Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1997)
Melissa Leo had a tall order in Paul Attanasio’s brilliant and exacting network drama, Homicide. As the only female lead on the show (for the first two seasons, anyway), it was Leo’s job to inject sensitivity into the program. At least that’s how it looked on paper. In fact, what made Kay Howard such a memorable character was that Leo played her more or less the exact opposite of how we thought she would. Kay Howard wasn’t the sensitive one of the bunch, she was simply one of a guys. A no-nonsense detective who believed there was still some decency left in the world. It was a dream role, really. A big break that lasted five years; one that proved Leo as a serious contender.
Frozen River (2008)
In Frozen River, Melissa Leo plays Ray, a discount store clerk whose gambling junkie husband has walked out on Ray and their kids. Ray has her sights on a double wide trailer for her family, so when she discovers a way to make quick cash by sneaking illegal immigrants into the country, she jumps at the opportunity.
Leo was justly nominated for an Oscar for her work in the film, but looking back on it now (since Leo has become rather well known), I appreciate her performance even more. Ray is a damn tough role, mainly because she is so cold and unlikeable. But Ray’s attitude doesn’t deter Leo. Instead, she embraces her character’s weaknesses and delivers an unflinching and vulnerable performance. Simply put, Ray is damn near the best work Melissa Leo has ever delivered.
Toni Bernette is a civil rights lawyer in New Orleans who is unyielding in her pursuit of police corruption that took place during and after Hurricane Katrina. As Treme evolved into a wonderful, though criminally ignored series, we got to see more of Toni. We watched her struggle to raise a rebellious daughter, put food on the table, and guard herself and her family from the police department that is supposed to protect her. I know I was maybe one of six people who actually watched Treme, but one of the many reasons I stuck with it was to watch Leo brave the storm and flesh Toni out.
The Fighter (2010)
Alice Ward is the type of performance that demands attention. That voice! That hair! That attitude! It’s such showy, balls-out work; the type of role that reeks of Oscar bait. Thankfully, Leo plays Alice as a person instead of a caricature, making it a performance of substance over style. Whenever I revisit the film, I find myself most drawn to Alice’s quieter moments. Singing the Bee Gees with Christian Bale, meeting Charlene for the first time, attempting to celebrate Dicky’s release from prison – these are the moments Leo makes Alice real. And while she wouldn’t have been my choice for the Supporting Actress Oscar (Jacki Weaver gets my vote), it’s a well-earned win all the same.
“You know how many dicks I sucked I didn’t wanna suck? ‘Cuz I’m a good kid. ‘Cuz I do what’s right. I never left anyone hanging, how dare you.”
Leo won an Emmy for her 15-minute turn as the sexually charged, impossibly crass Laurie on the Season 3 episode of Louie, “Telling Jokes/Set Up.” Louie and Laurie are paired up on a blind date, which goes horribly, until they sneak out of their mutual friend’s home and have a drink at a bar. Later, Laurie pulls her truck into a dark spot and offers to blow Louie, just for the hell of it. The moment she’s done, she looks at him and says, “Let’s get some payback. Strap on the feed bag.” And from there, the two engage in five minutes of the best banter Louis C.K. has ever written. Laurie issues a slew of profane, gender-reversal insults that are simply hilarious. This isn’t shock for the sake of shock, but rather, Louis C.K. and Melissa Leo going all in and not giving a fuck. (Watch the scene here.)
The Best of the Best
21 Grams (2003)
Cinematically, I’ve always been more drawn to pain than humor. Those real moments of hell and hardship. I thrive on the dark, and 21 Grams is one hell of a dark film. Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts have the more substantive roles, but every single supporting player steps up as well. From Charlotte Gainsbourg (as Penn’s dedicated but lost wife), Clea DuVall (as Watts’ loyal friend) and Melissa Leo, as Del Toro’s strong-willed wife, Marianne.
The best scene of Melissa Leo’s career is the moment Marianne Jordan finds out her husband’s life has been forever altered. Marianne is throwing a party for her husband, Jack, and after he arrives several minutes late, he sits in the driveway and waits in his truck. Marianne walks outside and Jack admits that he just ran over a man and two girls. Now, watch Melissa Leo’s face here. Watch how she realizes that Jack’s life (and thereby hers as well) will never be the same. She walks to the front of the truck and her face reads horror. Hell, pain, anguish. It’s one of my favorite moments from one of my favorite films; just one of Leo’s many excellent contributions to the film.
The Young Riders (1989-1990)
The Ballad of Little Jo (1993)
The 24 Hour Woman (1999)
Homicide: The Movie (2000)
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
The L Word (2005)
Hide and Seek (2005)
Everybody’s Fine (2009)
Welcome to the Rileys (2010)
Red State (2011)
Mildred Pierce (2011)
The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (2014)