What about Melissa Leo?

Posted by · 8:56 am · February 6th, 2009

Yesterday, Kris pondered whether Kate Winslet’s Best Actress Oscar is quite the sure thing it appears to be on paper, or whether Meryl Streep can surf in on a tide of veteran goodwill and spoil the Brit’s party yet again.

I’ve been saying since nomination day that I can’t imagine Winslet losing yet again, least of all for a performance in a Best Picture nominee (the first time she’s had that luxury since her non-starter nomination for “Titanic” in 1997). If she wins the BAFTA on Sunday, as almost everyone suspects she will, her campaign stays comfortably on course; if, however, Streep manages to pull off an upset, I may well change my mind.

But allow me to play devil’s advocate for a minute. Why has the competition been reduced to two performances that are by no means necessarily the strongest in the lineup? Let’s perform a process of elimination. Streep’s performance has been polarising from the get-go, with the reverberations of Variety’s notably harsh review still being felt in the critical community. (As “Doubt” opens today in the UK, a number of critics find themselves bewildered, with the Guardian describing her work as “beyond absurdity.”)

Of the competition, Angelina Jolie has drawn even less critical consensus than Streep, so it’s safe to say she’s out of the running. Anne Hathaway looked to be a frontrunner at one point, and barely anyone has a bad word to say about her performance, but judging from the tepid Academy reaction to her divisive film, I can’t help feeling that her ship has sailed. Kate Winslet’s performance has also been widely praised, and it’s clear that a large faction of the Academy appreciates “The Reader” — but it’s still a film with some notable detractors, and not everyone likes the way Harvey Weinstein muscled it into the race.

And so we arrive at Melissa Leo. In many ways the odd woman out in this year’s star-heavy Best Actress race, she is arguably the one nominee whose performance — and film — have attracted the least criticism from any quarter. Critics have showered superlatives upon Leo’s raw, career-defining performance, with the venerable Roger Ebert singling her out as his favourite of the nominees.

While Leo repeatedly played bridesmaid to the unnominated Sally Hawkins in the year-end critics’ kudos, “Frozen River” emerged as a surprisingly strong awards-season presence, gathering broad support that culminated in a jaw-dropping Best Original Screenplay nod on nomination morning. Leo, a long-serving industry stalwart of film and TV, has been a visible, gracious presence on the circuit all along; much like Best Actor nominee Richard Jenkins, she’s the quintessential “actor’s actor” whom everyone is pleased to see doing so well.

So why can’t she win? Well, there’s the fact that “Frozen River” is a bleak, miniscule, little-seen indie that has received less publicity than any of the other nominees’ vehicles, while Leo herself isn’t exactly a fixture on glossy magazine covers. But what if voters do decide to pop their “Frozen River” screeners into their DVD players? What if they find themselves as knocked out by Leo’s work as, say, Ebert was? What then?

Leo currently finds herself positioned as the contender about which many people are saying, “Oh, she should win, but she never will.” And on most occasions, those people are proved right — no amount of grassroots gushing for Ellen Burstyn or Laura Linney could topple the Julia Roberts juggernaut in 2000, just as a tide of critical endorsements for Shohreh Aghdashloo in 2003 couldn’t override the conventional wisdom that Renee Zellweger was unbeatable.

But once in a blue moon, conventional wisdom is proved wrong. Last year, when the nominations were announced, few pundits thought that Marion Cotillard had much chance of beating precursor queen Julie Christie for an admittedly spectacular turn in a grim, trickily structured French-language film that wasn’t even a great critical success. But as word spread in the industry about the transformative nature of Cotillard’s performance, the tide turned in Cotillard’s favour in the last stages of voting.

To use an even more stunning example, in the 2000 Supporting Actress race, many bookies had Marcia Gay Harden in fifth place, as the Gotham critics’ winner missed out on SAG, Globe and BFCA nods — while her fellow nominees divvied up the major precursors between them. The nomination, for her extraordinary turn as Lee Krasner in Ed Harris’s sombre, barely-seen biopic “Pollock,” was a surprise in itself; her win on Oscar night, however, was one of the biggest upsets of the decade thus far. How did she do it? It seems voters actually watched their “Pollock” screeners, and realized how lightweight her competition looked by comparison.

I’m not saying the same thing will happen for Melissa Leo on February 22. I’m just suggesting that the possibility shouldn’t be entirely discounted. It’s one hell of a performance — and even as I place my money on Ms. Winslet, I can’t deny that amazing things happen when voters ignore the buzz, and watch the movies.

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17 responses so far

  • 1 2-06-2009 at 10:01 am

    King said...

    I totally agree – it would be fantastic and so well deserved if Leo won.

    But the same case can be made for Anne Hathaway, which also has a very respected and lauded performance, as well as “should win” status for many.

  • 2 2-06-2009 at 10:13 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    No denying Hathaway has her followers. But as I said in the article, “Frozen River” might have more support within the Academy than “Rachel Getting Married” — that Original Screenplay nod was quite a coup.

