Getting real

Ditch­ing com­edy for a hard-hit­ting role, all eyes are on Melissa McCarthy, writes Bryan Alexan­der.

Sunday Star-Times - - Escape Check In -

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 Dead­ 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’’.

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