Oscar Watch: Melissa Leo

In Frozen River, Melissa Leo’s face is as broken and desperate as her bleak surroundings –the frigid confines of upstate New York. The actress, widely respected in indie circles, is the lone unknown in a category of A-List celebrities up for Best Actress. With such competitors as the favored Kate Winslet, acting’s goddess, Meryl Streep, box office princess, Anne Hathaway, and paparazzi favorite Angelina Jolie, Leo is the odd one out.

But not for long. Her performance for the extremely low budget flick, won raves in some of the biggest publications of the country, including USA Today and Entertainment Weekly. It’s easy to see why. As Ray, she’s hardened by her tough life, and she plays down-and-out with such ease, it’s hard to imagine Leo in more glamorous roles. Her body language is so totally altered to express defeat, that you feel the character’s struggle completely. The total inhabitation of an impoverished life is shown in tiny details–she asks a gas station attendant to fill up exactly $2 dollars in the tanks–and then her face shows a sliver of delight when she find just $5.

When she finds out a Native American woman has stolen her husband’s car, she demands that the woman–who has by now locked herself in her trailer home– turn over the keys. When the question is met with silence, Leo draws a gun and blithely shoots the trailer. She gets the keys.