From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Eager for a break from the glitz of awards season, Melissa Leo strolls onto the rooftop of her L.A. hotel on a recent Saturday morning, wearing an oversize hoodie and no makeup. It's quite a contrast from the night before, when the Oscar-nominated actress hit a glam party with John Travolta and Barbra Streisand, an old pal. "We had a lovely little chat," she says with a smile."That inner circle, that's more delicious than you can imagine. Getting there-now that's the thing."

After nearly 30 years of quietly earning respect in Hollywood, Leo, 50, has finally arrived. Having clocked two decades on television-first on the ABC soap All My Children and then as a cop on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street-Leo scored her first Oscar nod in '09 for the indie drama Frozen River. But it's her fierce portrayal of real-life boxing matriarch Alice Ward in The Fighter that has really changed things. "I can't believe I backed away from the opportunity to begin with," she says of her initial hesitation in taking the part. "Mark [Wahlberg] is 10 years younger than me, and I thought it was an odd pairing for me to play his mother." After several meetings with Alice herself, now 79, Leo felt an instant connection. "It was mystical meeting Alice," she says. "My grandmother had passed just a couple years before, and there were echoes of her in the room suddenly." Her immersion in the role-from a spot-on Lowell, Mass., accent to an unflattering wardrobe-earned Leo Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, making her an Oscar front-runner. "Nervous, anxious? No," she says calmly. "I let go of expectations."

It's been a life unexpected for Leo, a Manhattan native and self-proclaimed "hippie chick" who was toiling as a waitress in her 20s when a chance encounter with actor Bill Murray inspired her to chase her acting dream. "I was at an audition, and he said, 'If you want to do it, do it,' " she recalls. "I did."

As her career gained speed, she also became a mom: Jack, her son with Home Alone actor John Heard, 65, is now a 23-year-old artist. "Jack used to come to auditions with me as a 4-year-old boy and sit quietly in the waiting room," Leo says, tearing up. "I'm so grateful he put up with it."

Her darkest time came when she and Heard, who separated when Jack was a toddler, entered into a bitter custody battle over their son. In 1996 Leo accused Heard of assaulting her and stalking her and her son; he was convicted only of trespassing. Remarkably, in recent years Leo and Heard have made peace. "He's come to the house for Christmas, and my son likes that," says the actress, who lives in New York's Hudson River Valley. "It's not the easiest thing for me, but it's become actually kind of pleasant. It's family." And that family means Leo has much to celebrate on Oscar night, win or not. "As a little girl blowing out a birthday candle, I wished for two things: I wanted to be an actor, and I wanted to have a child," she says. "Long ago all my dreams came true. The rest, it's all just icing."