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JAN
13
4 YEARS

Melissa Leo on 'Fighter' Mom Fighting for Life: 'Somebody Should Go Thank Her Ass'

Melissa Leo
Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection

Melissa Leo won kudos playing Alice Ward, mother of the boxers in The Fighter. She fiercely defends the real Alice, who's been criticized and is suddenly seriously ill.

Two days after Leo's galvanic performance as Alice Ward won the New York Film Critics Award for supporting actress, four days before she (probably) wins the Golden Globe, Oscar frontrunner Leo and the Fighter team was stunned to hear that the real Alice was rushed to a Boston hospital in potentially mortal heart trouble.

Weeks before the incident, Leo spoke to me about her real-life counterpart, passionately defending her against critics who charged that her screen depiction was a caricature, or one of a bunch of scary mamas in current movies (like Tangled). "There's no way in hell that when I played Alice Ward that I was playing a bad mother. Quite the opposite. And if her whole story doesn't get told, well, it's not her movie, for God's sake. If you wanna sit down with a week, I'll explain every heartbeat of how she does what she does and why she does it, and that she's not selfish and she's entirely sympathetic."

"And somebody should go thank her ass one of these days! Oh, I'm sorry. You see, I get so worked up about that issue. Isn't it delightful to spark such controversy? She was holding the family together and gettin' careers for both of those boys, thank you very much. Dicky [Ward's son played by Globe and Oscar shortlister Christian Bale], his fight with Sugar Ray never would've happened. She arranged it. She made careers for them both. It's this unsung heroic act women have been doing since the beginning of time. It's easy to paint her bad. I very much want her heart to be known to the world. I know Alice Ward to have a good heart. I don't think a person in that family escaped the dysfunction. Codependency is a two-way street, d'you know?"

"And that's the miracle of Alice, how she held them together through the dysfunction. She didn't throw Dicky into the gutter. She hasn''t lost Mickey [Mark Wahlberg's character, Dicky's boxer brother] either, they have a relationship, and all 7 of the girls. They remain a very close, tight-knit family with all kinds of stories and a whole lotta love."

Leo also defends them on caricature charges. "They are larger than life people. I met more than half the sisters -- they're characters, every one of them. Their brother has a world championship belt that their mammy helped him get. They've got a right to swagger in that piss-poor town. Any of these people who think they're caricatures can go spend a moment in Lowell. They made something of their lives." Leo shook her head. "Don't judge. Don't judge. Don't judge."

She's also down with the director's artistic license. "If David O. Russell uses them in his film for some comic effect to tell Mickey's story more poignantly, that's David O. Russell the filmmaker's business. It's his film."

Is Russell a fighter, as people say? "He's so changeable, like a changeling child, that to use one word to describe him would be ridiculous. David is a wood nymph. The dickens and the magic. As you see in his movie, How he can twist and turn and pull you and drag you and drive you through that movie is his own personality personified. Genuine filmmaker! He is what he makes. The thing he has the most of is heart."

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