The entertainment press loves to fawn over a comedy star taking on a dramatic role. Maybe it’s because we love a good narrative: They can make us laugh, and cry! Maybe it’s because it’s exciting to see a performer of any kind doing anything unexpected. And maybe—and perhaps mostly—it is because of a dated tendency to dismiss the acting talent required of comedy stars, the insinuation being that it is not until they turn in an out-and-out dramatic performance that they reveal themselves to be real actors.
Melissa McCarthy is Hollywood’s best comedic actress. But the qualification isn’t necessary. She’s one of the industry’s best actresses, period.
Her bravura performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, in which she plays celebrity biographer-turned-forger Lee Israel, will likely coronate her in that regard. But the praise is overdue. The films might have been loud, bright comedies—Bridesmaids, Spy, The Heat—or sometimes not even that good—The Boss—but for years now McCarthy has proven time and again that she is not just a gifted comedienne, but a spectacular actress. Can You Ever Forgive Me? underlines just that.
The film, which was co-written by Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), is based on Israel’s own memoir recalling the events that led her, a biographer who writes on a typewriter, to plead guilty in federal court in 1993.
The year prior, Israel found herself in a panic. Her career writing biographies of the likes of Tallullah Bankhead and Estée Lauder had stalled. Bad reviews, writer’s block, alcoholism, and errant grouchiness had left her alone, broke, and scrambling. She sells off a prized letter written by Katherine Hepburn for cash, and stumbles into a new use for her talents. Redirecting her research skills and her gifts as a writer, she begins forging letters in the style of dead celebrities, meticulously recreating their tone and quirks, and selling them to autograph dealers.
Over 400 letters later, she was caught, but Israel remained unapologetic. She was proud of those letters. Even lead FBI investigator, Carl Burell, admitted “she was brilliant” when he was interviewed after Israel’s death in 2015.
Though Lee is cantankerous to a fault—the first scene of Can You Ever Forgive Me? shows her swilling whiskey at 3:30 a.m. at a depressing desk job, mouthing off, and getting fired—the character makes for a much quieter turn from McCarthy than we’re used to. The actress has always been able to showcase the relatable humanity inside larger-than-life characters, a mega-talent considering how huge some of those characters have been. But the dignity she taps into when it comes to Lee is a new kind of revelation. It’s no small feat that this is the greatest takeaway in a movie that tells a story this inherently wild.
Lee is a person who wants validation, at a place in her life where she can actually identify and vocalize that. She’s resentful that she hasn’t gotten it. What she has to deal with, though, is a world that still doesn’t care. “You can be an asshole when you’re famous, but right now you can’t be such a bitch, Lee,” her book agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), tells her.
Her publisher won’t give her an advance for a biography on Fanny Brice, leaving her broke. She steals toilet paper from a book party. She can’t get her sick cat treated because she owes a balance at the vet and only has $14 of the $82 needed. So she sells her old books for money, but the bookstore doesn’t even want them. Her apartment is a noxious sty, but she doesn’t even notice until an exterminator refuses to treat its fly infestation because of the stench.
Lee is a woman weathering a series of indignities, but she is also a woman we’re not used to noticing or caring about because of how she looks, or because of the energy she sends into the world. She doesn’t invite compassion, but does that mean she doesn’t deserve it? It’s sadly almost provocative to put the story of a person like that on the big screen. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an exquisitely drawn character study, and one of those wonderful, wild, “I can’t believe this really happened” biopics. But more than that, it is a movie about loneliness.
The pathos McCarthy wrings from that loneliness grounds the film when Lee’s machinations escalate. She begins to conflate the wit of the celebrities she’s channeling with her own. “I’ll have you know I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!” she says at one point. But what could read as delusion is rationalized through McCarthy’s performance. She lets Lee’s desperation to be good at something, and her joy in being this good, crack through her tough exterior, to the extent that you empathize with her crimes.
The inherent danger of Lee’s forging is always present, but the shift from the thrill of the execution to when she’s found out happens so quickly you start to get short of breath, too. And McCarthy does something remarkable here. By all reason, an audience should pity Lee. But McCarthy lights up the small flicker of empowerment Lee feels when she starts her ruse, transforming that instinct to pity her into admiration.
Lee’s personality, revealed when she became a notorious public figure because of her forgery, is larger than life, but what’s special about what McCarthy captures is the ordinariness at the root of it. An isolated existence is so common: the people you never glance up to notice when you pass them in the street. Lee was one of those people, until suddenly she wasn’t.
But not everyone orchestrates a get-rich-quick scheme in which they channel the spirits of dead literary icons and catch the FBI’s attention because of the forged letters they write in those voices. What about the ones who don’t? McCarthy delivers the best kind of poignancy as Lee: She tells Lee’s story in such a way that, after we learn about her, we’re moved to then wonder about them.
The fact that, come January, McCarthy will probably be a two-time Oscar nominee is, in many ways, unusual and unlikely.
She’s a comedy star. Her first nomination, for playing Megan in Bridesmaids, was a rare recognition of a comedy performance, and the first for one that broad, brash, and physical. If comedies are infamously ignored by the Academy, then so too are the talents of those comedy stars. But, while we have all run short of breath laughing at McCarthy’s performances, what all of her comedic work really showcases is her prodigious dramatic abilities.
Her performances live at extremes, which ends up centering them in ways that feel unexpectedly real. What lingers about Megan in Bridesmaids isn’t the physical comedy of the bathroom scene or the unfiltered crudeness of her tendency to overshare, but her boundless compassion.
The comedy in Spy, The Boss, The Heat, and Tammy is huge, but so is the vulnerability, the pride, the compassion, the yearning to be loved and feel seen, and the underlying emotion of these characters. The character work that goes in to constructing a performance like her Sean Spicer take on SNL should be taught in an acting master class. Her TV work, on Gilmore Girls and Samantha Who?, are the best examples of how to make a scene-stealing supporting character emanate warmth and humanity.
It’s appropriate that we’re considering McCarthy’s talents at the release of Can You Ever Forgive Me? Lee Israel’s gift was channeling what it is about a person that makes them uniquely them, seizing it, and recreating it in all of its humanity. You could say the same about what McCarthy does with each of her characters. In this case, however, none of it is forgery.