Will Melissa Leo be an Oscar knockout?

By Tim Masters
Entertainment correspondent, BBC News

image captionMelissa Leo was previously Oscar-nominated for her role in Frozen River

The Oscar nominations have thrown up an interesting fight in the best supporting actress category.

In one corner there's a bleached blonde Melissa Leo, with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. In the opposite corner is an iron-willed redhead in the shape of Amy Adams.

Both actresses are nominated for their roles in David O Russell's boxing biopic The Fighter.

Speaking a few days after their names were announced, Leo laughs off the image of them locked in combat for a golden statuette.

"Everybody would like to think it's a fight, but it's not for us. We are nominated with each other and these other lovely ladies."

In the ring with Leo and Adams are Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom).

image captionLeo stars alongside Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams in The Fighter

The 50-year-old actress adds mischievously: "Amy and I do keep talking about what a wonderful publicity stunt a mud-fight would be. We might get a few pay-per-views."

The Fighter, which stars Mark Wahlberg as real-life boxer "Irish" Micky Ward, has seven Oscar nominations in all.

They include a best supporting actor nod for Christian Bale as Micky's drug-addled half-brother Dicky Eklund.

It is a second nomination for Melissa Leo, who was up for best actress two years ago for her role in Frozen River as a woman who smuggles illegal immigrants across the Canadian border.

Does it feel different second time round?

"Well, it's just experience," says Leo. "I find experience is the best teacher in life. Frozen River was a small film that I'm incredibly proud of."

In The Fighter Leo plays Alice Ward, a mother of nine as well as Micky and Dicky's boxing manager.

With her bleached hair, high heels and leopard dresses, she is more formidable than any of the fighters slugging it out in the ring.

It's a performance that has already won Leo a Golden Globe, plus an award from the Screen Actors Guild.

How important was it to meet the real Alice Ward in order to play her?

"I would not be sitting here with this special invitation to the Academy Awards without having met her," asserts Leo.

"I felt too young to play the part. I could have stumbled through the performance with the costumes, hair and make-up, but I need an internal life that I can hang my hat on."

'Genetic connection'

It was meeting the real Alice that convinced Leo she could handle the role.

"She very graciously did allow me to visit. Once I breathed the same air as her I knew, 'a-ha, I've got this woman inside of me'. It felt like there was a genetic connection.

"Alice is not unlike my maternal grandmother. They are women of a time, women who knew what hard work and child-rearing were long before we had single mothers such as myself."

Although Alice fell ill and was taken to hospital in January, Leo is adamant that she wants her as her guest on Oscar night on 27 February.

image captionLeo won a Golden Globe in January for her role in The Fighter

"I know what those red carpets are like so it will definitely take a conversation with doctors. I'm holding that seat open and people who need names for tickets are being patient with me.

"The respect and gratitude I hold for Alice Ward I could never say."

Leo has been a regular face in both film and television for over 20 years. Prior to Frozen River, she was most widely known for her portrayal of Detective Kay Howard on Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Her films include 21 Grams, opposite Benicio Del Toro and Sean Penn, and Hide and Seek with Robert De Niro.

As a student, Leo spent almost three years in the UK and studied drama at Mountview theatre school in London. "I worked at Brent Cross shopping centre when it first opened," she recalls.

Her CV looks a bit different these days and shows at least 20 acting projects in the past two years. Is this the busiest period of her career?

"I've always worked that way," Leo admits. "I have a really bad habit - I'm an acting addict."

She heard the news of her Oscar nomination while promoting Kevin Smith's horror movie Red State at the Sundance film festival.

"I refuse to put it in a genre," says Leo. "It is an extraordinary piece of work that is as much an important document of our times as a spoof on our times. Some pretty horrific stuff happens."

With Sundance over she is back on the campaign trail for The Fighter, and keen to get the message across that there's more to it than mere pugilism.

"David O Russell's film is like all his movies - a film about complicated familial realities today," Leo says.

"It's not about boxing entirely, but there's some great boxing in it."

The Fighter is out now in the UK.

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