Oscars: Melissa Leo

What a mother. Hell-to-pay-if-you-cross-her fierce and with more fire in her belly than either of her sons, or certainly that is the way actress Melissa Leo brought Alice Ward to life in David O. Russell's gritty "The Fighter."

Though the fighter in the title is technically a reference to boxer "Irish" Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, Leo's chain-smoking brassy blond comes at you fists flailing. While she navigates the hard knocks reality of managing the career of her undercard son, she keeps the rest of her progeny on a short leash including seven ready-to-rumble daughters and the much-favored oldest — Micky's crack-addicted, half-brother-trainer Dicky, which made a winner out of Christian Bale too.

But then Leo has always done her best work portraying women handed the kind of raw deals that destroy, if not for a steely core. It was there in the cold pragmatism of her struggling, illegal immigrant-smuggling single mother in 2008's "Frozen River." It earned the veteran actress her first Oscar nomination.

Though Leo has come to define a working-class ethos, with Alice both a culmination and a breakthrough, the actress also finds the soft underbelly of her character — a mother in charge, but not always in control. That duality was perhaps never more poignantly revealed than when in a rage, Alice marches over to the crack house where Dicky is crashing. Not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle in her outfit, as she spits out her disappointment like nails, the fluffy bedroom slippers on her feet the only clue something's off.

All that toughness went soft as Leo held onto her Oscar. It was a reminder to all the long-suffering character actors out there that it sometimes takes a great fire burning a long time to forge something lasting.


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