Apparently she wasn’t content to let the Paramount and Relativity marketing machine do all the campaign work. So Best Supporting Actress frontrunner Melissa Leo personally paid for Hollywood trade ads (including on Deadline.com) Thursday showing her super glammed-up wearing “Faux (not real) Fur” and a glittery evening gown. The text simply said “Consider” and then below that, “Melissa Leo”, and in very tiny fine print off to the side the web address www.melissaleo.com, a photo credit, and a faux fur credit. There is no reference to her movie, The Fighter, or her critically acclaimed and gritty real-life character, Alice Ward. Perhaps the point was to show a completely different side of the actress from the blue collar mother and fight manager she portrays in the film, a Supporting Actress role that has already won her the Critics Choice award, a Golden Globe, and a SAG award. It’s a trophy haul that has put her in lead position to take the Oscar.
So why go rogue now? I spoke to Leo today moments after she arrived in New Orleans to resume her role in HBO’s Treme. She explained the ads followed months of her frustration at not being able to land magazine covers, even with all the awards and attention for The Fighter. Leo is 50 years old and she attributes the media’s lack of interest to ageism and because of that and other factors she’s not considered “box office”. “I took matters into my own hands. I knew what I was doing and told my representation how earnest I was about this idea. I had never heard of any actor taking out an ad as themselves and I wanted to give it a shot,” Melissa told me. So she and three friends arranged a special “fun” photo shoot instead of using the usual studio-prepared photo from the film for “For Your Consideration” ads.
“I am quite certain I have not overstepped any boundaries of the Academy,” Leo told me. “I did hear a lot of very positive comments, particularly from women of a certain age who happen to act for a living and happen to understand full well the great dilemma and mystery of getting a cover of a magazine. I also heard there were negative comments, but no one said them to my face, sadly. I like to hear what people think. I could explain myself.” She noted that the night before she had been guest of honor at a party celebrating her nomination and thrown by Robert Duvall, James Brolin, James Gandofini, and Demi Moore. “All I ask of Hollywood is they consider Melissa Leo. If you want to hire me, give me a shout,’ Leo added.
Leo’s ads were limited to this week as ballots went out and “are now Kleenex” as she says. It will be interesting to see if they have made any impact at all on a race that, at this point, appears to be hers to lose. A studio source tells me Paramount and Relativity were completely unaware of the ad until seeing it print themselves. Paramount plans no individual ads for any of their Supporting Actress nominees, a list that also includes Leo’s co-star Amy Adams and True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld. But there are two new 30-second TV spots highlighting Melissa Leo and Christian Bale because both have swept early precursor awards. How Leo’s personal ad will play is a bigger question as it’s rare to see actors these days, particularly frontrunners, go this route.
Oscar consultants have long thought that personal campaigns can send the wrong message or come off as overkill. Some frontrunners have proven you don’t even have to campaign at all to win. Last year Mo’Nique was criticized by some bloggers for staying in Atlanta and doing her new talk show and refusing to “play the Oscar game”. Yet she won handily that year just by letting her performance speak for itself.
On the other hand, Candy Clark paid for a steady series of quarter page ads for her role in 1973’s American Graffiti. As the only cast member to launch a campaign, it paid off with a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the then-little known actress. Similarly, in 1987 Sally Kirkland paid for a series of ads cramming critics quotes into an Oscar ad campaign for her small indie, Anna — and that resulted in a Golden Globe win and an Academy Award nomination for her for Best Actress, a real feat considering the low profile of the film and no budget to campaign it.
Throughout Oscar history, though, there have been some prime and in some cases notorious personal ad campaigns which have backfired after being launched by Oscar-hungry nominees or the reps behind them. The most infamous was the tasteless Supporting Actor campaign which Chill Wills ran for his role in The Alamo (1960). His ad featured a photo of the entire Alamo cast and read: “We of the Alamo cast are praying harder – than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo – for Chill Wills to win the Oscar as the Best Supporting Actor – Cousin Chill’s acting was great”. It was signed “Your Alamo Cousins”. It caused star/director John Wayne to publicly take out his own ad renouncing Wills, saying in part, “I refrain from using stronger language because I am sure his intentions were not as bad as his taste”. Groucho Marx also took out a small ad that said he was happy to be “Chill Wills’ Cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo”. Wills later blamed his publicist. He lost to Peter Ustinov in Spartacus.
And many think Diana Ross could have won the Best Actress Oscar in 1972 for Lady Sings The Blues were it not for the daily barrage of big gaudy ads paid for by producer and mentor Berry Gordy. They were generally seen as way too much and in-your-face. She lost to Liza Minnelli for Cabaret.
In 1985, The Color Purple Supporting Actress Margaret Avery ran an ad that read: “Dear God, My name is Margaret Avery. I knows dat I been blessed by Alice Walker, Steven Spielberg, and Quincy Jones who gave me the part of ‘Shug’ Avery in The Color Purple. Now I is up for one of the nominations fo’ Best Supporting Actress alongst with some fine, talented ladies that I is proud to be in the company of. Well God, I guess the time has come fo’the Academy voters to decide whether I is one of the Best Supporting Actresses this year or not! Either way, Thank You, Lord for the opportunity. – Your little daughter, Margaret Avery.” Avery was roundly criticized for the ad which was written in a dialect not even used by character in the film. She lost to Anjelica Huston for Prizzi’s Honor.