Melissa McCarthy has always been a frustrating figure for me. She’s a brilliant comic actress and an insanely talented writer. When she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the hilarious Bridesmaids, I even briefly held out hope that the Academy might finally give comedy its due.
But unfortunately, ever since she made the jump to A-lister, the bulk of her work has been little more than her being a female version of Chris Farley: a genius mind reduced to a two-hour walking, talking fat joke. Just look at her résumé post-nomination. You have This is 40, Identity Thief, Hangover Part III, The Heat, Tammy, St. Vincent, Spy, The Boss, Central Intelligence, the Ghostbusters reboot, Life of the Party, and The Happytime Murders. On a few of those films, she served as co-writer and co-producer with her husband Ben Falcone (who has a small role here), so it appears that she’s at least in on that joke, but this is very much NOT a strong list. Really, only St. Vincent even hints at the level of dramatic talent and wit she truly has.
Thankfully, with the help of director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (Friends with Money) and Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), she finally gets a true chance to shine with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a crisp, witty drama about one of the more sordid affairs in modern literary history.
McCarthy stars as writer Lee Israel, a biographer who turned to forgery after her writing career petered out. She is joined by Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock, a drug dealer and gay tramp. Taking place in the early 1990s in New York, the two have an unbelievable chemistry together, each bringing out the best in the other over the course of the film.
Taking a look at the awards push, I think we can hone in on three categories where this film will get major consideration. I’ll say up front that I believe nominations are warranted in all three.
Best Actress: McCarthy embodies the role of real-life author Lee Israel about as perfectly as you can imagine. Like many writers, she is aloof, antisocial, and sometimes just downright unpleasant to be around. She’s also impulsively self-destructive, and not just in the stereotypical way of being an alcoholic (though signs point to that as well throughout the film). For example, she’s months behind on her rent, and she’s trying to get an exterminator called in to handle the flies buzzing around her apartment. In a truly gross reveal, we learn that the reason for the flies is basically her own doing, because she’s so apathetic that basic upkeep falls by the wayside.
Israel is presented early on as a sad sack down on her luck, with the literati looking down their collective noses at her as they embody every cliché of the so-called “cultural elite.” Booksellers mock her for being outdated. Even a veterinary nurse turns her sick cat away because she owes them money.
But again, a lot of this is brought upon herself due to her own character flaws, and McCarthy gets all of that across in a way that feels completely organic. For at least the entire first act, Lee Israel is very much not a likable character, but she is entirely relatable, and that’s 100% down to McCarthy’s performance. In doing some research for this review, I learned that originally Julianne Moore had signed on to play the part, but had to drop out, opening the door for McCarthy. I absolutely love Julianne Moore, but I can’t imagine how out of place she would have felt in a role like this. Happy accidents, folks!
Best Supporting Actor: My God Richard E. Grant is a delight in this film. Quite literally stumbling into a bar and announcing his presence to the world, Grant as Jack Hock carries not only the comedic load for most of the proceedings, but he instantly elevates any scene he’s in. A sassy, flighty queen with an eye for personalities and a thirst for status as much as random sex, we learn everything we need to know about him from his introductory scene, where he instantly recognizes Lee and forces his company upon her, only for Lee to struggle to remember him, and then finally get the epiphany that she saw him relieve himself in a coat closet at some hoity-toity party.
In just about any other setting, this would be cause for extreme awkwardness, but instead it’s the catalyst for an instant rapport between the two. Lee, who intentionally has no friends, other than a vaguely referenced ex-girlfriend who appears late in the film, is allowed to be herself around Jack, and because they’re both gay in the 90s (and a lot of the action takes place at Julius’, one of New York’s most famous gay bars), there’s still a palpable sense of isolation that comes along with their friendship. More importantly, it also means we don’t have to shoehorn in sexual tension between the two leads, saving that for separate side plots involving Dolly Wells (45 Years) and Christian Navarro (13 Reasons Why).
