Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Counterculture Chick: Melissa Leo's Half-Century

Ever since her first bona-fide professional acting gig on All My Children, an urban myth has dogged the 1984 casting of Melissa Leo: that she got the part during an audition process in which Julia Roberts was a fellow contender. The untruth has been repeated over the years on any number of celebrity web sites.

“It’s a bogus story,” Leo said during a February telephone interview from New York City, where she had gone to find a gown for Sunday night’s Academy Awards. ”While I was working on the show, I had the same manager as Eric Roberts, her brother. She was 15 then and visiting from Georgia. He asked if I’d take Jules to the set. She was a delightful, wacky teen who had no idea what to do with her life, except meet Sting.”

Leo’s progression from a one-year stint on the ABC soap opera to a best supporting actress Oscar nomination – for playing the feisty mother of two sons with prizefighting dreams and their many sisters in The Fighter – has followed a sometimes rocky road. After more than 70 films and TV programs, at 50 she is finally on the Hollywood A-list.

Melissa Leo on HBO’s Treme
Her recent resume includes another highly acclaimed performance in 2008’s Frozen River. Moreover, her portrayal of a crusading civil rights attorney on Treme gives the HBO series, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, its most essential beating heart. In March, the cable channel will broadcast the Todd Haynes remake of Mildred Pierce, a mini-series in which Leo appears as a close friend of the title character, portrayed by Kate Winslet.

And Leo is in Red State, due for an October release. This Kevin Smith horror movie concerns sinister evangelicals inhabiting a region of the U.S. known for right-wing sentiments. But the color has an altogether different connotation when it comes to an important place in her real life: Red Clover, a commune in Putney, Vermont. She moved there at age nine with her mother Peggy and older brother Erik. Founded by young leftists during the late 1960s, the collective had been reconfigured by the time the Leo clan arrived there approximately five years later. The old guard had split and the tone became far less militant, though still progressive.
“We have union organizers, farmers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, skiers and Academy Award-nominated actors,” Leo noted. “And that doesn't even begin to describe us. No ideology, no pie in the sky. Just folks committed to doing some living on the planet together and changing as times change. We cooperatively own the land.”

Melissa Leo at the 2011 Golden Globes
In other words, she still considers herself a communard, despite now calling a small town in Upstate New York home. Her mother – a former schoolteacher honored as Putney Person of the Year in the late 1990s – and brother are still in the Green Mountain State. Along with them, the commune is “the only ongoing familial relationship in my life, besides my son and I,” Leo added, referring to 24-year-old Jack. “He too is a part of Red Clover and Red Clover is a part of him. Something still binds us all together.”

A self-described “hippie by birth,” Leo’s introduction to the arts came while a mere toddler growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. During the early 1960s, she participated in interactive productions by Bread & Puppet Theater, which features immense papier-mâché creations in fanciful sketches addressing political and social concerns. “I found out there were grown-ups who liked to pretend, too,” she recalled. “Then – oh, my God! – other grown-ups would come and sit in the dark and believe our pretend.”

Leo continued as an occasional costumed puppeteer throughout the 1960s, even walking on stilts – a Bread & Puppet trademark – when old enough. Yet, it was a complete coincidence in 1970 when she relocated to Putney and the troupe settled in a different corner of Vermont. The trek north came after a divorce that left her family in dire financial straits, including an eviction from their apartment. New England seemed like a good region to start over. This decision initially loomed as a catastrophe for the little girl with titian curls, who was “dragged kicking and screaming” from the Big Apple. “It felt as if all my childhood had been taken away from me,” she explained.

The sense of disruption started to fade, particularly after joining Red Cover, but she did not feel her high school was the right fit because it offered no opportunities for teens interested in theater. So, when her mother went to England on a temporary work-related assignment, at 15 Leo accompanied her and remained in London alone for two years to study acting. Back home in 1977, she enrolled at the State University of New York-Purchase (which counts Parker Posey, Stanley Tucci, Ving Rhames and Edie Falco among its alumni), but left after two-and-a-half years. 

Leo in Frozen River, 2008
By the mid-1980s, Leo was in New York City again, waitressing and going out for auditions. Although deemed too young for a part in The Razor’s Edge, she got these words of encouragement from the leading man, comedian Bill Murray: “If you want to do something, just do it.”

Leo quit her restaurant job that very afternoon. “I made an oath to myself: I would work as an actor or not at all. I knew what it was to live with nothing. I wanted todo what I think I’m put here to do.”

And do, she did. Leo soon was hired for All My Children, followed by roles on The Young Riders TV series and, for four years, as a Homicide: Life on the Street detective.

Leo’s many smaller films led to the more significant 21 Grams in 2003 and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in 2005. The picture that really put her in the spotlight was 2008‘s Frozen River, a low-budget drama. Her gritty portrayal of a woman struggling with poverty led to a best actress Oscar nomination; the statuette instead went to Kate Winslet for The Reader.

The Fighter, about boxing brothers (Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale) in a working-class Massachusetts town, is considered a major contender for awards. Leo will be competing Sunday night against co-star Amy Adams, Helena Bonham Carter of The King’s Speech, Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit and Jacki Weaver of Animal Kingdom.

Whatever happens, Leo will be with hundreds of other grown-ups who like to pretend, in an entertainment industry that has become increasingly splashy. Lady Gaga was carried out inside a gigantic egg at the Grammys earlier this month. If her name is called, perhaps the red-haired thespian and puppeteer from Red Clover should head to the stage on stilts.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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