Summer after summer, Melissa Leo came to the Hamptons. She baked and sold bread. She put on puppet shows for her family and acted in backyard plays that she wrote on the spot. Now the East End's hometown girl is a surprise Academy Award nominee for best actress.
After years of appearing in lesser-known films and TV shows, Leo is up against some of the industry's marquee names: Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet and Anne Hathaway. She's being recognized for playing a single mother who gets involved in smuggling across the U.S.-Canada border in "Frozen River," which created buzz at film festivals but failed to attract crowds.
"After recovering from the shock that she actually got the nomination, I felt very, very gratified," said her father, Arnold, 73, who lives in a secluded cottage in Springs.
After working in book publishing, Arnold Leo left Manhattan for the Hamptons in the 1960s, when Melissa was a child. He became a fisherman and later the spokesman for the East Hampton Baymen's Association. Melissa and her brother moved with their mother to Vermont and spent summer vacations in the Hamptons.
Melissa Leo, 48, remembers her Hamptons summers as magical. Her father's little house, with its views of Accabonac Harbor, "is one of the most special places, very sacred and hallowed," she said by phone from Los Angeles. She recalled swimming in the Atlantic, selling homemade bread to the Amagansett Farmers Market and picking loose potatoes from fields after the harvest.
Leo still visits during the summer, though she speaks sadly about the building boom of recent years, which destroyed much of the South Fork's rural character. "I would not leave the house if I thought too much about that issue. Instead, I really choose to see what remains out there."
Against her father's wishes, Leo dropped out of SUNY Purchase with just a few credits to go before graduation. She became a star on the soap opera "All My Children" and was nominated for an Emmy after her first season. She left and successfully auditioned for "A Time of Destiny," a movie with William Hurt and Timothy Hutton. She took time to raise a son, Jack, now 21. In between, she appeared in "Patch," "Last Summer in the Hamptons," and TV shows such as "Homicide."
Of Leo's performance in "Frozen River," Time magazine raved, "it is screen acting of the highest order."
Of the five nominees for best actress, "Leo is probably the most bohemian, the least likely to live in a luxury hotel or employ a personal assistant or spend weeks worrying over her Oscar gown," the Los Angeles Times wrote.
Leo laughs about her sudden success. The night when Oscar nominees were announced "was perhaps the last night of the first part of my life," she said.
Tonight, her father will make dinner with a friend and watch the Oscars on his small television with his wood stove on. He's turned down invitations to go to Oscar-watching parties in the Hamptons. "Whether Melissa wins or loses, it's too emotional," he said.