Melissa Leo's true grit leads to Oscar

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I've always had a soft spot for the formerly underrated actress Melissa Leo.

As the supremely competent Detective Kay Howard on "Homicide: Life on the Street," Ms. Leo famously refused to make herself look glamorous. She told Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" that she didn't use makeup on the show because her male colleagues didn't.

When she was unceremoniously dumped from "Homicide" at the end of its fifth season, Ms. Leo said collateral damage from her then-messy personal life and the flinty realness of her Kay Howard character marked her as damaged goods on a show belatedly striving for higher ratings.

Unable to find a steady network gig after "Homicide," Ms. Leo entered what she described to Ms. Gross as a career dry spell. She reprised her role as Kay Howard in "Homicide: The Movie" in 2000, but by then she had set her eye on the big screen, where the perception of being a "gritty gal" didn't work against her.

Ms. Leo had a series of small roles in small movies, the most memorable in "21 Grams" (2003) until her star turn as an impoverished trailer park mom turned illegal alien smuggler in "Frozen River" (2008).

Ms. Leo got her first taste of major industry respect that year when she was nominated for more than a dozen awards, including the Oscar for best actress in "Frozen River."

"Homicide" creator David Simon took a second look at the actress NBC fired in 1997 and hired her to play ACLU lawyer Toni Bernette in HBO's post-Katrina drama, "Treme."

When Ms. Leo signed on to play Alice Ward, the mother of boxers Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), she became the spark that ignited "The Fighter" whenever she was on screen. Despite being only a decade older than Mr. Wahlberg, Ms. Leo learned enough from observing the real Alice Ward to make her role as his mother work.

On Sunday, Ms. Leo capped an extraordinary year by winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in "The Fighter."

Having cleaned up more than half the regional critics' honors already, she was, justifiably, the front-runner. Still, hearing her name called on Hollywood's most prestigious night was not the kind of industry respect Ms. Leo was used to.

A self-promotional Oscar campaign in which she took out trade ads had landed her in hot water a few weeks ago. There was some talk that an industry backlash might deny her the coveted award.

Perhaps Ms. Leo was more relieved that the pessimists were wrong about her chances than she was surprised at her win when she uttered the first televised f-bomb in the history of the Oscars during her acceptance speech.

The censors caught it in time, but the happy outburst landed her a spot in Oscars infamy alongside the streaker who interrupted David Niven's speech during the 1974 broadcast.

Calculated or not, Ms. Leo's exuberance provided an otherwise dull show with one of its few genuinely interesting moments.

My affection for Ms. Leo began when I visited the set of "Homicide" in 1996. I interviewed the entire cast, but my time with the actress was particularly memorable.

Unlike the character she played, Ms. Leo had a wicked sense of humor. She was also far more attractive and articulate in person than her laconic character on TV.

Hours after our interview, our paths crossed again on the sound stage. That's when she insisted on taking me to where the cast and crew hung out for lunch. She escorted me around the set like an old friend instead of a nosy fan pretending to be a journalist.

When Colin Firth, 50, won his own Oscar for best actor Sunday, he quipped, "I have a feeling my career just peaked."

Ms. Leo, also 50, probably isn't giving much thought to the "curse" said to befall actresses trying to find meaty roles after they land an Oscar. She has been fortunate enough to never have been a pretty ingenue waiting for the phone to ring, so her hustling will never end.

Instead of peaking, Melissa Leo is just getting started.

Tony Norman: or 412-263-1631. First Published March 1, 2011 5:00 AM


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