Lowell, Massachusetts, with its ethnic enclaves and brick mills, is the perfect breeding ground for the great American story. Jack Kerouac, the French-Canadian author of the iconic novel of the 1950's On the Road, famously came from there. And so did Dickie Ekland, an Irish fighter who knocked out Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, or so his legend goes. In The Fighter, David O. Russell's riveting new movie, we learn that Eklund -- played by the handsome Christian Bale turned gaunt, his cheeks hollowed out, his teeth bad -- was a crack head. Thinking a film within the film documents his comeback in the ring, Eklund has a rude awakening. That film is a cautionary tale about drug abuse, and the larger narrative of The Fighter, becomes an epic of the resilience of family, of redemption, complete with a platinum dyed Greek chorus of sisters, and the rise of Dickie's younger brother, boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). Their mother Alice doubles as manager: for Melissa Leo in a teased blond beehive rumored to be her very own, this may be her Oscar winning role.
At a luncheon at The Four Seasons this week, Melissa Leo showed me how the layers of her red hair are growing out, with some ends looking dipped in platinum. An actor who inhabits the soul of her characters, Leo, perhaps most memorable as a tough mother in Frozen River, said she used to dance on stilts, a skill captured by Henry Jaglom in his movie Love, Always. Actors Sylvia Miles, Tina Louise, and Bob Dishy lauded her performance and that of Mark Wahlberg who grew up in Dorchester, Boston, not far from Lowell, and remembers Micky Ward. Insisting on performing his own fights, Wahlberg said the part was difficult because he had to keep training to be in shape for the movie's on again off schedule. Director David O. Russell who made the quirky I (Heart) Huckabees shot the film with many close-ups to keep the intimacy, and retain the small town feel of Lowell. With his signature hat and cigar Bert Sugar, boxing historian, and Lou di Bella, a boxing promoter sat at a nearby table as Russell, Leo, and Wahlberg greeted guests. Was it my imagination, or could I see the contours of Wahlberg's biceps against the fabric of his suit?
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