If you ask me Melissa McCarthy just put herself squarely in the Oscar race for Best Actress, and may just bring a cat named Towne along with her.  Better acting from an actor – or a cat – I did not see in Telluride this weekend.

McCarthy’s film Can You Ever Forgive Me?  from director Marielle Heller  and a wonderful script by  Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, was flying a little below the radar compared to some of the hotter titles on display here for the 45th Telluride Film Festival, but after it had its World Premiere on Saturday the buzz started building, and by Sunday afternoon when I caught it at the Palm it was clear we had a new contender.

The film is a true story , based on the memoir by Lee Israel who was a  fairly mildly successful author of biographies but whose life starts

to fall apart as her own very distinct and difficult personality gets in the way , personally and professionally , and she finds herself living a life of poverty, isolated in a decaying apartment with her 12 year old pet cat named Jersey. She can’t take the cat to the vet , she can’t pay her rent . Things are dire until one day she stumbles on an old letter from the late entertainer Fanny Brice and finds there is a market for this kind of memorabailia.  She starts forging letters from famous dead celebrities and discovers a new way to make much needed cash. Eventually she is joined in this charade by another kind of down-on-his-luck  con man played by the great British actor Richard E. Grant (who was also in Telluride and should get strong Supporting Actor Oscar buzz for this). All of this provides a background for a quintessential New York story and study of two lonely people, both who happen to be gay,  brought together out of necessity in an unforgiving city.

Those expecting to see the comedic McCarthy , may be in for a real surprise here.  Deglamorized and dead serious , the star does get laughs along the way but this is a highly dramatic turn and she nails it in every way possible. Even though she was Oscar nominated for her supporting role in Bridesmaids, won an Emmy for Mike And Molly ,  and has been a top comedy star in movies ever since, this role is a revelation, her best work yet.  At the post screening Q&A she explained why she took it on. “I loved that she was so smart, so unapologetic, and  all that just makes her someone I want to know,”  she said. “We all have those friends that even though they are so difficult , they are so amazing to be around . Whatever damage she had she just kept cocooning and going inward, but through her work she was just so much bigger than life. She was such a wild and fascinating play of opposites.”

And then there is that cat who plays Jersey.  Cats are notoriously difficult to train, but apparently not this one according to the director as

Pete Hammond

she talked about what was described as the Marlon Brando of cats. “I heard there are actually Academy Awards for pets. I can’t remember what they are called but I call them the Cat Oscars and this cat should win. His name was Towne. For this movie we had to have a cat actor, we had to cast for cat actors, so the trainer said ‘well this is our best performing cat’.  So how good can this cat be?  She’s a he by the way. His character Jersey is a girl. He does that very well too, ” said Heller about the unique talents of Towne which McCarthy seconded.

“The first time I  take him, or her , whatever  to the vet  ,  while we are at the counter he sneezed. And I look at him and literally thought  ‘are you KIDDING me?  Are you pretending to be sick?’   Then Marielle cuts and  I looked to the camera and said to myself, ‘this cat is OUT-ACTING me’., :   she said about her co-star.

Lee Israel died in 2014 and didn’t live to see her life played out on screen , but at one point during the shoot McCarthy met a good friend of hers and asked if they thought Lee would be happy with all this. “‘Happy wasn’t exactly Lee’s thing,  but she would have loved this attention on her work’,” recalled the star.

As this nascent Oscar season rolls along Melissa McCarthy is also likely to be getting a lot of attention for her work too. And it is well deserved.