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Toward a Unified Theory of Melissa McCarthy

The comedy icon may earn a second Oscar nomination—and first Best Actress nod—for her work in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ But is this the role to remember her by?

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Universal Pictures/Twentieth Century Fox/The WB Television Network

They don’t make stars like Melissa McCarthy anymore.

Statements like these usually refer to a few rarefied subsets of celebrities: the final generation of matinée idols as we knew them, now in middle age (think Denzel Washington or Julia Roberts); the thinning generation of peak performers who have risen to take their place (Ryan Gosling, Jennifer Lawrence); the occasional lightning-in-a-bottle breakout who gives nostalgia addicts hope the old model may be viable yet (Timothée Chalamet, Saoirse Ronan). But while this narrative has never quite glommed onto her, McCarthy has steadily built the kind of career that conventional wisdom holds is a thing of the past. She headlines movies. Those movies make money. And now, in all likelihood, a movie is going to get her nominated for an Oscar.

Melissa McCarthy in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’
20th Century Fox

Were McCarthy a more conventional kind of movie star, Can You Ever Forgive Me? would earn her rapturous praise for stripping herself of vanity, not to mention makeup. (It’s the kind of praise that got Charlize Theron her statue for Monster, and that Nicole Kidman is about to receive for Destroyer.) But McCarthy came up, and comfortably remains, in the world of comedy, where lack of vanity is a given. While certainly a change of pace, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not the radical departure that traditionally signals a comedian is capable of, and ready for more, serious fare. Directed by Marielle Heller, who debuted with the sharp coming-of-age dramedy The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and cowritten by Nicole Holofcener, queen of the finely observed social farce, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is more bittersweet character study than humorless slog. And as literary forger Lee Israel, McCarthy brings a modified version of qualities that recur throughout her broader caricatures: brashness, obstinacy, an abrasive yet endearing irritability.

Nonetheless, that McCarthy took over the role from Julianne Moore signals Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a typical McCarthy vehicle. (After Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the third such vehicle in just a year.) For one thing, most McCarthy vehicles these days are made by Melissa McCarthy, for Melissa McCarthy, a level of power and autonomy belied by some of those vessels involving puppets who fuck. Building a self-sustaining machine, the way McCarthy has with her husband and collaborator Ben Falcone, is a far more formidable accomplishment than simply shifting gears into the dramedic. But by stepping outside her fiefdom, McCarthy is also proving she can thrive on the same playing field as other actors who’ve accrued more standardized markers of prestige. It’s not time to take Melissa McCarthy seriously; that passed long ago. It is time for Melissa McCarthy to make sure you can’t not take her seriously. Another nod from the Academy is as fine a way to accomplish that as any.

McCarthy’s first go-round at the Oscars was for Bridesmaids in 2012, the final victory lap of a breakthrough moment the likes of which wouldn’t happen again until Tiffany Haddish stole the reins of Girls Trip a half-decade later. McCarthy was 40 at the time of the film’s release, and had already spent more than a decade making a more-than-respectable name for herself as a television actress, plus the occasional bit part in a Jennifer Lopez rom-com. By any standard except the one McCarthy would subsequently set for herself, her career was a success, particularly in an industry not known for accommodating the non-blond-and-rail-thin.

McCarthy grew up on a literal farm in Illinois, the sort of Midwestern origin story that once signaled a kind of homespun relatability in even the most out-of-reach entertainers: even Brad Pitt could be from a place like Oklahoma. Because she contains multitudes, this America’s Sweetheart in the making also made her onstage debut as Miss Y, a “big old drag queen” character who fit right into the early-’90s club scene in downtown New York. (RuPaul and Melissa McCarthy grew into very different kinds of icons, but at one point in time they shared a social milieu.) McCarthy had moved to the city when she was 20, shortly after dropping out of Southern Illinois State; she also acted in productions of Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard plays, contrary to the sobriety-as-novelty narrative around her latest work.

After relocating to Los Angeles, McCarthy lived a more typical iteration of the starving-artist myth, working day jobs and earning improv chops at the Groundlings while slowly building her CV. The few extant clips from her time there follow the improviser’s credo of contributing to a scene without running away with it. In one, she plays the exasperated mother of two misbehaving teenagers who occupy the center of the scene while McCarthy remains on its margins. Her presence is additive, though not distracting — stardom feels possible, though not inevitable. Her television debut came early, through a family connection: her cousin Jenny McCarthy gave Melissa a one-episode role on her short-lived, eponymous variety show The Jenny McCarthy Show, now seemingly lost to the sands of time. She also tried and failed to make nice with Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels, forever preserved as a “let’s pay attention to this person we didn’t know to pay attention to!” snippet on YouTube.

