The last time Melissa Leo was nominated for an Academy Award, in 2009 for the blue-collar drama “Frozen River,” she was a sentimental favorite among critics, but a decidedly long shot to beat out Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and eventual winner Kate Winslet.
Now the 50-year-old is earning accolades again, this time for her supporting role in “The Fighter,” David O. Russell’s biography of Lowell, Mass., brawler Micky Ward, opening Friday. (The San Francisco Film Critics Circle ranked her nuanced portrayal of a domineering mother among the year’s best.)
Leo does not regard Alice Ward, Micky’s tough-as-nails mom, as a monster. Actors are asked to embrace difficult characters all the time, and Alice is one of them — apparently ruthlessly self-serving in her handling of her two boxer sons, Micky and Dicky, played by Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, respectively.
But Leo sees her sympathetically, “as a very wise mother who really did know her children.”
In the movie, she protects Dicky despite his self-destructive behavior, while letting Micky get beaten up in the ring. She was not playing favorites, Leo says.
“It was just that Dicky needed her in a way Micky did not,” she says. Like Alice’s, Leo’s career has not always run smooth. Despite a consistently high level of work since her 1984 debut on the soap “All My Children,” she earned a ticket to purgatory after her run on NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” ended abruptly in 1997.
“[The show] killed my career,” she says, bluntly. “The critical acclaim it got was extraordinary. It eventually lost its edge, but I loved my five years there. Then, three weeks before we were to start the sixth season, I was told I’d been let go.”
Professionally, her convincing work as no-nonsense detective Kay Howard posed a problem.
“After the second season, I’d stopped wearing makeup,” Leo says. “I’d gone barefaced. I was known as someone with a gun and a badge. People forgot that I’d been working for years before that. I couldn’t get a job. Nobody would return my calls.”
That may explain her respect for Alice, who booked Micky’s fights while trying to reign in his crack-addicted brother. Leo, too, has firsthand experience struggling to survive in a world run by men.
“I’m blessed now to be a female actor who gets to work, even as I get older,” she says. “But the maleness of the filmmaking world makes it very hard for women to be fleshed out, to express themselves. Alice was in the fight game, I am in the movie game, and that’s our shared ground.”
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy
Directed by David O’Russell
Running time 1 hour 54 minutes