Friday, April 8, 2011
Nobody was very surprised when Melissa Leo won the Academy Award earlier this year for playing a maternal shrew in The Fighter. But would you be surprised to learn that she turned in two completely different performances in other features released in 2010?
In Welcome to the Rileys (2010), Leo plays Lois, a timid housewife who has become frightened and agoraphobic over guilt surrounding her teenage daughter's death. Over the course of the film, Lois who slowly overcomes her fears and returns to the world of the living. Not only this woman nothing like the harridan in The Fighter, but Leo delivers a master class in physical acting. In the clip I wish I could show you, Lois has arrived in New Orleans where her husband Doug (James Gandolfini) appears to have shacked up with a 17-year-old stripper, Mallory (Kristen Stewart). What she doesn't know yet is that Doug has taken it on himself to parent this lost child, not sleep with her. They quarrel in the street and Doug hands her the car keys and tells her to go back to their home in Indiana in which she had trapped herself.
There follows a wordless 60 seconds or so in which the camera steps back, almost across the street to observe Lois preparing herself to meet this urchin, wringing her wrist, touching at her collar, fiddling with her purse, but what you see is not a grab-bag of actor fidgeting, but a woman making a decision and making up her mind to carry it out. Everyone studying acting or directing needs to see it.
Couldn't find that clip, but here is a good scene of bonding between Lois and Mallory, as you can see Melissa Leo listening to and participating in this conversation, while another tape, a tape of a happy life she lost, is playing in her head. It's called subtext, kids, and nobody makes it palpable better than Ms. Leo. In any case, it's a world away from the ferocious virago of The Fighter.
Her role in Conviction (2010) is smaller, but the Charlie Chan rule applies, whereby an important actor is never in an insignificant role, even if they only appear briefly early in the film. (The Charlie Chan rule stipulates that the best known character actor is always the murderer, no matter the clues. Its corollary is that important actors have important functions in the film. Often it means that they will be back later in the film, when their true significance is revealed.) In this scene, Leo makes the initial arrest of Sam Rockwell's character. You can see this is nothing like Lois, and even with an East Massachusetts accent, this is an entirely different person from the one she plays in The Fighter. (In fact, the accent itself is different from the one used in The Fighter.)
Turns out the character has her own demons and secrets, despite being a minor part of the story, and that's why you need a Melissa Leo in a role with only four or five short scenes.
That's three utterly different characters with three different affects all released in a single calendar year. And none of them resemble her work in Frozen River or her neurotic and driven detective in the late lamented and completely wonderful television series Homicide.
(As for the rest of Conviction, it is a perfectly straightforward television-film-based-on-a-true-story. It is directed by actor Tony Goldwyn, so it is almost entirely actor oriented, and anyone who has attended law school and most people who follow appellate cases in the news will be unsurprised by any of the plot developments. The best description of such a film is "worthy.")
The problem with "secret weapon" actors like Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Frances McDormand and J.K. Simmons is that they stop being secret. Some become less effective -- it is arguable that James Gandolfini will never shake Tony Soprano. But many of them go merrily along, either assisting or stealing films outright. And some, such as Kevin Spacey, William H Macy, Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub and Tilda Swinton become stars in their own strange galaxy, occasionally visiting the Land of Regular People, and then returning to where the rest of us live. Hooray.