McCarthy in ‘Gilmore Girls’
Warner Bros. Television

Three years after her arrival on the West Coast, McCarthy’s big break arrived in the form of pure East Coast nostalgia, recreated on a Burbank studio lot. Bubbly and impassioned, Gilmore Girls resident chef Sookie St. James was the quintessential Stars Hollow resident, and also the best-case scenario for an actress like McCarthy until she would create a better one for herself. A subsequent Wall Street Journal profile would marvel that McCarthy somehow broke through to the A list without anchoring a rom-com, missing that she played the supportive best friend in one for seven straight years. In retrospect, Sookie feels anomalous for McCarthy not just for the size of her role within the Gilmore ensemble, but the character of it. McCarthy is now known as one of our foremost practitioners of slapstick, an artist whose instrument is her body and her seeming lack of care at what pratfalls and faceplants may do to it. But no actor gets cast on an Amy Sherman-Palladino show, let alone lasts the entire duration of it, without a minimum level of verbal dexterity. McCarthy could and did go toe-to-toe with Lauren Graham in the show’s nonstop verbal tennis match. Their walk-and-talks through the kitchen put Sorkin to shame.

After an interlude on Samantha Who? in yet another sidekick role, McCarthy’s next major commitment was Mike & Molly, a CBS multicam that seemed poised to carry McCarthy into a comfortable mainstream — not the sort of person who gets written up in gossip columns, but someone your mom loves without being able to remember her full name. Costarring Billy Gardell, Mike & Molly follows a couple who meet in a weight-loss support group and, over six seasons, build a life together, plus the requisite kooky family members. The show would eventually cross the all-important syndication threshold of 100 episodes, which its affable setup was designed to do; it would also earn McCarthy an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in its first season, which it was not. But TV loves a crossover star, and just a few weeks before Mike & Molly’s season finale, McCarthy suddenly became one. The Emmys had no choice but to acknowledge her ascension.

Bridesmaids is a comedic Thunderdome, a melée of emerging and underserved stars with their pent-up energies unleashed by Paul Feig’s improv-friendly house style. All the more impressive, then, that McCarthy would emerge from a cast with Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, and Ellie Kemper as the clear standout. The mega-hit became proof of concept for accelerating returns: a female-led, R-rated comedy could beget more female-led, R-rated comedies. And a supporting role with enough to work with could beget an entire genre unto itself.

Megan Price is many things: desecrator of bridal salon sinks, pursuer of air marshals, possessor of a “steamy undercarriage.” Mostly, she’s the film’s id, a liberty denied to both Wiig as its lead and McCarthy in her relatively demure past roles. Bridesmaids unleashed something chaotic in McCarthy, responsible for interpreting Megan as a woman both unabashedly masculine and fervently heterosexual: “It took me 30 seconds to realize it was even funny,” Feig has said of the “religious moment” that was her audition. Miraculously, Megan’s gale-force dynamism would prove powerful enough to overcome the Oscars’ historical stigma against straight comedies. More miraculous still, McCarthy would prove capable of sustaining this energy even when she moved closer to a movie’s gravitational center.

McCarthy in ‘Bridesmaids’
Universal Studios

Now four films in, McCarthy and Feig’s collaboration has matured into a sustained partnership. After Bridesmaids came The Heat, which essentially kept Megan intact, complete with genitalia humor, and paired her with an uptight Sandra Bullock. Then came genre spoof Spy, reclaiming the role of action lead in real time from the likes of Jason Statham and Jude Law. In 2016, there was Ghostbusters, the lighthearted reboot that mutated into a culture war. Most of these movies were well-liked by critics; all of them made a stupendous amount of money, if not always enough to offset how much they cost. If Bridesmaids turned Feig into an unlikely prophet of women in film comedy, one of his most vital revelations was that Melissa McCarthy is a leading woman, or would be once someone had the imagination to cast her as one. Soon enough, McCarthy would internalize the message and venture out on her own.

