Peter Bart: Genre-Flipping Stars Might Gain Fans, But Could Also Lose Paydays

Bridesmaids Can You Ever Forgive Me
Shutterstock/Fox Searchlight

With three films already in release this year and another coming, Melissa McCarthy has been wallowing in worshipful media coverage. “Has anyone ever worked so hard to make us laugh?” the New York Times Magazine asked in this week’s cover story. Having established that she “owns” comedy, however, McCarthy, in true movie star fashion, has now switched to high drama. Mirthless Melissa’s new film, appropriately titled Can You Ever Forgive Me?, is best described by the New Yorker as “a mournful film suffused with an air of doom.”

I don’t want to pick on Melissa McCarthy, but the compulsion of stars to shed their true persona has always intrigued me. The pages of Hollywood history are steeped in examples of famed actors who want to prove that they can “stretch” — code for self-destruct.

On occasion, of course, the results have been inspiring: Remember how Tom Hanks, obviously bored as the white-bread nice guy in Turner & Hooch, emerged as a skeletal AIDS patient in Philadelphia? Or the culture shock of seeing Robin Williams shed his manic comedic flair to become the calm nurturer in Dead Poets Society?

A great agent of the past, Sue Mengers, once cautioning me that when movie stars make decisions they rarely read scripts — they only read their proposed lines. Or they study their prospective injuries and handicaps. Stars love to play characters that are blind or disabled (Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic). They’re sure to win awards, like Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything or Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. They also relish giving interviews detailing how much weight they’ve gained or lost for a role (Christian Bale for American Psycho). Or to quantifying how many hours they’ve spent in makeup (Gary Oldman as Churchill in Darkest Hour).

Most of all, stars covet assuming a polar opposite identity from picture to picture. Their model was Dustin Hoffman, who was instantly transmogrified from bland Benjamin Braddock (The Graduate) to Ratso Rizzo (Midnight Cowboy). Still undaunted, he soon shifted genders in Tootsie.

Often, however, the sudden shifts leave their audiences far behind. Kevin Costner, perfectly self-cast in Dances With Wolves, next felt compelled to put on fake gills for Water World. Robert Downey Jr, before becoming mega rich as Iron Man, was broke after depicting Charlie Chaplin (he was great in the 1992 flop). George Clooney publicly apologized for trying his hand as a spandex hero (Batman and Robin). The canny Arnold Schwarzenegger almost blew his Terminator franchise when he was literally sucked into the screen as a faux hero in The Last Action Hero. Jim Carrey went from Cable Guy to TV and is now displaying his potent political cartoons at a downtown Los Angeles gallery.

Clint Eastwood Paint Your Wagon
“Paint Your Wagon” Paramount/Shutterstock

I spent 20 years of my career trying to match actors to the right roles, yet was continually surprised by their curious choices. Paul Newman, a uniquely empathetic actor, loved playing a demagogue (WUSA). I once had a delightful dinner with the great Fred Astaire, who yearned to play a character who didn’t dance a step. And then there was Clint Eastwood, who actually thought he could sing (Paint Your Wagon).

In Melissa McCarthy’s current aberration, the brilliant comedic actor plays a blocked writer who, desperate for cash, becomes a major forger of celebrity letters. In her movie, based on a real character, she assumes the literary voice of Dorothy Parker, Katherine Hepburn, Fanny Brice and other figures, even stealing ancient typewriters to hammer out fake documents that sell for thousands of dollars.

McCarthy insists she fell in love with her character because of her integrity — and agoraphobia. “Why don’t you just do what you do?” she asks. “Why do you have to also be the shiny star behind it. My character was never going to sparkle and perform.”

True to her wishes, McCarthy does not sparkle in Can You Ever Forgive Me? She looks grungy and self-loathing; whenever she finds an opportunity possibly to win a laugh, or at least a smile, she retreats into her self-imposed misery, staring at an empty page. There’s no trace of the hilarious misfit from Bridesmaids, or the macha heroine from Spy or the helicopter mommy from Life of the Party. The deft performer who materialized as Sean Spicer on SNL is instead is hustling bourbon at her neighborhood bar.

I admire her courage and energy. But I wish she return to what she does best. And leave her typewriters to me.

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