This year’s Oscar nominations are vacuous in so many ways – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a preposterous choice for best picture – but the focus of the ire “coming out of me like lava” is the Academy’s nomination of Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids. It represents less a celebration of great acting than the Academy’s grasping attempt to be in tune with popular tastes, keeping with its desperate effort to keep this ratings-losing ship afloat. It’s their twist on politically correct — a pop-culturally correct condescension: Look, we picked the lady with the wicked sense of humor over scary Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus) and suicidal Carey Mulligan (Shame). We’re not lookist and we’re fun. We’re totally okay with the poop.
Make no mistake, I enjoyed Bridesmaids immensely. Before and after she hoisted her considerable bulk onto a sink to defecate, McCarthy did do something special — she played Megan as a large, red-faced person who did not understand, did not even consider, that people might recoil from her or treat her as anything less than a pretty, stick-thin bridesmaid. She believed in herself, which was very, very cool, and yes, startling. Because of the level of improvisation involved in making Bridesmaids, it is safe to say McCarthy wasn’t just bringing smart words on a page to life, that Megan’s dignity and self-respect came from McCarthy, a well-loved actress who has made her mark in television series such as Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly. Nor would I dispute the deftness of her timing. She drives a deadpan line home with aplomb and audacity and owned every second of Megan’s weirdness.
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But it is a very broad, one-note performance, a comic sketch that could comfortably live only within an ensemble. In the film, Wiig’s Annie, a carefully nuanced, and entertaining, portrayal of a woman in despair that went unrecognized by the Academy, grows up, Maya Rudolph’s Lillian learns how much she needs her best friend and even Rose Byrne’s Mean Girl Helen evolves. Meanwhile McCarthy held steady on the limited course provided for Megan by writers Wiig and Annie Mumolo. Megan’s big moment, out of the sink that is, is her speech to Annie — sulking about being kicked out of the wedding party — about being her own worst enemy. McCarthy’s delivery is completely in tune with Megan’s swagger (“I bought an 18-wheeler a couple of months ago just because I could”) but there is an element of standup about it — funny yes, but also egocentric, unconnected. I was more impressed with Wiig for her responses, unspoken and spoken, as Annie digests the strangeness of receiving a buck-up lecture from a person she barely knows. Wiig’s quiet, chagrined “I just miss her I guess,” at the end, referring to the rift with Lillian, stayed with me longer than the good laughs coming from McCarthy.
Our first glimpse of Megan, with her boxy wardrobe and newsboy cap, brought back memories of Pat, Saturday Night Live’s ambiguously gendered character. But there was a key difference; Megan was a cartoon of aggressive sexuality, wildly, crudely lusty. Yes, it was empowering that the bridesmaid chosen because she was the groom’s sister wasn’t ashamed of who she was or what she looked like, but she was also blindly intent on taking what she wanted. She was, for all intents and purposes, a female date rapist in training. “I’m going to climb that like a tree,” Megan announces upon discovering that the tall man standing near Annie (Kristen Wiig) is up for grabs. “You want to get back in that restroom and not rest?” she leered at Not-Air-Marshal John while thrusting her hips. As cowed John crept back to his seat, Megan called out to him, with complete confidence, to get a blanket. “I’ve got to take a whiz and I’ll be right back.” She’s two parodies at once — the butch girl and the man everyone runs from at a cocktail party — braided together with the joke of a plus-sized figure. If you don’t think Megan’s body is subject to any jibes, or fair game for discussion, watch the outtakes at the end, featuring Megan, reclining in a bed, devouring both jumbo sandwich and pint-sized Air Marshal. As the credits roll she becomes a joke about the outsized appetites of fat girls, which strikes me less as great acting by McCarthy than a display of good nature, a willingness to go anywhere for a laugh.
Megan is a grotesque in much the same way The Hangover’s Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) is a grotesque. But Jeong never would have received an Oscar nomination, not while playing off the stereotype of an effeminate Asian man, much more threatening to the predominately older male, white Academy voters. Why did it make more sense to recognize the equally offensive shenanigans of an over-the-top plus-sized lady? I believe Academy members patted themselves on the back when they checked off McCarthy’s name. We’re so accepting. And she was very good on Saturday Night Live. Only one of those statements is true. Meanwhile they shied away from another hilarious (albeit darkly so) and devouring woman, Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary in Young Adult. It’s a savagely astute portrait. Why no best actress nomination for Theron? Perhaps because the movie didn’t do that well at the box office, but Mavis Gary was also a more terrifying type of man hunter, a natural seductress who would ruin a man’s family life in one fell swoop if she could and think nothing of it.
There’s a part of me that wants to just roll over and say, well at least a funny woman received the acknowledgement of her peers. Be grateful. The Academy’s record on giving the incredible skill set it takes to pull off good comedy its due is sketchy at best (with actors as well as actresses, just ask Eddie Murphy). Occasionally they nominate, but rarely in the past have voters rallied behind the ladies who made them laugh. Witness Wiig, nominated for best original screenplay, but not keeping company with Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Michelle Williams or Glenn Close. For every Goldie Hawn (nominated for Private Benjamin in 1980) there have been four Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter) types more likely to emerge victorious.
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Some rare women who did win in comedies: the glorious Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday in 1950; Diane Keaton in 1977 for Annie Hall (more charming than hilarious); Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets in 1997 (although her character faced serious challenges with that sick child). Hawn won best supporting actress for Cactus Flower in 1969, but her character suffered heartbreak. Jessica Lange landed an Oscar for the very funny Tootsie, but she played straight woman/golden-haired goddess to Dustin Hoffman. Mira Sorvino’s 1995 victory for Mighty Aphrodite came with the then-highly meaningful stamp of Woody Allen approval. Other comic actresses who took home Oscar, like Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost in 1990 and Marisa Tomei for My Cousin Vinny in 1992, tend to be the winners who make people roll their eyes or worse yet, at least in Tomei’s case, start questioning the vote counting procedure.
But technically, it’s been a better than average year for comedy in the best supporting actress category. Two of McCarthy’s fellow nominees also made us laugh, although less uproariously. Octavia Spencer’s character in The Help had her own excrement scene and Jessica Chastain was divinely daffy in that film, though she did much more powerful nomination-worthy work in two prestigious films, The Tree of Life and Take Shelter. Shailene Woodley and Judy Greer from the black comedy The Descendants had both been floated as possible best supporting actress nominees before Tuesday’s announcement. Of all of them, McCarthy’s movie made the most money worldwide ($288 million).
So what are McCarthy’s chances of actually winning? Can she beat The Artist’s Berenice Bejo, Albert Nobbs’s McTeer or anyone from The Help? If Spencer and Chastain cancel each other out and Bejo suffers from some probably inevitable backlash against critical darling and frontrunner The Artist. It might come down to a choice between McTeer, whose character dresses like a man and McCarthy, whose character acts like one. If so, the same Academy members who thought this performance was one of the five most significant examples of great acting in 2011 may well make an Oscar bride out of this bridesmaid.
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