Telluride Film Festival: Melissa McCarthy breaks out as major Oscar contender in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

“Oh, she knew she was going out on a limb, for sure,” director Marielle Heller said about Melissa McCarthy‘s dynamic performance as a failed writer who turns to literary forgery in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” which has emerged as a surprise hit at the Telluride Film Festival. It might be second only to “First Man” on the list of films that inevitably come up when you’re polling passholders in line — and it’s going over just as solidly in the realm of film reporters and bloggers.

“One of the things that was very different was this was not a movie with improv,” Heller added while we chatted at Fox Searchlight’s party at Rustico on Telluride’s main drag. “She has always been an incredible actress, but she knew she was doing something different.”

McCarthy is chiefly known for comedic screen turns that include her breakout star role in “Bridesmaids” (2011), which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Now she’s not only quite serious on screen, but seriously back in the Oscar race again. Seven Gold Derby Experts predict she’ll be nominated for Best Actress.

McCarthy plays a real-life figure, Lee Israel, a former book author who’s not only gotten fired from her bottom-level publishing job for telling the boss to F off, but she can no longer afford to lay out more than $14 in cash to save her seriously ill cat. She finds a solution, forging pitchy letters by literary legends of lore for fun and profit. There’s a bit of the caper comedy to that setup, but if you’ve seen the trailer and know the basis in truth, you can guess a scheme like this can’t end with a bag of cash and Dorothy Parker forgeries being driven happily into the sunset.

So, given a premise that has some bummer-iffic aspects to it, what’s maybe more surprising than how dramatic it is is how funny it is. The star has, oh, maybe a sixth as many laugh lines as she has in a typical Melissa McCarthy vehicle, but the ones that are there land. And an undersung element of McCarthy’s appeal, even in her slapstick roles, has been that you can often feel pain or sadness or rage fueling her celebrated outbursts … even when she’s playing Sean Spicer on “Saturday Night Life.” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is like the inverse of that formula — loneliness and anger at the world at the forefront, and the comic rudeness that comes out of that as secondary, though hardly insignificant.

Heller told the first-showing crowd at Telluride they were the first public audience to see it. “It’s wonderful to feel laughs and also times when it was silent and people were paying attention,” she said at the Searchlight party. I asked how constantly conscious, or prophetic, she had to be about whether audiences would follow the emotional changes around a character who’s alienated every non-feline in her life.

“I think you always worry, especially in the edit, about how the audience is on the ride,” she said. “I always try to think about the audience’s emotional experience. A lot of scenes have a lot of humor and a lot of sadness at the same time, and I wanted to trust that the audience could handle it. In many ways it felt like we were sort of making an old movie, in the way it has its own pace and its own layered tonal approach.”

So what will an Oscar campaign for Melissa McCarthy look like? One insider I talked to after the premiere with no connection to the film or studio talked about what a hit she’ll be on the awards circuit: “Just think how funny she’ll be in Q&As — everyone will be charmed.” But I’m not sure McCarthy will want to go that way to win over voters for a dramatic role. I couldn’t help but notice that when she introduced the film at the Galaxy in Telluride, McCarthy was all smiles, but didn’t betray even the hint of a wisecrack.

That was left to Richard E. Grant, who plays her even more immoral and far more charming partner in crime — and who, by the way, has to be considered in the supporting actor category for work that’s the equal of hers for tragicomic snark and pathos. “I just wanted to say, it was very, very difficult working with an almost entirely female crew,” Grant said, making the audience slightly nervous as he started off his remarks. On top of that, “Melissa has no sense of humor, she’s always late, she never knows her lines, and she’s a pain in the ass.” It may be in everyone’s interest to send McCarthy and Grant out together on the circuit as a Goofus-and-Gallant team.

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