Ditching comedy for a hard-hitting role, all eyes are on Melissa McCarthy, writes Bryan Alexander.
Melissa McCarthy is seriously good
Hidden behind a severe expression and a drab hairstyle with faux grey roots, an almost unrecognisable Melissa McCarthy was ready to shoot a scene for the drama Can You Ever Forgive Me? when she noticed something was off.
Her nail polish.
Though McCarthy’s hands weren’t going to be visible in the scene, the small bit of real-life adornment was throwing off her portrayal of the decidedly unglamorous and down-on-her-luck celebrity biographer Lee Israel.
‘‘It was like, ‘I have to take this off.’ It was just distracting,’’ the actress says, recalling her nail polish moment.
‘‘It’s funny how one little thing can be so loud.’’ But it’s the Ghostbusters star’s performance that’s really making noise, as McCarthy, 48, plays against her comedic persona in the true story set in the struggling underside of the 1990s New York literary scene.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? follows the oncesuccessful, talented author Israel as she starts selling brilliant forgeries of literary figures she admires – Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and Noel Coward.
The hard-drinking, anti-social Israel (who died in 2014 at 75) fooled experts with her meticulously crafted letters until she was busted by the FBI and sentenced to six months house arrest and five years’ probation. In her 2008 memoir, Israel wrote, ‘‘I still consider the letters to be my best work.’’
Critics are saying that McCarthy, who received her first Oscar nomination for 2011’s Bridesmaids, has done her best work, losing herself in the drama. USA Today’s Brian Truitt calls it the ‘‘Oscar-ready role of a lifetime,’’ while Deadline.com columnist Pete Hammond says she’s a strong contender in a tight best actress race.
McCarthy is known for broad comedies, so ‘‘to see her make this kind of switch is catnip for Oscar voters, who love to see that kind of range,’’ says Hammond. ‘‘And the reviews have been rapturous.’’
Forgive Me? is McCarthy’s third film of 2018, and it’s been just two months since she appeared as a police detective alongside a puppet in the R-rated comedy, The Happytime Murders.
‘‘It’s always like I’m going to slow down a little. But then something comes up that seems too good not to do,’’ she says. ‘‘That’s a good problem to have. I don’t mind being busy. And it’s fun to branch out and do what people don’t expect.’’
McCarthy was blown away by Nicole Holofcener’s screenplay when her husband, Ben Falcone, was set to act in an early version of the movie.
When that project fell through, McCarthy couldn’t let Israel’s story die.
‘‘Lee is so fascinating, I was passionate. Someone has to tell this,’’ says McCarthy. ‘‘I couldn’t let it go.’’
She teamed up with director Marielle Heller to anchor a new cast that includes Richard E Grant as Israel’s co-conspirator Jack Hock.
Although McCarthy has played dramatic roles before, such as her supporting role as a divorced single mother opposite Bill Murray in 2014’s St Vincent ,in Forgive Me? she’s the movie’s lead.
‘‘It is a different style of storytelling, for sure,’’ McCarthy says. ‘‘But, for me, it’s like, ‘God, when do you get the chance to play a character that absolutely truly fascinates you?’ ’’
She was involved in every aspect of creating the caustic soul she would come to love – from her hair to once-elegant clothes and even an old-school digital watch.
‘‘It was so much fun building her,’’ says McCarthy. ‘‘We’re not intentionally trying to treat her harshly. To me, Lee is great, I’m fiercely protective of her. She had a specific style and she stuck to it.’’
Grant wasn’t surprised to see his screen partner-in-crime disappear in the character.
‘‘Melissa has shown her willingness to do the most extreme physical things in every part she’s played,’’ he says. ‘‘She left her vanity at the door.’’
‘‘Even now when I watch it, I find myself rooting for these people,’’ McCarthy says. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (M) is in cinemas now
The reviews of Melissa McCarthy’s performance as Lee Israel – opposite Richard E Grant as her co-conspirator Jack Hock – have been ‘‘rapturous’’.