Compare and contrast two of the first Melissa McCarthy tentpoles: Identity Thief, her first Bridesmaids follow-up after a Paul Rudd–cracking cameo in This Is 40, and Tammy, the road-trip comedy directed by Falcone and cowritten by the couple. Written by Craig Mazin, of The Hangover Part II and also dunking on Ted Cruz, Identity Thief is a standard odd-couple arrangement between McCarthy and Jason Bateman. The movie ends up on the wrong side of the line all McCarthy vessels must walk, mocking her character for her excesses — having an awful haircut, getting winded after running a few feet, being from Florida — instead of drawing from their effect on other people. It’s a delicate balance to strike, despite the bluntness of McCarthy’s signature humor; to pull it off, the story must depict her roles’ idiosyncrasies from their perspective, a fact of life everyone else might have problems adjusting to, but never her. Instead, Identity Thief is very much Bateman’s movie, concerned with his character’s nuclear family and potential bankruptcy. McCarthy’s scammer is very much a flavoring agent for an otherwise milquetoast movie, and even she isn’t enough to overcome the blandness in its DNA.

McCarthy in ‘Tammy’
New Line Cinema

Tammy, the debut offering from McCarthy and Falcone’s On the Day production company, is disarmingly low-key for a movie whose signature set piece involves the titular heroine robbing a fast food location while wearing a paper bag with a drawn-on mustache and eyebrows. This is partly due to the movie’s mere $20 million budget, yet another sign of McCarthy’s old-fashioned career model: she and Falcone almost exclusively make movies in the mid-budget range that has largely disappeared from the box office landscape. (The Boss cost $29 million; Life of the Party cost $30 million.) Tammy is also markedly more empathetic toward McCarthy’s newly single searcher, who leads an almost all-female cast: Allison Janney and Susan Sarandon play her mother and grandmother; Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh play a lesbian couple who throw a mean Fourth of July bash. McCarthy and Falcone’s message is almost never explicitly feminist, but they also walk the walk.

A recent New York Times profile depicts McCarthy as content to produce laughter for laughter’s sake, with a consistent output that rarely reinvents the wheel but always gets the job done — for the fans, not the critics, if you will. “I’m not saying what we do is so important, but it’s a little stupid thing that maybe can take some of the tension off,” McCarthy explained. That’s precisely what On the Day movies do. I recently watched Life of the Party, a sweet trifle that recasts The House Bunny with an overprotective, actual mom, on an airplane. It’s a movie designed to make you ask, “Wait, why am I crying right now?,” only to remember that you’re two chardonnays deep at 30,000 feet. The Boss, a riches-to-rags parable that casts McCarthy as a neo-Oprah in Tammy Faye Bakker drag, has a similarly facile-yet-heartwarming moral logic. None of these movies are ambitious. All meet the low bar they’ve set for themselves. This kind of comfortable stasis is an enviable thing; Amy Schumer has spent the past few years trying, and so far failing, to attain one for herself.

It’s a testament to McCarthy’s charisma that, no matter how many critical bombs she makes, she will never become Adam Sandler. (Even the schadenfreude-filled reviews of The Happytime Murders single her out as both redeeming and blameless.) True, she’s more suited to the party-trick antics of Jimmy Fallon than the clever repartee of a hipper sort of talk show, and she always will be. Yet McCarthy retains a goodwill that Can You Ever Forgive Me? isn’t strictly necessary to shore up.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not, despite the narrative, McCarthy’s first foray into drama. She played a supporting role in 2014’s St. Vincent, a put-upon single mother to Bill Murray’s cantankerous aging veteran. It’s a thankless role, though a useful testing ground. Before McCarthy could be Megan Price, she had to be Sookie St. James. And before she could be Lee Israel, she had to be Maggie Bronstein. Israel proves worth the warm-up, though I doubt, in the long run, she’ll go down as one of McCarthy’s most enduring roles. A literal cat lady of a biographer who turns to impersonating more famous writers for cash, Israel is a potential stereotype of a lonely, isolated New Yorker. McCarthy enriches her not through pathos, at least primarily, but through a prickly spirit; this is a movie with more jabs than tears. The film ultimately doesn’t transcend its Oscar-fare trappings: a true story, a period setting, a bad wig. But McCarthy makes browbeating a bookstore clerk look nearly as fun as accosting an air marshal. Consider her portfolio rounded.

McCarthy has legitimately universal appeal that feels neither generic nor edgeless, a vanishing scarcity in 2018. She can swear a blue streak, yet still make movies you can bring the whole family to, provided you’re comfortable with the youngest members of said family having a more than passing familiarity with human anatomy. And she’s used this quality to build a celebrity that harkens back to vertically integrated film comedians of decades past, from Buster Keaton to Jim Carrey. None of these figures were women, of course, let alone plus-sized women who became megastars in their 40s. Chances are, though, that most of her fans have never stopped mid-chortle to note this. Melissa McCarthy makes history in plain sight.