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Melissa Leo on Her Controversial Ads: The Oscars Are About 'Pimping Yourself Out'

Melissa Leo

Some say Melissa Leo's sexed-up glamour ads will cost her Oscar votes. But she's defiant, and here's why her integrity's still intact.

At Monday's Beverly Hilton Oscar luncheon, looking actually more glamorous than the controversial glam ads she took out for herself last week, Leo told the New York Times, “This entire awards process to some degree is about pimping yourself out. I’m confident my fans will understand the ads were about showing a different side of myself.”

"The race, all this is sorta unfamiliar to me," Leo told The Hollywood Reporter. "But it might mean more work, so that's interesting. The Oscars -- it's this illustrious group, a jury of my peers, I find out. It's also a marketing [thing]. It's show business. I didn't ask that this opportunity for more come to me. I've just done what I've done. I think I'm finding out why I watch those competitive cooking shows, 'cause people aren't on about who they are or how they're dressed. It's about what they're doing."

At 50, Leo knows she'd better seize the moment. So when her Golden Globe, SAG, New York Film Critics Circle and Critics Choice awards and apparently imminent supporting actress Oscar didn't get her magazine covers, she decided to "go rogue," as Pete Hammond put it. On Thursday, as Oscar ballots descended, she startled her studio and ran her own Hollywood trade ads (including one in THR), featuring her dolled-up self and the word "Consider."

"Don't judge Melissa Leo," said Sasha Stone @AwardsDaily. "She didn't invent the dirty game, she just broke the rules. ... And yet, we all know they will judge her, don’t we? Voters shy away from controversy and they shy away from any sort of sign that a contender actually wants to win, god forbid."

"Melissa Leo Likes Herself, She Really Likes Herself," sniped Movieline. One Oscar voter told me, "She lost my vote."

It would be surprising if Leo lost enough votes to lose the Oscar, because most pundits call her the frontrunner -- and of all the Oscar luncheon nominees whose names caused the crowd to go "Whoo!," the loudest "Whoo!" was Leo's (no doubt partly because of the glam-ad controversy). Leo doesn't censor herself, and that's appealing in a world where kisses are made of air.

It would be ironic if Leo lost, because what The Fighter and Leo herself are selling is resonant authenticity. It's unfair that it's fine for Jennifer Lawrence to glam up and prove she's not really a scruffmuffin meth urchin, but for a 50ish dame to do the same backfires bigtime. But that's how it is, and as she notes, campaigning is performance.

As I told Leo, from her brilliant TV breakthrough in Homicide to her movie breakthrough Frozen River, to The Fighter, her persona is like a much prettier version of Dorothea Lange's legendary "Migrant Mother" WPA photo -- an icon of unyielding grief, tough, empathic, indomitable, indestructible. Glamorous because tough and clad in rags. We really like her because she feels real, a hard chick with a soft heart, making it in a male world without recourse to red fingernail claws or coquetry. (Incidentally, the migrant Lange photographed passionately hated those unglamorous photos all her life.)

But if you talk with Leo, it's clear that she's not just out for herself. She genuinely yearns to strike a blow to reform ageist sexism in the biz. When she wins an award, she uses the spotlight to tout actor-union solidarity. She told me she spurned a part in the Oscar-bound Crazy Heart because she didn't like how the character made women look, and she dissed the fact that the Jeff Bridges character "finds his soulmate, his raison d'etre -- young enough to be his daughter." (She's not dissing Bridges, and hasn't seen the film.)

She told me things an inauthentic calculating careerist would not say about male vs. female energy in moviemaking. "David O. Russell in my opinion makes his set a more difficult place than it needs to be," she said. But isn't his fractious personality the spark that made The Fighter great? "It might be part of what his filmmaking is, and the genius of that you see in the film," she allowed. "I don't doubt his genius as a filmmaker. I wonder to myself if he couldn't make even better films [without being difficult]."

Here's another indication of Leo's integrity. She deeply wants her performance to be authentic right down to the roots. In writer Eric Overmyer's scenes of her character's marriage with John Goodman in HBO's Treme, she says she'd call bull on bits that felt wrong. "Eric will write something and I'll go, 'Eric, what the hell is this crap?' And he'll say, 'It happened this morning at the house [with his mate].' So I'm sold. What am I gonna say?" Leo hasn't been married herself, and she works hard to get it right onscreen.

So Leo decided to incorporate a gesture of mine into her Treme performance. "Every time you mentioned your wife [who's in Seattle for months, so I miss her in L.A.], you unconsciously twirled your wedding ring. I've been trying to think of something to do with my wedding ring on Treme [a charged symbol, since Goodman's character was a suicide]. But I don't want to do anything that doesn't feel real."

Does this sound like a phoney-baloney movie star who should be stripped of her probable Oscar, which Hailee Steinfeld looks likeliest to get if Leo's ill-advised photo shoot really does lose her massive votes? Not to me. Please, voters: Vote for whomever you think best. But don't not vote for Leo just because she might have shot herself in the foot with a glam camera.

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