The Best Actress You've Never Heard Of
Melissa Leo may view the Academy Awards as “hard work,” but the first-time Best Actress nominee acknowledges the miracle of her rise to Hollywood’s pantheon.
Often described as a “working actress,” Melissa Leo is no regular on red carpets. That’s probably why the Frozen River star offered such an honest response when asked what it will be like for her this month at the Academy Awards, when she’ll walk down the red carpet—with flashbulbs in her face and entertainment reporters tripping over themselves to get to Brangelina.
“It’s hard work for all of us who show up” at those events, Leo said. “I’m managing. I recognize the miracle.”
Since her Best Actress nomination for her role as Ray Eddy in Frozen River, life has changed for the 48-year-old Leo, an accomplished but relatively unknown actress. She spoke to The Daily Beast about the “complex miracle” that landed her in competition with Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie, and Anne Hathaway.
"I’ve been on a campaign of sorts for a year, since Sundance, and I’m greeted differently now."
Leo’s transition from “actor’s actor” to Oscar nominee occurred during a political season in which another star emerged from relative obscurity to win election to the nation’s highest office. Asked whether she could imagine a similarity between her rise and that of a politician, she said: “There’s a parallel there—I can see a parallel. I’ve been on a campaign of sorts for a year, since Sundance, and I’m greeted differently now.”
While Leo dismissed the notion that greater fame was on her horizon, she acknowledged that the projects now available to her were greater in number and quality. “What I see is the work opportunities attached to” the nomination, she said. “That’s not to be taken lightly, and I don’t take it lightly. I wouldn’t have been prepared for this at earlier points in my life.”
In Frozen River, Leo delivers a raw, emotional performance as Ray Eddy, whose desperation leads her to smuggle illegal immigrants across the Canadian border. Asked whether she thought more people would be able to relate to the chain of events that lead to her character’s crisis as a result of their own economic worries, Leo replied, “That may be another layer that people respond to. There are people who can’t imagine a life like Ray Eddy’s. [There are] people who don’t know anyone in that situation.”
Sadly, that may be changing. While most people aren’t facing the terrible choices that Ray confronts, the economic crisis has the potential to touch just about everyone. Ray’s decision to smuggle illegal immigrants will make perfect sense to audiences who see her struggle with providing shelter, food, and a few simple pleasures, like gifts on Christmas morning, to her two sons.
“There are people who will respond to her as a mother,” Leo said. Indeed, one of the film’s major themes is the bond between women—specifically, the relationship between two mothers, Ray and Lila (Misty Upham). In the end, the bond between the characters emerges as a love story, without the romance, between two women who risk everything to fulfill their responsibilities as parents.
Frozen River’s human-smuggling storyline provides one of its most heartbreaking moments—when a Pakistani couple hands Leo’s character a duffle bag with their infant hidden inside, before they hop into the car’s trunk for the trip over the frozen ice of the St. Lawrence River. Ray leaves the duffle bag behind, and the baby is inadvertently left for dead. Although the tragedy of human smuggling is front and center in the film, “no one” asks about it, “no one,” Leo said.
If, as Leo said, “people respond to characters that move them,” then this film should get a response from anyone with a pulse.
Nicolle Wallace served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May to November 2008. She served President George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House, as well as communications director for President Bush's 2004 campaign.