No one at The Ringer holds an Oscar vote, but we hold lots of opinions. Every day ahead of the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, one of us will share those opinions about who or what ought to win a little golden man. And since we so rarely get what we want at the Oscars, let our “Make the Case” series stand as the official record on the matter.
This year’s Best Supporting Actor category at the Oscars is riddled, as is typical, with nuanced performances in movies that aren’t always so subtle. Despite the many, many controversies surrounding Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, Mahershala Ali portrays pianist Dr. Don Shirley with an elegance that is tainted with a fear so essential that it makes the film (sort of) work. Adam Driver, always a captivatingly strange and impassioned presence, brings his hulking but sensitive energy to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born remake wouldn’t feel quite as authentic without Sam Elliott’s heartbreaking—and memeworthy—big-brother act. Sam Rockwell, meanwhile, walks the perilous line between exaggerated pantomime and authentic stupidity in his portrayal of George W. Bush in Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic Vice.
Yet I don’t know if I could ever forgive the Academy if, on February 24, it doesn’t recognize Richard E. Grant for his turn in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? If this strange title hits you with a pang of heartache, it has succeeded. Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a struggling writer in 1990s New York who one day realizes that she can pay her bills by selling documents penned by famous authors—be they real or just really convincing fakes. Israel’s adventure lasts only so long, but she makes an enduring, if odd, friend along the way. Jack Hock (Grant) steps into her life out of nowhere: One afternoon, he grabs a stool beside her in a bar (they’re both day drinkers). The friendship that will spring from this casual encounter is the central emotional through line in Heller’s film.
Working with Jeff Whitty, Nicole Holofcener wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay based on Israel’s life, and her taste for realistically contradictory characters and their awkward interactions (as in Friends With Money and Enough Said) gives Grant a lot to work with. When he first meets Lee, Jack is a bubbly, drunken but amusing mess, his arms flailing about as he imposes himself as her companion. The solitary writer isn’t used to having friends and, to put it bluntly, tends to hate people in general—but Jack doesn’t try to change her mind about that. Her bitterness not only amuses him, he also relates to it: Like Lee, Jack doesn’t feel welcome in most places. When they part after an afternoon of drinking, Lee shoots a suspicious and worried look at the man. He doesn’t seem to want anything from her—neither to be forgotten, nor to get a new, faithful friend. He just walks away quietly.
Soon enough, the disgruntled author and the happy-go-lucky wanderer meet again to drink, and their dynamic begins to take shape. Politically incorrect insults, disagreements, and mundane dares form the basis of their rather superficial discussions. But Lee and Jack are not trying to put the world to rights, only to forget about it, however momentarily. At once aggressively intellectual and ultimately futile, their banter is like a comedy routine, and their friendship quickly becomes a lifeline for both characters, their sole reminder that they are allowed to exist just as they are. Rarely do Hollywood movies revel in the particular strength of friendships, especially across genders, and almost never between a gay man and a gay woman. McCarthy and Grant’s chemistry is the film’s secret ingredient. Their witticisms and kind digs at each other feel like so many breaths of fresh air in Lee’s otherwise demoralizing life. With his natural enthusiasm, Grant is the perfect counterpoint to McCarthy’s brilliant moroseness. While Lee’s low self-esteem and stubbornness stifle her romantic life, Jack embraces his sexuality with abandon and cheer. Grant’s seemingly unquenchable life force becomes Jack’s.
More interestingly still, it is Grant’s ability to make unfounded positivity contagious that turns Jack into much more than a hazardous accomplice. Armed not with arguments but only with an unstoppable joviality, Jack quietly, unknowingly, shows Lee that she needn’t take the world’s punches lying down. His optimism in the face of adversity has taken him this far in life—“you’ve fucked your way through New York!” Lee remarks—and established in him a total lack of scruples. Even if Lee’s scam was her idea, she probably wouldn’t have reached the same highs of corruption without her trusted, shameless friend. And without Grant’s trustful face, innate elegance and comic timing, Jack’s playful arrogance certainly wouldn’t have been nearly as charming and irresistible.
It would be particularly beautiful for Grant to be rewarded for his turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me? because Jack, with his preposterous but incredibly compelling enthusiasm, could be the good twin to the bad Withnail, the iconic character that Grant portrayed in the cult 1987 film Withnail & I (his first movie role). The two characters are drunkards, but struggling London actor Withnail possess youthful self-pity and lazy anger in place of Jack’s eagerness to keep on living through hardships. If both are relentless scrapers-by, Withnail is powered by anguish when Jack functions on contentment. Another way to look at it would be to imagine Jack as Withnail having grown older and humbler, but in no way soberer. In reality, however, Grant is intolerant to alcohol—his exceptional drunken performances are solely the results of talent, and if not one, but two such portrayals don’t deserve an Oscar, I don’t know what does.
Talent, however, isn’t the Academy’s sole criteria. Anxious to appeal to the widest audience possible (especially after years of decreasing viewing numbers), the committee looks to the candidates’ personae as well as their work (unless they’re Bryan Singer). Luckily, Grant has been excelling on that front too by being himself—or rather, by leaning into his idiosyncrasies. Even though he’s appeared in Hollywood dramas for years and has lately been sucked up into the world of blockbusters (he was a tall, mean villain in Logan), Grant is playing on his outsider status on social media (while seeming genuinely thrilled). He reacted to his Oscar nomination by posting an exhilarating and moving video of himself, standing outside the little Notting Hill Gate apartment he lived in 36 years ago as an unknown actor from Swaziland, marveling at his journey through life. But the stars have also aligned in his favor: More touching even than his gratefulness at this professional achievement was his joy when Barbra Streisand, his childhood idol, replied to his tweet about a letter he wrote to her at age 14. How apt would it be for a true piece of epistolary memorabilia to get Richard E. Grant a well-deserved Oscar for his role in a film about falsified celebrity letters!