A sensitive, appealing lead and second lead of the late 1930s, Leeds acted a few bit parts in films before being discovered by Howard Hawks, who cast her prominently in his and William Wyler's vivid "Come and Get It" (1936). By far her finest and best remembered film and performance, though, came with Gregory La Cava's marvelous seriocomic study of female friendship, "Stage Door" (1937). As part of a brilliant ensemble led by Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn, and featuring Adolphe Menjou, Lucille Ball and Eve Arden, Leeds was cast as Kaye, a gifted but unemployed and increasingly desperate actress who ultimately kills herself after losing a coveted part in a play. Theoretically, it was a very difficult role, potentially prone to unenlightened bathos, but, aided by delicate scripting and direction, Leeds gave a tremendously moving and entirely valid performance, for which she won an Oscar nomination.
Leeds' fortunes seemed set, but her subsequent films were mostly unworthy of her. One exception was the lumpy but fairly decent "Letter of Introduction" (1938), which at least was a showcase vehicle, cashing in on her earlier success by casting her as another struggling actress. "The Goldwyn Follies" (1938), though, was a dreadful patchwork musical, with only a few specialty numbers worthy of note. Other, better films used her only as requisite romantic interest: production values dominated "Swanee River"; action scenes highlighted "The Real Glory"; and Jascha Heifetz's violin playing was the focus of "They Shall Have Music" (all 1939). With her sweet, wholesomely unglamorous style and wistful, wide-eyed expression, Leeds always performed creditably, but her career was stalling. The point, however, soon become moot--Leeds retired abruptly after marrying millionaire sportsman Robert S. Howard, and later bred race horses, leaving behind only traces of what might have been.