When Lee’s financial situation leads to her crimes of forgery, it’s Jack that eggs her on, even though he has absolutely no idea how it all works, finds literature and art boring, and is utterly incompetent when he’s brought in as an official accomplice. Jack is a hustler, but that hustle relies entirely on his charm, which oozes in every scene. But in this scheme, he has to have some knowledge of the writers and actors whose fake letters he’s selling, so he’s out of his depth (if he had it his way he’d just sneak into parties, snort coke, and sleep with the prettiest younger man he could) and forced to improvise, which serves his character, who at his core is a performer. Whatever it takes to get the attention on him, he’ll do it.
The meeting of actor and role also checks a few boxes that the Academy looks for in its nominees, so it’s very likely Grant could garner serious consideration. He’s older, a clear supporting role, gets lots of personality and laughs, plays someone with sexual diversity, and is struck with afflictions (in this case drug addictions and AIDS). He’s basically a joyful, comedic version of Jared Leto’s character in Dallas Buyer’s Club to an extent, and we all know how well that worked out for him.
Adapted Screenplay: The film is adapted from Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name. After her writing career flagged, she made ends meet by forging letters written by famous – and deceased – writers and actors, using her abilities as a biographer to speak in their voices, lending credibility to the content. The title itself comes from a joke she wrote in a letter pretending to be Dorothy Parker, giving a half-hearted apology after going overboard at some Hollywood shindig. After a little more than a year, she was caught by the FBI, and she pleaded guilty to felony counts, resulting in house arrest and probation.
The reason the script is so good is because it takes what is essentially a very procedural story and adds so much heft to the characters. Holofcener and Whitty give their leads so much good dialogue that every scene without a witty retort or pithy observation almost seems empty, except for the fact that those scenes are used to properly develop the characters.
The other major point in the script’s favor is that it takes a very logical approach to the lives of the characters. The best example of this is in the form of Marjorie, Lee’s agent, played by Jane Curtin. Lee shows up at a party that Marjorie invited her to as a courtesy because she’s a client, but Marjorie dismisses her as soon as she arrives, choosing instead to mingle and fawn over Tom Clancy. When Lee calls the agency, she’s told that Marjorie’s unavailable. When she does it again, pretending to be Nora Ephron, Marjorie immediately takes the call. When Lee barges into her office, begging her for work or at least an advance on her next biography (of Fanny Brice, which leads to the discovery of the first letter and the eventual forgeries), Marjorie all but drops her as a client, suggesting she look for another way to make a living, because no one will pay for Lee’s writing.
It’s not because Lee’s a bad writer, but because she wouldn’t “play the game.” She wouldn’t do book tours, or sign autographs, or give interviews. She simply wrote the books and expected them to sell on word of mouth or content alone, and that’s just not how anything works. She got one best-seller then faded into obscurity because she wouldn’t do the work to keep herself relevant. Her antisocial personality notwithstanding, a lot of her situation is her own fault. It’s the same thing with her living situation and the flies. She’s not exactly lazy, it’s just that she’s so singularly focused on her writing (it doesn’t help that she’s got writer’s block as the film begins) that she can’t see the basic steps she needs to take to be successful at her job. Her entire life is an example of the “forest for the trees” analogy.
It’s that brutal degree of logical honesty that makes the script pop as well as it does. If it’s just assholes dumping on her, then it just becomes trite, and the story loses whatever might have made it compelling. But because the writers took the time to show that Lee is just as big of an asshole, and has a lot of professional and personality problems that affect her as well as the upturned noses of the elite, that allows us to connect with the character, even though she’s very much not worth rooting for in the early going.
I definitely recommend seeing this if you can. I get the feeling it will get some significant buzz as the year winds down (especially since indie theatres were showing trailers since March), and it could very easily get some attention from the Academy. But again, I’d say see this film just for the novelty of Melissa McCarthy doing something that isn’t fat slapstick. The fact that this is the best performance of her career is just a really awesome bonus.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you go to bookshops? Am I anywhere close to “playing the game” properly with this blog? Let me know!