Following several films, Leo received critical acclaim and national attention in the 2009 film, Frozen River earning several nominations and awards, including an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. In 2011, Leo earned several awards for her role as Alice Ward in the critically acclaimed film, The Fighter. For this role Leo won the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Leo currently appears on the television series Treme.
Personal lifeLeo was born September 14, 1960 in Manhattan, New York City, New York, the daughter of Peggy (née Chessington), a California-born teacher, and Arnold Leo, an editor at Grove Press, fisherman, and spokesman for the East Hampton Baymen's Association. Leo was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and spent summers at her father's house in Springs, a section of East Hampton, N.Y. She is a former resident of Putney, Vermont and now lives in Stone Ridge, New York. She has a son with actor and former boyfriend John Heard named John Matthew Heard (born 1987) and years later adopted Adam (born 1984).
CareerLeo's acting debut came in 1985, for which she was nominated for a Daytime Emmy at the Daytime Emmy Awards/12th Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Ingenue/Woman in a Drama Series for All My Children. Following this, Leo appeared in several films including A Time of Destiny, Last Summer in the Hamptons, Venice/Venice and her appearences on television, most notably her role as Det. Sgt. Kay Howard on Homicide: Life on the Street until 1997. Three years later she reprised her role in the television movie, Homicide: The Movie. After a brief hiatus in film, Leo's breakthrough came three years later in the Alejandro González Iñárritu film, 21 Grams released to critical acclaim. Leo appeared in a supporting role alongside Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio del Toro and Clea DuVall. Leo shared a "Best Ensemble Acting" award from the Phoenix Film Critics Society in 2003 and the runner-up for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for Best Supporting Actress.
Leo appeared in supporting roles throughout the 2000's including the suspense film Hide and Seek opposite Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning, Famke Janssen, the independent film American Gun both in 2005, and had a minor role in the comedy Mr. Woodcock. In 2006, she won the Bronze Wrangler at the Western Heritage Awards for Outstanding Theatrical Motion Picture for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada shared with Tommy Lee Jones who also produced the film. In 2008, she won the Maverick Actor Award and also the Best Actress award at the Method Fest for Lullaby (2008). That same year Leo earned critical praise for her performance in the film Frozen River winning several including the Best Actress award from the Independent Spirit Awards, the Spotlight award from the National Board of Review and Best Actress nominations from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Broadcast Film Critics Association, Academy Awards. Critic Roger Ebert backed her for a win stating, "Best Actress: Melissa Leo. What a complete performance, evoking a woman's life in a time of economic hardship. The most timely of films, but that isn't reason enough. I was struck by how intensely determined she was to make the payments, support her two children, carry on after her abandonment by a gambling husband, and still maintain rules and goals around the house. This was a heroic woman." Following Frozen River Leo continued to appear in several independent films and had a minor role in the 2008 film, Righteous Kill with Al Pacino and her Hide and Seek co-star, Robert De Niro. Leo appeared in a series of films throughout 2009, including, According to Greta, the title character in Stephanie's Image, True Adolescents and Veronika Decides to Die.
In 2010, Leo received praise for her role in David O. Russell's, The Fighter released to critical acclaim. Rick Bentley of The Charlotte Observer said "Both actors (Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale) are very good, but they get blown off the screen by Melissa Leo, who plays their mother, Alice Ward. She's a passive-aggressive minion of hell who makes every past bad film mom look like June Cleaver. Leo's Oscar-worthy portrayal of Alice as a master manipulator goes beyond acting to a total transformation." Leo and several of the film's actors including her co-star Amy Adams and Bale were nominated. For her performance Leo won received several awards including the Golden Globe, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle, Screen Actors Guild and culminating in her winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. While accepting her Oscar, Leo, appearing overwhelmed with excitement, spontaneously said, "When I watched Kate (Winslet) two years ago, it looked so fucking easy!" She apologized afterwards admitting that the epithet was "a very inappropriate place to use that particular word...those words, I apologize to anyone that they offend." 
Following her Oscar win, Leo appeared in the HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce alongside Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pearce. Her next projects include Red State, the independent comedy Predisposed with Jesse Eisenberg currently in pre-production and the crime thriller The Dead Circus based on the novel by John Kaye with Michael C. Hall and James Marsden currently in development
Television mini-series and guest appearances
- The Equalizer (1 episode, "The Defector", 1985) .... Irina Dzershinsky
- Spenser: For Hire (1 episode, "Mary Hamilton", 1987) .... Mary Hamilton
- Miami Vice (1 episode, "Bad Timing", 1988) .... Kathleen Gilfords
- Gideon Oliver (1 episode, "Kennonite", 1989) .... Rebecca Hecht
- Law & Order (3 episodes, "Sweeps", "Who Let the Dogs Out?", and "Personae Non Grata", 1993–2008) .... Alice Sutton / Sherri Quinn / Donna Cheponis
- Scarlett (1994) TV mini-series .... Suellen O'Hara Benteen
- Legacy (2 episodes, "Emma" and "The Search Party", 1998) .... Emma Bradford
- Veronica Mars (1 episode, "Meet John Smith", 2004) .... Julia Smith
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (1 episode, "Harvest", 2004) .... Sybil Perez
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent (1 episode, "The Good Child", 2005) .... Maureen Curtis
- The L Word (3 episodes, "Luminous", "Loyal", and "Lacuna", 2005) .... Winnie Mann
- Shark (1 episode, "Pilot", 2006) .... Elizabeth Rourke
- Criminal Minds (1 episode, "No Way Out", 2007) .... Georgia Davis
- Cold Case (1 episode, "Thrill Kill", 2007) .... Tayna Raymes '94–'07
- Mildred Pierce (2011) .... Lucy Gessler