Melissa Leo goes to Hollywood

Posted by · 11:34 am · April 10th, 2013

In a typically astute essay written for the March edition of GQ, Mark Harris muses on the qualities that make and sustain a movie star in the current Hollywood climate, and hit upon the contrasting fates of Channing Tatum and Taylor Kitsch last year to prove his point. Both actors began 2012 on the brink of stardom, with multiple mainstream releases ahead of them poised to do the job. But only Tatum made good on the promise, with a series of well-chosen leads in overperforming mid-size projects, while Kitsch’s vehicles (“Battleship,” “John Carter,” “Savages”) were all high-profile clunkers that did little to advance his big-screen identity.

“Gigs in expensive films that are designed to be blockbusters are, for emerging stars, the devil’s temptation,” writes Harris. “[But] a big opportunity is not the same thing as a good part.” 

That may be true for leading men and women, but for even the most well-regarded character actors — the kind whose names will never headline a major studio production, no matter how many awards they win or hits they latch onto — the rules are rather different. A big opportunity doesn’t equal a good part for them, either, but it equals a good paycheck; moreover, the movie’s eventual commercial or critical fate will never be blamed on (or credited to) their presence.

Which is why, amid the general tongue-lashing dished out to Antoine Fuqua’s unashamedly dim-witted siege thriller “Olympus Has Fallen” a few weeks ago, little critical bile was reserved for recent Academy Award winner Melissa Leo — even if her thankless part (and entertainingly shrill reading thereof) as a brutalized Defense Secretary was well beneath the actress and her skill set.

After all, we’re getting quite used to seeing the defiant 52-year-old actress popping up in one-dimensional parts in A-list Hollywood projects, and watching her punch whatever life she can into them. Late last year, in “Flight,” she seemed to strain at the leash in an antagonistic role far more curtailed than the narrative had promised. Next week, US audiences will see her — though never entirely in the flesh — opposite Tom Cruise in megabudget sci-fi actioner “Oblivion,” where her perky-sinister Southern delivery as Cruise’s commander provides the only suggestions of humor in an otherwise solemn enterprise.

None of these roles, needless to say, were taken with the remote intention of bringing Leo her third Oscar nomination. But it’s still a sufficient novelty to see this outspoken veteran of the independent scene in such glossy product — a one-woman culture clash, if you will — that her admirers are willing to cut her some slack.

Not least because it’s obviously a sufficient novelty to the actress herself that she’s still throwing herself into these parts with some measure of creative abandon, making singular, even eccentric decisions within them (her fruity inflections in “Oblivion,” her barely lucid physical rage in “Olympus”) with full knowledge that no one will be spending much time discussing them. Play this game for long enough and you’ll eventually acquiesce to sleepwalking: ask Morgan Freeman, who coincidentally also appears in “Olympus Has Fallen” and “Oblivion,” and is taking a little more critical heat for his nondescript work in both.

In Leo’s case, of course, such assignments still have a noble practical outcome, enabling her to continue in her preferred realm of low-budget, sometimes experimental work with up-and-coming filmmakers — which in turn gets a boost from her late-blooming celebrity. Released not long before “Flight” last year, for example, was her boldly committed, award-level turn in “Francine,” a beautifully wrought miniature and a virtual one-woman show for Leo. It’s these projects that allow her to show what she’s made of, and the Hollywood fodder that allows her and her indie allies to bring such projects to fruition.

It’s a pretty ideal career position for a jobbing actor, and Leo has worked awfully hard to get to this point. Not many opportunities came her way in the decade-plus that separated her stretch as Kay Howard in TV series “Homicide: Life on the Street” (something of a landmark figure in small-screen female characterization) and her career-changing lead turn in 2008’s “Frozen River,” and even through the highlights — striking supporting turns in “21 Grams” and “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” among them — nobody would have anticipated she’d be turning up alongside Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington in her sixth decade.

Leo hasn’t been afraid to let her hunger show: her self-funded campaign ads on her path to winning Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Fighter” two years ago may have drawn accusations of desperation, but its hard to look at her recent career upswing and say she was wrong to want it that badly. And her flavorful, sometimes curiously detailed performances in even the least worthy roles betray that same eagerness: Leo knows she’s a great actress, but she’s also toiled for too long to start coasting.  

It’d be nice, then, to see the mainstream start rewarding her with slightly more creative legroom: more hearty, human supporting roles in the vein of “The Fighter,” less of the anonymous functionaries she tries to animate in “Flight,” “Olympus Has Fallen” and “Oblivion.” I’m not so naively idealistic as to suggest Hollywood casting agents start calling Melissa Leo instead of Meryl Streep — though I’d kill to see her take on “August: Osage County” — but there’s no reason why secondary characters can’t be as dimensional as the actors playing them. 

Whether in Streep’s autumnal box-office clout, the unlikely star construction of Melissa McCarthy or the improbable Academy-fuelled reinvention of old hands like Leo and Jacki Weaver, Hollywood seems slowly to be waking up to the possibilities of actresses outside the usual star demographic. (They need no such reminder, of course, about the men: it’s worth noting that Leo and Tom Cruise are near-exact contemporaries, yet she’s 20 years older than the two actresses cast as his romantic partners. So it goes.) Melissa Leo has the character to hold her own in the big leagues. Now she needs the characters. 

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