The Importance of Melissa McCarthy

June 25, 2015 § 1 Comment

Melissa McCarthy

Melissa McCarthy

Melissa McCarthy’s career is still on the rise but already groundbreaking, and not just because of her box office clout. It’s the characters she plays: strong, original and unlikely women who triumph against stiff odds. So does McCarthy: though technically a co-star in a string of successful movies directed by Paul Feig, McCarthy emerges as the star of all of them. “The Heat” was supposed to be a comeback vehicle for Sandra Bullock, and we all know how that turned out.

In this summer’s “Spy,” McCarthy outshines Jude Law, Rose Byrne, Allison Janney and Jason Statham, among others in the large cast. Like Megan in “Bridesmaids” and Mullins in “The Heat,” “Spy”‘s Susan Cooper is an unglamorous woman in a man’s world, underestimated and often ridiculed at work. Two of her weapons against her doubters and enemies are competence and brute strength. Although a meekly desk-bound CIA analyst in the beginning, Cooper is soon revealed to be an expert marksman and martial artist, capable of mowing down multiple adversaries. But it’s the third weapon–her hilarious, rapid-fire insults–that proves the most powerful:

It’s worth noting that the three movies discussed here have different writers: Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo for “Bridesmaids,” Katie Dippold for “The Heat” and Paul Feig for “Spy.” Clearly all four were writing with McCarthy in mind, yet her characters’ power and sensibilities aren’t fully on the page, however offbeat the dialogue. Feig, who directed all three films, encourages improvisation, and co-stars like Jude Law have spoken of McCarthy’s sharp wit and fast delivery. So in “Bridesmaids” we see McCarthy’s character Megan, an NSA operative, on a flight to Las Vegas, flirting outrageously with a supposed Air Marshall as she blocks his path with her leg: “You feel that steam heat coming? That’s from my undercarriage.” Later, she puts her bombast to good use by snapping Annie (Kristin Wiig) out of her depression. Megan wrestles and bites Annie–“Fight for your shitty life!” and then delivers this unforgettable pep talk:

They called me a freak–do you think I let that break me?….No, I did not….I pulled myself up, I studied really hard….and now I work for the government. I have the highest possible security clearance….I know where all the nukes are and I know the codes….I have six houses. I bought an eighteen wheeler a couple of months ago, just because I could….You’re your problem, Annie, and you’re also your solution.

Comic actresses have traditionally been of two types: physical (Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett) or cerebral (Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers and everyone else who began in standup). But McCarthy is both: a fearless physical comedian and a whip-smart talker. It’s not surprising that her characters have traditionally male jobs–cop, intelligence officer–where their assertiveness and sharp minds are put to good use. What’s surprising is there is now a Melissa McCarthy archtype in movies, a presumed loser who is in fact a superwoman.

Toward a Less Sexist Hollywood: “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Spy” and the Evolution of Summer Movies

June 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

Melissa McCarthy in "Spy"

Melissa McCarthy in “Spy”

I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, at the dawn of what I like to call Terminator 2 Era. It was a very bad time for women and their stories and a very good time for men and their stories, especially if those stories happened to be violent. The first studio screening I attended was “License to Kill,” where I was treated to popcorn in a cut-glass bowl, Perrier and, as I recall, the sight of a guy getting shot in the eye. Timothy Dalton’s tepid portrayal of Bond and the instantly forgettable story were afterthoughts; it was the body count that mattered. Despite its subsequent listing as one of the worst Bond films of all time, “License to Kill” grossed $156 million worldwide (roughly $300 million today).

Soon afterwards, I got a job reading scripts on a freelance basis at CAA. Except for those that were already produced (submitted by writers seeking representation), all of them were bad. Emboldened by my dismal competition, I submitted a script of my own and quickly got a pass. This may have been because it had a female protagonist and two males relegated to supporting status, unlike any script I had read. Who, besides a lot of women, would want to see a movie like that? Apparently no one who could greenlight a film. I continued to write scripts and short stories with female leads and male supporting characters. None of them sold, though they got kiss-of-death comments like “quirky” and “charming,” which is code for “we hate stories about women.” Some of these comments came from women, none of whom were in a position to greenlight a film.

I turned to documentaries in large part because I wanted to direct. In an industry where the least qualified male was more likely to be hired as a feature director than the best qualified woman, documentaries seemed to offer a separate path to the same goal, or so I thought. As it turned out, I had to vie for the respect of my cameramen–whom I was paying, since I was also the producer. I also had trouble with male crew members, who preferred to take their orders from a man. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my struggles: now there’s a whole website devoted to the subject of women directors and others working in non-traditional film jobs. I recommend it highly, particularly to anyone who thinks this sort of behavior went out with the “Mad Men” era.

Fortunately, there have been a few bright spots during the past 25 years. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, and two more–Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola–were nominated. (This brings the total number of women nominated for Best Director to a whopping four. The first was Lina Wertmuller in 1976; she remained the only female nominee until 1993.) A lot of women directors have found steady work in television, which in the Netflix era is no small thing. But the fact remains that male directors of independent films are frequently catapulted up to the majors, sometimes with only a single credit to their names, while far more experienced women directors are not. It’s also common for women directors to hit a dead-end after making a splash with their first film, finding themselves without prospects for financing or work. This is seldom the case for male directors.

The justification for this exclusion used to be “movies directed by/starring women don’t make money.” Nowhere was this attitude more prevalent than in summer blockbusters, which were the undisputed domain of male stars, directors and writers. It was accepted that female stars, however adored, couldn’t “open” a summer movie. Jodie Foster defied expectations with “The Panic Room,” which grossed $100 million domestically. But even Julia Roberts needed a horde of male co-stars (in “Oceans Eleven” and “Oceans Twelve”) to achieve popcorn movie status.

That’s why this summer is notable. On May 15, “Pitch Perfect 2,” with its female director and cast, surprised everyone by trouncing the presumed box office favorite, “Mad Max: Fury Road. Though “Mad Max” has gone on to be more profitable worldwide because of its huge foreign receipts, the domestic totals (as of June 8) remain significantly higher for “Pitch Perfect 2.” Then this past weekend, the Melissa McCarthy vehicle “Spy” demolished the bro-loaded “Entourage,” out-earning it almost 3 to 1.* (If “Entourage” hadn’t opened two days earlier, the difference would have been even greater.) “Spy,” which got great reviews, is absolutely hilarious. It’s also thrilling, not least because it has shattered the glass ceiling of summer movies.

Next: The Importance of Melissa McCarthy

*Domestic receipts for opening weekend were: “Spy” $29,085,719; “Entourage” $10,283,250. Courtesy Box Office Mojo

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