The contrasting female protagonists in ‘The Wife’ and ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

Melissa McCarthy stars in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Among the many films released in Hollywood featuring female protagonists, two of this year’s Oscar nominees offer an interesting contrast: “The Wife” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

“The Wife” stars the veteran film star Glenn Close, who has already won this year’s Best Actress Award from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild and is considered the frontrunner for the Oscar in that category as well. (It is hard to believe that Close has been nominated seven times in her acting career, which began in 1975, but has never won a Best Actress Oscar!) Meanwhile, Melissa McCarthy’s performance in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” represents a change of direction from her previous comic roles in “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy,” the remake of “Ghostbusters” and similar films in which she generally played a loud-mouthed and vulgar character to great success over the last 10 years.

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McCarthy’s performance represents a change of direction from her previous comic roles in “Bridesmaids” and other similar films.

“The Wife” begins when a married couple, Joe and Joan Castleman, are informed that the husband has been chosen to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Joan, the wife (Close), has been a diligent supporter of her famous husband (Jonathan Pryce) for many years, making sure he takes his pills, is well-dressed and otherwise enjoys a good life. But their son (Max Irons), a budding writer, resents his father for not appreciating his work and failing to encourage him. And Joan is becoming restless living in the shadow of a rather insensitive and narcissistic celebrity. The scenes with the three of them together are loaded with tension throughout the movie.

Meanwhile, a younger writer (Christian Slater), who hopes to write a biography of Joe, pesters Joan with probing questions that make her even more disturbed about her situation. During the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, her discontent with their marriage reaches a boiling point, and a major secret in their marriage is revealed—with some serious repercussions.

Glenn Close has the ability to make even her slightest facial expressions express her emotional state at any given time.

Glenn Close’s ability to make even her slightest facial expressions express her emotional state at any given time benefits from director Björn Runge’s frequent use of tight close-ups. The terse dialogue fits the sophistication of the characters but also expresses the Castlemans’ underlying resentments and the dishonesty in their marriage.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is based on an actual person, Lee Israel, and her 2008 memoir about her years of journalistic fraud. McCarthy brings some of the crude qualities from her previous comic roles to portraying Israel, who works for a magazine and is a biographer of celebrities. One of her books, about the life of the television personality Dorothy Kilgallen, makes it to The New York Times best-seller list. However, her alcoholism and her abrasive personality get her fired from the magazine.

Desperate for money, she begins forging letters from the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Fanny Brice, Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker and similar film and literary figures. She sells them to book sellers and collectors, aided by her accomplice Jack (Richard E. Grant). This hoax lasts for a year until the authenticity of the letters is challenged, at which point she is arrested by the F.B.I. and stands trial.

McCarthy and director Marielle Heller successfully depict a woman who expressed little emotion other than anger and who kept her distance from most people—reserving her displays of affection for her cat, with whom she lived alone in her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The film is set in New York City in the early 1990s, when the city was in financial trouble and a more dangerous place than today. This is well-depicted in the film’s on-location production, including locales such as Julius’, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, and some of the city’s actual bookstores, like Argosy Books, where Israel sold her fake manuscripts. The visual tone of the film emphasizes the grim atmosphere of both the city and Israel’s life: Scenes are dominated by browns and yellows and even black. Israel’s attire is generally frumpy, and she has an unattractive hairstyle. The only beautiful shot of the city is a postcard-like view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers at night, with most of the screen in black.

“The Wife” has been nominated for only one Academy Award: Glenn Close for Best Actress. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is up for three awards: Melissa McCarthy for Best Actress, Richard E. Grant for Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. With some serious competition in these categories, it will be interesting to see how they fare. They are both quite well done and enjoyable for their own reasons.

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