Friday, February 13, 2009


Cheers for Melissa Leo

By Edward Copeland
As a fan of film, television and theater, it's difficult not to root for some performers who have fallen off the radar. This was definitely the case for many with Mickey Rourke's comeback in The Wrestler. For me, it is gratifying to see renewed acclaimed for Melissa Leo via the vehicle of Frozen River.

I was a huge fan of the TV series of Homicide: Life on the Street, a great series that grew weaker each time they made a lame casting decision in an attempt to boost ratings at the expense of excellence. One of the worst of these decisions was when they cut Leo and her great character of Kay Howard from the cast.

Wait long enough though, and excellence will rise again and Leo has in Frozen River in the role of abandoned mom Ray Eddy. Her reward has been acclaim and a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

Courtney Hunt's writing-directing debut also earned a nomination for original screenplay and while the film is good, Leo's performance is stronger than the movie as a whole.

Leo plays a struggling mom with a teenage son and 5-year-old son whose husband disappears as Christmas approaches. Left with only a dead-end part-time job in a dollar store, Ray struggle to make ends meet and to realize her family's dream of getting their own double-wide.

When Ray stumbles upon her husband's car, she also crosses path with Lila, a young Mohawk Indian woman (Misty Upham) whose own child has been taken from her and has been making money by smuggling illegal immigrants from China, Pakistan and elsewhere across the Canadian border. Ray reluctantly gets drawn in to the operation, eventually finding the big paydays too lucrative to pass up, despite her reservations.

Meanwhile, Ray's teen son (Charlie McDermott) is attempting scams of his own before a rent-to-own company takes the family's color TV away.

Hunt does set some beautiful compositions as a director, but some of the twists of the screenplay strain credulity. Thankfully, Leo's performance, never begging for the audience's sympathy and showing a tough veneer without sacrificing the mother's love beneath, makes the movie work.

It's great to see her get such a great role again. Let's hope it's the first of many.

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Leo is absolutely terrific in this role - but I wouldn't say that the years between Homicide and this have been absolutely fallow. She's been low on the radar, to be sure, but not off it - indeed, the last five years or so represent something of a career renaissance for her, with some very fine turns in small, well-received indies - most memorably as the loyal wife who becomes an accomplice after the fact in 21 Grams, and in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, where she had moments of weary, rueful sensuality worthy of Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show. I would agree, however, that Frozen River marks her best film work to date - and certainly qualifies as the best performance I've seen by an actress in a leading role this year. It's a shame her lack of name recognition relegates her to the role of also-ran; but since I'm a fan of Kate Winslet both in The Reader and in general, I won't quibble too much.
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