Last November, The New York Times released their list of the 25th greatest actors of the 21st century so far. As with all pop culture lists, it inspired a lot of conversation thanks to some surprising omissions and more esoteric choices. A couple of names included among the pantheon of greats seemed to elicit genuine bafflement, including the very high placement of Keanu Reeves. Another instance that seemed to surprise and almost offend many was the mention of Melissa McCarthy at number 22. That put her ahead of two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, Brazilian legend Sonia Braga, and the celebrated Gael García Bernal. The list did not include popular figures like Cate Blanchett, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Meryl Streep, which only seemed to stir up further contention over the inclusion of someone like McCarthy. How could a broad comedic star, one with a fair share of flops to their name, be given pride of place on a list like this while accepted stars like Leo and Meryl were nowhere to be seen?
OK, sure, whatever, but have you maybe considered that Melissa McCarthy is brilliant and totally deserves all the acclaim she gets?
There’s a case to be made that Melissa McCarthy is one of the last true A-List leading ladies of the current era of Hollywood. At a time when IPs and franchises matter more than the actor’s name above/below the title, McCarthy is a rare bird: a highly paid actress who can headline a hit based on her name alone. Her track record isn’t exactly consistent but it’s a hell of a lot more reliable than many of her more action-oriented contemporaries. She’s found her niche but is willing to expand beyond it in intriguing ways, and she has the creative freedom to get what she wants made at her own pace. If only that didn’t seem to rely on her collaborations with her hubby, which have never paid off as much as her work with other filmmakers.
While McCarthy seems at home working with her husband Ben Falcone, her greatest cinematic collaborator is, by far and away, Paul Feig. They’ve made four movies together and each film has given McCarthy the best platform to show her range as a world-class comedienne. In Bridesmaids, for which she received her first Oscar nomination, McCarthy is giddily vulgar and supremely confident, the gross-out queen in an ensemble of unruly women with no fear. Each character feels like the token weirdo in another comedy but together they’re a display of proud weirdness, and McCarthy leads the pack. Even when her character is at her lowest, sh*tting in a sink while screaming ‘Don’t look at me!’, (which is hysterical), she never feels without her power. Really, it’s that empowerment of various strains that makes McCarthy’s work with Feig so successful as well as her best acting playgrounds.
2013’s The Heat didn’t quite have the same thematic layers as Bridesmaids, but as a purely entertaining buddy action cop comedy, it more than does its job effectively, and McCarthy is on top form. She’s basically playing the role that would usually be occupied by the likes of Eddie Murphy, but the role isn’t devoid of femininity or reduced to a gendered gag. At her best, McCarthy’s physicality gets room to breathe but isn’t the sole tool available. It helps that she could have great chemistry with a rock, but Sandra Bullock’s slightly unhinged straight woman is also acceptable.
But McCarthy’s best work with Feig comes in both Spy and the oft-maligned right-wing creep punching-bag that was the reboot of Ghostbusters. Plus size women are often laughed at on film and seldom with. Even some of McCarthy’s own work falls into this trap. With Feig, that’s never the case. In both Ghostbusters and Spy, she’s a hyper-intelligent and stubborn professional woman who is consistently underestimated by those around her. Spy may be her greatest performance in purely comedic terms, as she deals with arrogant co-workers who refuse to see beyond her supposed plainness. (the movie smartly refutes this bullsh*t by having a character later point out that McCarthy is indeed ‘hot as f**k’.) The gag isn’t that she’s a plus-size woman fighting crime: it’s that she’s the best person at her job who’s been saddled into the most ridiculous circumstances by ridiculous airheads and maniacs. Even at their most over-the-top, McCarthy’s characters in Feig films are people, capable of moments of immense empathy alongside the profanity (and hoo boy, McCarthy is excellent at swearing.)
There comes a time when every great funny person must flex their dramatic muscles. For every Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, there’s a Steve Carell in Welcome to Marwen. McCarthy had already proven her range on TV with roles in Gilmore Girls as well as bit-parts in dramatic movies pre-Bridesmaids. But everyone knew that 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? was something special. As Lee Israel, the biographer turned literary forger, McCarthy is often hilarious, pranking people with a Nora Ephron impression and spewing out the bitchiest of one-liners alongside Richard E. Grant. Of course, the meat of that performance is in her ability to mine the material for immense melancholy. Lee Israel is never exactly a warm or likable person, and McCarthy doesn’t try to force that onto her, but she does find empathy for her as well as an appealing strength that ultimately endears the audience to her plight. Israel is urbane but stuck on the fringes, a prickly gay woman who has no patience for ass-kissing or explanations of her life.
In many ways, the performance works so well because Lee Israel feels simultaneously like a natural extension and subversion of the Melissa McCarthy type. It’s not hard to imagine her swearing up a storm alongside Rose Byrne. Yet it’s when the camera lingers on her face that we understand just how good McCarthy is. We see the contradictions of her persona and work at play: the brash center of attention whose fragility is always evident; the tough exterior that betrays a real desire for connection; the brutally funny woman who can turn on the tears seamlessly. Frankly, I would have given her the Oscar over Olivia Colman.
While I’m not always excited for a new Melissa McCarthy movie or TV series, I’m forever thrilled by the potential of what her future holds. She’s teaming up with Nicole Kidman for another glossy TV series based on a Liane Moriarty novel, and she’s set to show off her pipes as one of the great Disney villains in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. McCarthy seems pretty content to just make lots of films with her husband and keep control of her creative enterprises that way, which is exciting, and an opportunity not afforded to many comedic actresses. Still, I’d love to see her step outside of those barriers more regularly because the results are always striking and a clear demonstration of her talent. At least The New York Times appreciates her excellence, even if so much of the pop culture world refuses to look beyond the surface.
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