The decades of “dressing down” have finally paid off for Melissa Leo. Now she gets to dress up for one big night. A woman who has made a name playing unglamorous in “Frozen River” will put on the ritz and hope her name is called when the best actress trophy is awarded on Oscar night.
“I shot this movie over two years ago, and so much has happened to me since then,” she says, on her way to the Santa Barbara Film Festival. “I guess I’ve been getting more and more dressed up, the more this goes on. You can see photos of my transformation, festival by festival.”
Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Junior, James Reilly
(Sony Pictures Classics; US DVD: 10 Feb 2009)
She’s right. To search Internet pictures of “Melissa Leo” is like watching Nanny McPhee play on your computer. As the acclaim has grown, so has her glamour.
“I’m getting very excited about Oscar night, the idea of really getting all made up, dressed up. Not at all like the character in the movie.”
“Frozen River,” just released on DVD, puts Leo in the worn-out boots of Ray, a member of the working poor, keeping home and family together by the barest of threads in a recession-wracked corner of upstate New York hard by the Canadian border. The “frozen river” of the title is the St. Lawrence, where Ray and a reluctant Native American partner go into business driving illegal immigrants across the border.
Leo let herself show Ray’s mileage - the years of struggle, poor health care and worry show in every crease of her face. The actress, 48 now, looked older when she shot the film. It’s what she’s known for.
“Leo has specialized in a unique no-nonsense weariness ... an unbecoming rawness ... for years,” Ty Burr wrote in reviewing “Frozen River” for The Boston Globe. The actress got her start on soap operas, but made her rep on the gritty TV series “Homicide: Life on the Street.” World-weary performances in films such as “21 Grams” cemented it.
Ray’s triumph in the film is simple survival, something Leo can appreciate. It’s not easy being “real” in the plastic world of the cinema. She said that the mere act of making the film, with its grinding Indian reservation poverty, kept her grounded.
“The timeliness of the film touches people, I think,” she says of the recession backdrop of the story. “It’s human and about humanity at its most dire extremes and finding our greatest strengths and depths of character in our darkest moment.
“But I love what I do and it was my pleasure to sit in that freezing old car in the middle of nowhere and play such a beautiful role.’
The best actress field gives Leo no reason to feel optimistic. There’s the always-honored Meryl Streep, the inevitable “It’s her time” Kate Winslet nomination, Oscar winner Angelina Jolie and Young Miss Breakout, Anne Hathaway. Leo’s victory came when the world first sat up and took notice and when that “welcoming wave washed over me” the morning the Oscar nominations were announced.
“I’ve had an illustrious year - film festivals all over Europe and America,” she says. “But recognition by the Academy is what makes you a phenomenon.
“There’s something in me that hopes that this experience doesn’t change my life, not that much anyway. But it has. Maybe you aren’t told, as often, ‘Well, you’re great, but I think we’re going to give this other girl the job because of X, Y and Z.’ So the honor is great. But it’s about the work that opens up to you, which is all any actress wants.”