Awards Season: When Good Actors Go Bad

The Golden Globes and SAG Awards have been given out and the Oscar nominations have been announced, so we are reaching the denouement of the 2011 Awards Season Thrill-Parade. And, unfortunately, one of the saddest narratives of the season is playing out with one of our favorite actresses, Melissa Leo. She's gotten way too into the whole hoopla.

Leo is typically described as a workhorse actress, a quiet powerhouse, an indie girl, an actor's actor. And she is. Her mainstream success is only a few years old, brought about by a powerful and Oscar-nominated turn in the tiny indie Frozen River, but she's been around for ages, turning in wonderful if unheralded performances on screens both big (21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) and small (Homicide: Life on the Street). Her looks are unassuming and she often appears refreshingly her-own-age in movies — her face's lines and wrinkles were spoken of like fine art in reviews of Frozen River. (And they are!) She seemed to be the kind of unshowy actress who would surely be tickled by awards recognition and be grateful for the steady work that comes in its wake, but would never buy into the whole silly machine the way some more commercial actresses — the sobbing Gwyneths and Halles, the woo-hoo'ing "I love it up here!!" Julias — tend to do when blessed with golden statuary. I certainly don't know the woman, but this, judging from the roles she's played and her general under-the-radarness, is what I assumed of her. Unfairly, perhaps. Wrongly, it seems.

It's just that she's been so gushy and preening this awards season, as she racks up trophy after trophy for her marvelous work in The Fighter. She's given obnoxious interviews in which she seems like a secretly vain person who now finally has a reason to go public with it. (Sure, it's no breaking news that performers tend to be somewhat self-involved, but until this latest awards blitzkrieg, I had been blessedly ignorant that this quality existed in Leo.) She's given excited acceptance speeches that, while I understand why she's excited about getting recognized after years of hard work, have been just a bit too much, there's a certain something about them that seems more satisfied than grateful. And now, worst of all by far, Leo has gone and taken out strange and embarrassing For Your Consideration ads in print trades and online, done on her own steam, without backing from The Fighter's PR team, which is of course doing its own campaigning. This? From Melissa Leo?? It's truly disappointing.

One is reminded of Kate Winslet, the youthfully august actress who seemed so poised and modest in interviews, and so smart and daring in her performances, but who did a lot to ruin all that with her squealing, sobbing, breathless acceptance speeches during the run-up to her 2009 Oscar win for Best Actress. The final ugly cherry on her winning season sundae came during her Oscar speech, in which she gave us a ham-handed story about practicing awards speeches as a little girl in front of the mirror with a shampoo bottle and a "Well it isn't a shampoo bottle now!!" yell of ugh-inducing strained triumph. Where was the too-cool (but in a kind, fun way) chick we'd fallen in love with in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or the headstrong but graceful Marianne from Sense & Sensibility? All that remained was a millionaire in an expensive dress, carrying on about how great it was to be her. It was a stark reminder of how self-congratulatory and ridiculously indulgent these awards ceremonies really are. That I felt that revulsion was not surprising, I feel some degree of that same emotion every awards season. But that I was given that feeling by Kate Winslet of all people was indeed a dismaying surprise.

Obviously I buy into the whole awards bullshit as much as Melissa Leo or Kate Winslet or any other actor who giddily ascends the stage and has a freak-out moment, but I'm always disappointed when a beloved actor seems unable, even in the heightened moment, to put it all in perspective and calm the heck down. When Winslet went nuts over her first win of the 2009 season, that I could live with. But by the time the Oscars rolled around she'd already been on many similar stages, so her shock and emotion all seemed so performative, so, again, indulgent. Honestly, the whole ordeal made me less of a fan. Silly, I know, but what can you do? Same goes, perhaps double, unfortunately, for Ms. Leo. I mean, at least Winslet didn't personally take out weird ads of herself in various gowns and frothy poses.

That's just tacky.