single speech she has given for her awards comes off as her saying “i’m a magnificent actor…finally you guys recognize me. I’m amazing, and I am important because I’m an actor”

  • http://twitter.com/robert_hamer Robert Hamer

    If the Academy could find it within themselves to award an Oscar to a fugitive rapist, then it would be stupid of them to deny an Oscar to Melissa Leo solely over a few stabs at publicity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Lynch/511720292 Paul Lynch

    I think Leo is a great actress but her role in The Fighter was certainly not the “performance of a lifetime”. She was much better in Frozen River and even Treme.

    Her ads seem tacky and grasping to me, but then the whole Oscar campaign is pretty tacky and grasping.

  • Ac_losangeles

    If Melissa Leo is denied an oscar, it will be an abomination.

  • http://twitter.com/thatsnicmeyers Nic Meyers

    I think she will still probably win, but these ads are TACKY. Everything about them is tacky – the outfit, the font, the pool, ugh.

    I love this woman but what was she thinking? Dynasty gone wrong does not equal Oscar.

  • seren

    It’s still sad that even an established veteran actress like Melissa Leo felt she would want to be the cover of a magazine. And I feel, whatever her motivation was, the fact that her friends like Scott have to defend her ads is the failure of her action. It’s a shame if she actually lost her Oscar because of this, which I doubt, but if she really wanted to send a message straight without being misunderstood, she probably should have chosen different ways to do so. Apparantly she needs a better publicist.

  • David

    I have my own Melissa Leo story. While she was in New Orleans filming Welcome to the Rileys, Frozen River opened at the local Landmark Theater. I was doing some part time work for the ABC affiliate, and always looking to help out an indie movie I liked, inquired as to her availability for an interview. My friend who managed the theater made some calls and Melissa not only showed up at the station to do the interview, she showed up at the theater that night after both shows to do a Q & A with the audience. I remember vividly that the second audience (the late show) only had 4 people in attendance. My manager friend and I were both embarrassed for her that there weren’t more people there, but Melissa got up and gave a very impassioned speech about the film and supported it 1000%, and this was BEFORE any nomination came around for her. She thanked me profusely for helping get the word out on the station and was very kind and thoughtful not with just me, but everyone at the theater. She’s a great actress and (in my mind, anyway) a greater person.

  • Filmfan

    She seems to be a real and nice human being from the way you describe her. But after her comment in the NY Magazine (“I don’t have any favorite cultural moments because I live very much in a bubble of my work or my own creation. I don’t read books or newspapers or watch TV. I don’t like what’s going on in the real world, so I don’t pay attention to it.” WTF?!?!?), her recent comments on Jimmy Kimmel and now this she’s becoming a little bit… unlikeable. I mean, I understand that she wants some attention, but this obvious need to get on a magazine cover is just too much.
    I mean, she is really caught up in the awards race, having won every important award so far – Golden Globe, BFCA, SAG, New York Critics. But now she’s basically saying she wants more attention and she’s pissed that she isn’t on the cover of any magazine, but she desperately wants to be, and blames ageism for the lack of offers. Sure, there are more young and hot cover girls, but when one looks at some of her colleagues of the same age or even older – Tilda Swinton, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Annette Bening etc. – you can see plenty of them on the magazine covers, and the reason they are and Leo is not: They are more famous. They are household names. People recognize them. The general / not Oscar-following public is still very much unfamiliar and unaware of Melissa Leo’s name, despite her two Oscar noms (the first one was for a small indie movie just a few people saw).
    I think this behaviour comes across quite self-centered and unsupportive of her fellow artists (her co-star Amy Adams! And what about Jacki Weaver? On which magazine cover has she been? Hasn’t she been working for 40 years as well??), and also quite paradoxical — someone who states not being interested in reading newspapers or temporary pop culture is complaining not to be a magazine cover girl .

  • Madskl

    Scott, making a defense statement for melissa leo, that seems a tad bit desperate as well…relax!
    I’m sure no big hram has been done and like you, scott, I absolutely don’t think that a perhaps misguided ad campaign should have any influence whatsoever on the Oscar race. BUT still I hope leo doesn’t nag the Oscar and that’s solely due to her scenery-chewing performance in The Fighter that lacks real life subtlety. My vote would go to Hailee Steinfeld or Jacki Weaver, two incredibly fine-tuned performances.
    But if leo loses, I hope it’s not because of this ad campaign, but beacuse voters liked another performance more. Simple as that.
    But, hey, scott, relax, ok? I mean, not winning an oscar when you have already won a golden glove and a sag…that’s hardly a tragedy, huh? Leo will have no problems scoring big time roles after this awards season, Oscar or no Oscar…

  • Will

    Thanks a lot for this article. It really puts things into perspective.

  • Inkdrone

    I’m afraid I have mixed feelings about this. Sure, she isn’t getting treated like younger or more famous actresses are treated. I get her frustration. But let’s get the facts straight – she is a two time Oscar nominee, everyone knows her work, she is traveling in bigger circles. If it was all about the acting , then it should remain as such and awards should not be part of the reach or the grasp.
    Hell, I am married to a long time character actress who is deeply talented and despite small roles in over 30 films, never got the break that Melissa did… so I have a hard time with not being grateful for where you are.

  • Inkdrone

    First time posting here and it disappeared. Hmmm. I will try again.

    I have mixed feelings about her ad. She is a brilliantly talented actress, who as been lucky enough to have been discovered by a more powerful circle of producers and directors. Sure it sucks that the studio is not behind her and she cant get booked on TV shows because she is an older actress, I get that and I get her “take matters into her own hands” attitude. But let’s be real – she has two Oscar nominations… and more opportunities than hundreds of deelpy talented actresses her age who are auditioning against 20 other hopefuls for one line on LAW AND ORDER. If its really about the work, then it cant be about the awards which are random and have nothing to do with talent.

  • Joyceleo

    Excellent insight! You’ve got it right! She is not only a real person, but an astonishing actor! And thank you, for setting the story straight! And may the best win!

  • GL

    Listen, I know you guys are friends, but here is how I look at it. An Oscar is an honor. To see an actress who had been winning and hitting the right notes go and do this… that’s just crazy. Anyway, after her SAG speech, her snub by BAFTA, and this, and considering that Amy Ryan and Eddie Murphy couldn’t do it, I doubt that she will.

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