  • 3 2-06-2009 at 10:14 am

    GFH said...

    Good points. Good reasons even to put Melissa Leo in the 2nd place. But if she wasn’t facing The Overdue One, I’d consider this possibility more seriously. I can’t possibly imagine them overlooking Kate Winslet once again.

  • 4 2-06-2009 at 10:30 am

    tdr said...

    This race from the beginning is reminding me of last year Best Supp Actress race (a huge difference between lead and supp categories, i know). But last year everyone thought that it would be Blanchett- critical praise and a brave choice of a role- or Amy Ryan- the critic’s darling. Later in the race Ruby Dee was included after her SAG win, but at the end it was Tilda. She won a couple of minor critic’s group awards, was nominated for the big ones and won the BAFTA.
    Leo wasn’t nommed for Globe or BAFTA, but was present at the other major awards and has won some awards (Gotham, Utah). So I could deffinetely see her upset the Streep/Winslet race. Fingers crossed

  • 5 2-06-2009 at 10:38 am

    GFH said...

    Plus, Marcia Gay Harden wasn’t facing an actress who was a previous five-time nominee and still not a winner. She had Judi Dench and Frances McDormand who were previous winners, Julie Walters who had one previous nomination, and one-timer Kate Hudson. Guess it felt more OK to vote for the unknown but deserving nominee. I’d consider even taking a chance and placing my money on Melissa Leo after reading this article if it wasn’t specifically for the presence of Kate Winslet.

  • 6 2-06-2009 at 10:52 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    I agree with GFH. Take Winslet out of the picture and Leo’s chances would be much better.

  • 7 2-06-2009 at 11:16 am

    Evan said...

    It’s definitely a valid point, but Winslet has something no other actress has this year, and that’s two amazing lead performances. It just wouldn’t be right to give the award to someone else in the category and I think the voters will realize that.

  • 8 2-06-2009 at 11:27 am

    tdr said...

    What Evan has said just reminded me of something- what about the split vote? As evident by Michael Shannon’s nom, people have seen Rev Road. I bet a lot of them have voted for Winslet’s perf in that movie. And it just makes it a mystery to me how come she suddenly became the front-runner. Just because the Academy didn’t accept the category fraud? I like Winslet and her performances this year, but wasn’t it split vote that screwed Leo Di Caprio 2 years ago? I mean, it seems to me that everyone has forgotten that she has 2 performances this year, and puts her in front of the race.
    Anyway, just random thoughts…

  • 9 2-06-2009 at 12:49 pm

    Tim said...

    Leo DiCaprio had no chance of beating the Forrest Whitaker juggernaut that year, even if he had been nominated for his superior work in The Departed. If anyone had a chance it would have been Peter O’Toole. Winslet is a much different case this year. In my opinion, she has it in the bag. She’s cleaned up at every major awards so far, she’s only nominated in Lead (I think a Supporting nod would have been hurtful further splitting her vote), she’s overdue and people love her. If Melissa Leo was to gain any traction in the race she should have won the SAG, where most “actor’s actor” tend to win. But a nomination is going to be her reward.

  • 10 2-06-2009 at 2:00 pm

    Scott Ward said...

    As nice as it may be to ponder this idea, because of the lack of support for her movie, she is definitely not going to win.

  • 11 2-06-2009 at 2:01 pm

    Zak said...

    I agree with most of you in that Melissa Leo could very well sneak in and beat Streep and Winslet, but I have to respond to Evan’s comment that no other actress had two leading roles like Winslet last year….. Let’s not forget Meryl Streep leading Mamma Mia! to become the World’s highest grossing musical and Golden Globe nominee. I know Oscar has forgotten a major blockbuster this year (The Dark Knight) but I just wanted to point that out.

    I still think Streep SHOULD win.

    I still think Winslet WILL win.

    Leo would be a shocker, but not neccessarily a bad one.

  • 12 2-06-2009 at 2:26 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I love it when people say things like “it just wouldn’t be right” for Winslet to lose. Like there’s any objective sense of right and wrong in these things.

    We’re all guilty of it now and then, of course. I’m just saying.

  • 13 2-06-2009 at 2:47 pm

    Kat said...


    I am really really rooting for her. In fact, she will be the only reason I’ll be watching this year. Wouldn’t mind a Winslet win, but my fingers are crossed for Leo. Oh my god, how amazing would that be!

  • 14 2-06-2009 at 2:57 pm

    alynch said...

    I’m not saying that Winslet is undeserving, but do you think the Academy cares all that much about an actress who’s still in her early 30s being “overdue”? Don’t they normally wait until someone’s at least in their 50s before they start worrying about makeup Oscars?

  • 15 2-06-2009 at 5:50 pm

    GFH said...

    She’s a beloved and talented actress who has six nominations and zero wins. That sounds overdue to me.

  • 16 2-07-2009 at 4:13 am

    PJ said...

    Sony should think about kicking their “Frozen River” campaign into high gear.