Click here for the flashback interview with director Marielle Heller for DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL.
Several years ago, while appearing on KGO radio, I opined that one day Melissa McCarthy would win an Oscar™, and it would be for a dramatic performance. True, the woman is a comedy genius, but it’s a genius that is rooted in the messy complexity of what it means to be human, rather than mere slapstick, though her genius extends to that as well. In a year that offers competition from Glenn Close in THE WIFE, Julia Roberts in BEN IS BACK, and Carey Mulligan in WILDLIFE (to name just three), this might not be McCarthy’s year for the win, but in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME, she has presented the bona fides that firmly establishes her credentials as a serious actress.
The film is pretty good, too.
Based on Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, it is not just an intriguing character study of a talented but difficult writer of one New York Time bestseller now on the skids, but also a perceptive consideration of writing as both an art and as a business. It’s 1990, where playing to the crowds on book tours counts for much more than the actual content of the book being touted, as Israel’s agent (a ferociously condescending Jane Curtin) explains to the author just before telling her to either change her personality into one less abrasive or to find another way to make a living. As she perkily tells Israel, “You can be a bitch when you’re famous.”
It’s not that Israel meant to become a felon, but one things leads to another as she first sells the handwritten note she received from Katharine Hepburn, then the authentic typewritten letter from Fanny Brice that she finds tucked into an old library book, then the authentic typewritten letter from Fanny Brice with the carefully composed P.S. that Israel adds courtesy of a vintage typewriter. That Israel is engaged in writing a biography of Brice helps with finding just the right tone to take with the addendum. That the resulting cash pays her rent and her beloved cat’s vet bill makes continuing on with the literary forgeries too tempting. And for Israel, whom you will recall is a talented writer, falling into a life of crime proves too easy.
Before all that, though, the lesbian who prefers cats to people finds her soul mate in Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a shifty, yet raffishly charming character who buys her a drink at her favorite watering hole and then reminds her that they met after he did something infamous at a party years back Finding themselves bereft of friends in the cold world of New York City, the gay couple bond, to their mutual surprise, as Israel discovers her nurturing side, and Hock his selfless one, and they both discover a mutual love for serious drinking and creative vengeance. It’s the imperfection of these new-found personas that is so endearing, even more so because neither actor sacrifices their character’s flawed nature, instead fueling the caustic barbs with the loneliness and insecurity that aging out of their dreams has brought them. Grant’s flamboyance takes on a desperate bravado, while McCarthy astonishes with a keen self-awareness about Isreal’s uncontrollably self-destructive nature tempered with flashes of her deep longing for connection, be it the super’s distracted mother for whom she always has a kind word, or the tentative semi-date with a bookstore owner (Dolly Wells) that leaves them both confused and frustrated. The scene between Israel and her old flame (Anna Deavere Smith) is as heartbreaking as it revealing as the two actresses play the love that these characters had for one another, and the effect of Isreal’s trust issues that drove them apart.
McCarthy was nominated for her breakout role in BRIDESMAIDS, but didn’t win. The Academy is notoriously unappreciative of comedy, never mind that it’s so much harder than drama. Her recent efforts, often co-written with husband Ben Falcone, toyed with serious themes without committing to the leap into drama that would have made them successes. The still festering frustration of TAMMY comes to mind. Here she has taken that leap of faith, and the only downside is that it took so long