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The Many Faces of Melissa Leo, the Most Versatile Actress on the Planet

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | January 31, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | January 31, 2011 |

Male character actors tends to get a lot of recognition, at least on a small scale. You know the names Peter Stormare, Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Dylan Baker, Zeljko Ivanek, David Morse, and William Sadler (to name a few, most of whom you’ll find in any Coen Brothers film), but female character actors are often little recognized or, worse, recognized as failed lead actresses. But Melissa Leo transcends gender — she’s not just the best female character actor around, she’s one of the best character actors, period. The woman blows me away.

Leo got her start back in the early 1980s on the soap opera “All My Children” (beating out Julia Roberts, I am to understand. And imagine if things were reversed, and how much better Leo would’ve been in the Erin Brockovich role). She went from there to a series called “The Young Riders” (along with Josh Brolin), but gained some actual name recognition in “Homicide: Life on the Streets” as Det. Sgt. Kay Howard. After “Homicide,” however, she floated around Hollywood mostly unnoticed until her Oscar nominated role a decade later in Frozen River. It was that role that put her back on the scene, and now she’s everywhere: Conviction, Red State, The Fighter (which earned her an Oscar nomination), Welcome to the Rileys, and David Simon’s “Treme,” in addition to seven more roles she already has lined up for the next year and a half.

Backlash, however, is unlikely because Leo seems to be so different from role to role, so much so that when you see her in a movie like The Fighter, you forget she was the same woman in Frozen River. If you see her at one of the many awards ceremonies she’s attended in recent years, you at first wonder who she is, since she’s almost unrecognizable in awards ceremony dresses.

It’s hard to mistake her, however, she’s she’s acting. She is so engrossing, so riveting on screen. In each of her roles, you can see her entire character’s life mapped out in the lines of her face. She often plays these beat down, put-upon characters, and in the way she plays them, you can feel the decades of fight that she’s suffered, and the determination and grit she unleashes to rise above the lowly station with which she’s been saddled. She’s outstanding, and I think that she elevates those around her — Hilary Swank in Conviction, Christian Bale in The Fighter , and everyone in Kevin Smith’s Red State.

If you don’t know her yet, get to know her, if you can recognize her from role to role. Here are the many faces of Melissa Leo.

Hard Living


Don’t Back Talk Your Mother











Melissa Leo (6).jpg



james gandolfini melissa leo welcome to the rileys.jpg



Aging Hippy






Maniacal Blood Lust


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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.