Legend has it that Edmund Gwenn, an acclaimed actor on stage and screen (he's best known for his Oscar-winning performance as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street) was on his deathbed in 1959 when a movie director and friend said, "All this must be terribly difficult for you." Gwenn took a long breath and responded, "Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy."
That said, comedy is a double-edged blade (keep in mind that the Motion Picture Academy's Oscar statuette is that of a little golden man holding a sword). The trickiest quicksand any actor can be pushed into is the muck that traps her or him with the "comic" label. Simply put, good luck being taken seriously in a heavy drama. Melissa McCarthy—quite possibly the funniest woman on the planet—is a glorious exception. And her dramatic performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a masterclass.
"Honestly, I don't approach a character any differently in a comedy than a drama," McCarthy told me just prior to her red-carpet premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. "A good story is a good story."
One minor correction for McCarthy: Her film tells a great story. She stars as Lee Israel, a best-selling celebrity biographer (and obsessive cat lover) who made a tidy living in the 1970s and '80s writing bestselling profiles of Katharine Hepburn and Estee Lauder. But Lee fell out of step with the marketplace and, finding herself dead broke, conjured something rather extraordinary, shifting her literary skills to a new art form: deception. She penned ingeniously believable words and witticisms attributed to dead literary figures and sold them for a tidy sum.
"Words and language were everything to her," McCarthy told BW following her film's premiere. "She was proud of being able to imitate these great writers, proving she could be every bit as witty and singular as they were."
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a must-see, with a supporting cast that includes Richard E. Grant (Logan) and the rarely seen and much-missed SNL alum Jane Curtin as Lee's literary agent. The film is a major achievement for director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl), too, who recently began directing the much-anticipated You Are My Friend, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers.
"Melissa and I were immediately on the same page for Can You Ever Forgive Me?: We were both a little in love with Lee," Heller told BW.
To be sure, the fact that Israel is in the rogue's gallery of great American forgers makes it rather difficult to fall in love with her. But beneath her felonious capers lies a more personal story, and it was practically McCarthy's birthright to pull it off. She's a sure-bet Oscar nominee for Best Actress.