Melissa McCarthy’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? suffers the same awards-season problem as The Wife, Destroyer, and A Private War—namely, that not many people who tune in to awards shows have seen these films. But when has low viewership ever stopped the Hollywood Foreign Press Association from doling out a statuette? If underdogs like Gina Rodriguez and Rachel Bloom, both of whom star in little-seen TV series, can win, who is to say that 2019 won’t be the year that the HFPA gives the Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama award to McCarthy, whose film made only about $7.5 million at the box office?
McCarthy has worked consistently for about two decades, but her performance as the cartoonish Megan Price in Bridesmaids is what put her on the map with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 2011. Her career blew up, and she received nominations for a few Critics’ Choice Awards, a Golden Globe, and a Razzie. Enough of the films she starred in flopped—like Tammy, which she also wrote and produced, and The Happytime Murders, a Muppet crime drama.
Her performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is different from the typecast roles she’s taken since Bridesmaids. McCarthy fully occupies the real-life character of Lee Israel, a down-on-her-luck celebrity biographer who attempts to salvage her dying career (no one is itching to read her biography of Fanny Brice, her agent assures her) in early 1990s New York by forging the letters and bon mots of long-dead literary figures such as Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward. She comes across a bookshop owned by Anna (played by Dolly Wells), with whom she develops a rapport, and forms a frenemyship with a gay ne’er-do-well named Jack Hock (played by Richard E. Grant). Israel and Hock reluctantly bond over their being drunken queer outsiders, and this bittersweet element, alongside the saga of Israel’s ailing cat that has made a mess all over her apartment, gives some color to a tale that can be at times bleak.
In Can You Ever Forgive Me? you don’t see McCarthy amping up a caricature of a larger-than-life persona. She does not play Israel as a clichéd cat lady with a failing career; she is convincing in her imperfections and has a sense of humor about it. The lonely Lee is a saboteur, of not only the local bookshops she swindles with forged letters but her own life. McCarthy’s performance is equal parts grit and heartbreak; her portrait of Israel, who died in 2014, is funny and humanizing.
Nicole Holofcener co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Whitty, using Israel’s 2008 memoir of the same name as source material, with Marielle Heller—known for directing Diary of a Teenage Girl and the upcoming Mr. Rogers biopic, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers—in the director’s chair. That duo—Holofcener and Heller—is a dream team: fast-twitch jokes and dialogue combined with a deep sense of atmosphere. In an awards season where female directors and screenwriters have been, once again, snubbed, Can You Ever Forgive Me? stands out as yet another case of, “Wait, why aren’t people talking about this movie?”
At the Globes, in the Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama category, McCarthy is up against Glenn Close for The Wife, Lady Gaga for A Star Is Born, Nicole Kidman for Destroyer, and Rosamund Pike for A Private War. That’s a powerhouse list, and by now everyone and their mother has already seen A Star Is Born and declared Gaga a shoo-in. But, historically, the Golden Globes have a track record of rewarding the unexpected and the new, and McCarthy’s performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me? just might be this year’s dark horse. (Grant, who plays Israel’s accomplice Jack Hock, has also received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, and he perhaps has an even better chance than McCarthy). And even if McCarthy doesn’t take home a Globe, Can You Ever Forgive Me? should go down as the best performance of her career.