Hidden behind a severe expression and a drab hairstyle with faux gray roots, an almost unrecognizable Melissa McCarthy was ready to shoot a scene for the drama “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” when she noticed something off.
Her nail polish.
Even though McCarthy’s hands weren’t going to be visible in the scene, the small bit of real-life adornment was throwing off her portrayal of the decidedly unglamorous and down-on-her-luck celebrity biographer Lee Israel.
“It was like, ‘I have to take this off.’ It was just distracting,” the actress recalls, speaking about her nail polish moment at the Four Seasons Hotel. “It’s funny how one little thing can be so loud.”
But it’s the “Ghostbusters” star’s performance that’s really making noise, as McCarthy, 48, plays against her comedic persona in the true story (opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands into November) set in the struggling underside of the 1990s New York literary scene.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” follows the once-successful, talented author Israel as she starts selling brilliant forgeries of literary figures she admires (Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward).
The hard-drinking, anti-social Israel (who died in 2014 at age 75) fooled experts with her meticulously crafted letters until she was busted by the FBI and sentenced to six months house arrest and five years probation. In her 2008 memoir, Israel wrote, “I still consider the letters to be my best work.”
Critics are saying that McCarthy, who received her first Oscar nomination for 2011’s “Bridesmaids,” has done her best work losing herself in the drama. USA TODAY’s Brian Truitt calls it the “Oscar-ready role of a lifetime,” while Deadline.com awards columnist Pete Hammond says she’s a strong contender in a tight best actress race.
McCarthy is known for broad comedies, so “to see her make this kind of switch is catnip for Oscar voters who love to see that kind of range,” says Hammond. “And the reviews have been rapturous.”
“Forgive Me?” marks McCarthy’s third film of 2018, and it’s been just two months since she appeared as a police detective alongside a puppet in the R-rated comedy “The Happytime Murders.”
“It’s always like I’m going to slow down a little. But then something comes up that seems too good not to do,” she says. “That’s a good problem to have. I don’t mind being busy. And it’s fun to branch out and do what people don’t expect.”