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.
Tags: 21 Grams, Adam Davenport, Alan Alda, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Colin Firth, Dicky Eklund, Frozen River, Kate Beckinsale, Mark Ruffalo, Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo, Michael Shannon, Micky Ward, Natalie Portman, Richard Jenkins, The Fighter