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Melissa Leo Remembers Her Greatest Fashion Hits on the Red Carpet

Two-time Oscar nominee and supporting actress winner Melissa Leo is still getting used to the limelight. “It’s a struggle that I frankly have had, of not having grown up as an actress walking red carpets and being seen in places, except my work,” she says. “And now, at fiftysomething years old, this old actor finds she’s got to find a graceful way to walk in that world.” She credits costume designer greats including Ann Roth and Marlene Stewart for teaching her how to dress for her body. She often considers her character in her fashion choices. “I don’t think, should I get invited to wonderful places this year with ‘Novitiate,’ that I will show up in a habit,” jokes Leo, who’d always longed to play a nun. “But I think a ladylike gracefulness would go along with the Reverend Mother; dark colors would suit her. It’s a respect that I pay to the character.”

The year she scored an actress Oscar nom for “Frozen River,” Leo donned a copper dress by Badgley Mischka. “I had such a lovely time at their studio, but I was new to this,” says Leo, who fell in love with a frock from their line — and requested some changes. “I asked them to do this, and maybe that … and I was very happy wearing it, but I do realize, learning more about it as I go, you don’t go tell Badgley and Mischka how to design their dress!” Her experience in the “elegant” ensemble proved magical: “‘Frozen River’ was a tiny little film — one never could have expected myself and the screenplay to make it all the way to the Academy Awards. The whole year was very dreamlike for this actor who had been working for some time before I had any experience like that.”

Leo met designer Marc Bouwer through actress Sally Kirkland. “I literally just spoke to him myself on the telephone, and by the time we were in the thick of it with ‘The Fighter,’ there were so many things to go to,” she recalls. She’d been visiting Bouwer’s studio getting outfits for other events, when he unveiled a surprise. “By now Marc knew my body very well, and he built that dress for me to wear to the Oscars before he even knew I was nominated,” she says. “It’s white like a wedding dress, and believe me, that night will be the wedding of this girl’s life!” Leo went on to receive the supporting actress Oscar from Kirk Douglas while wearing the lace design with gold sequin underlay. “For me, this is the dress of my lifetime.”

“I was there as a presenter, invited back to give the award to the supporting actor winner that year, Christopher Plummer, and so I decided that this night was not about me,” says Leo. “I spent some very pleasant time in New York with Reem Acra, and as soon as I put this on, it had the elegance I was looking for — the simplicity to go graciously and present the lucky winner with their award.”

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