Why Does Hollywood Keep Disrespecting Melissa McCarthy?

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Melissa McCarthy in The Heat. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Next month will mark the fifth anniversary of the release of Bridesmaids, the modestly budgeted smash that proved a comedy driven by women could hold its own in the summer marketplace — and, in the process, do wonders for the careers of everyone involved, from co-writer and star Kristen Wiig to director Paul Feig. Nobody, however, benefited more than Melissa McCarthy, who got an Oscar nomination in a genre that almost never yields them and, from there, immediately moved into leading roles.

Since Bridesmaids, McCarthy has starred in five studio comedies — Identity Thief, The Heat, Tammy, Spy, and the current release The Boss — with average production budgets of $39 million (the cost of roughly 20 minutes of Batman v Superman); the first four averaged worldwide grosses of $185 million. (All five movies opened with a weekend take of $22 million or more.) She also cameoed in a Hangover sequel, found time for an understated performance in a supporting role in the indie hit St. Vincent, and won three Emmy nominations for what has become a semi-regular gig guest-hosting Saturday Night Live. Notably, she did all of the above while holding down a day job: Her Bridesmaids breakthrough came one season into the run of Mike & Molly, a relatively buzzless CBS half-hour of the kind that many performers would have been screaming to get out of once movies beckoned. Instead, McCarthy stuck with it uncomplainingly for five more seasons and 103 more episodes, until the network finally pulled the plug (the series, for which she won an Emmy, will wrap up on May 16).

This is not just a remarkable run; it is literally a singular one. No other woman or man unaided by a franchise in the last five years has emerged from nowhere to become such a completely dependable movie star, appearing in one successful film after another and regularly creating product that turns a profit, while maintaining a successful foothold in TV as well.

So why are so many people eager to suggest it’s all a mirage? On April 10, after the opening weekend of The Boss, which cost $29 million to make and grossed $23.5 million in its first three days, the New York Times led its weekend-grosses piece with “Melissa McCarthy succeeded at the box office in ‘The Boss,’ but just barely,” adding, “box office wobbliness and reviews complaining of a repetitious shtick have started to hound” her. (The inaccuracy of “box office wobbliness” aside, this is indeed repetitious: Two years ago, when McCarthy’s Tammy opened to a five-day gross of $32.9 million, the same reporter called it a “poor turnout” and wrote, “Warner … appears to have overestimated the popularity of Ms. McCarthy’s rowdy style … with critics complaining that [her] shtick has grown tiresome.”) And Deadline Hollywood, often the first to the table with weekend box-office analysis, wrote, “Even though The Boss is considered a win internally for Universal and will likely profit … others in the industry say the R-rated comedy is a cautionary tale” about the limits of its star’s appeal.

Well, yes, of course. There’s no cautionary tale more sobering than a movie star who makes five profitable movies in a row. Don’t let this happen to you!

Then again, the movie industry tends to find warning signs where it wants, and it’s hard to read these analyses without sensing an undertone: Don’t be fooled. The math may say she’s a movie star, but we all know she’s skating on thin ice. This attitude about McCarthy feels pervasive. Twice in the last three years, a group called the Alliance of Women Film Journalists has nominated her for a booby prize called Actress Most in Need of a New Agent, suggesting that they (a) do not understand grosses, (b) do not understand what agents do, and (c) most bizarrely, imagine that McCarthy is not making her own choices.

You don’t have to think The Boss is McCarthy’s strongest work (nobody does — it’s basically a feature-length tease-out of a sketch character à la Zoolander) to wonder at all this, or at the recurrent complaint that she “always plays the same role.” In fact, she doesn’t. Like, not at all. In St. Vincent, she was an overtaxed, deeply sympathetic working-class single mother; in Spy she was a modest office drone who became a superagent; in Identity Thief she was a trashy criminal; in The Boss she’s a belligerent, corrupt businesswoman. And all of those roles are different from what she did in Bridesmaids, which was, come to think of it, different from what anyone has done in anything.

Critics can like or dislike these movies and her work in them, but to survey them in toto and perceive uniformity feels like a willful refusal to see her at all, an insistence that the difference between her various performances matters less than the sameness of her strange determination to continue to be Melissa McCarthy while starring in movies. Is it because she looks so different than other movie stars that some people have convinced themselves she’s always the same?

It’s tempting to argue that the coolness with which McCarthy’s success is greeted in some quarters is another example of the industry (and some of those who cover it) having a problem with powerful women. But this is 2016, and we’ve come a long way — today, people understand that they’re supposed to disguise that feeling! Hollywood is now fine with actresses being powerful, as long as it can maintain some control over how “power” is defined. The kind of powerful woman the industry likes is Reese Witherspoon, who uses her power to buy a lot of deserving books and give work to a lot of deserving scriptwriters, and every once in a while takes a role that will get her an Oscar nomination but is fine with doing supporting roles or HBO. It likes Charlize Theron, because she knows how the game is played and she keeps her “brand” current by doing Fast 8 and Fury Road, the big stuff that’s at the heart of the industry, so that she can go off and do the little stuff that Hollywood doesn’t care about, because she’s earned it, just like, you know, a guy. It likes, or at least respects, Angelina and Julia and Jodie because they’ve all been around a long time, and these days they dip in and out of mainstream movies, but they don’t seem to want it that badly and isn’t that a kind of power, the power of graceful middle-aged retreat and occasional return, the power of not having to be No. 1 all the time? And don’t all those women look just great? Aren’t they aging well?

McCarthy is different; she has set fresher terms. Although she is, at 45, roughly in the same age bracket as many of these women, as a box-office commodity she is much newer and younger — she came into her power in a more recent era. And her deal is she wants to work all the time, and she wants to be the star, and sometimes she wants her husband, Ben Falcone, to direct her, and she wants the industry to recognize that she delivers.

The predictions that McCarthy is heading for a fall will eventually prove right, because, sooner or later, that is true of every single movie star in history. But while that inevitability will certainly give skeptics the satisfaction of saying, “See? I told you so,” the first flop is almost never decisive or conclusive. True stars always get second (Johnny Depp) and third (Ryan Reynolds) and fourth (John Travolta) and fifth (Nicolas Cage) chances — that is, if Hollywood wants them to be stars. McCarthy hasn’t even used up her first — and Ghostbusters is just three months away.

In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey told a now-famous story about an early-2000s incident in the SNL writer’s room when the then-new Amy Poehler was trying out a vulgar bit and Jimmy Fallon said, “Stop that! It’s not cute, I don’t like it!” Poehler turned to him — “black in the eyes for a second" — and said, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Fey describes the moment as a “cosmic shift … she wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends … She was there to do what she wanted to do.”

McCarthy is part of that cosmic shift, and what’s jolting about the skepticism with which she’s met is that, relatively speaking, she’s asking for so little. She doesn’t appear to want the Charlize Theron deal. She wants the Louis C.K. deal — a degree of control as long as she can deliver at the right price. Isn’t that the kind of practical-minded creative autonomy we should celebrate?

And if people don’t like the work she’s doing, perhaps the question shouldn’t be “Should she get a new agent?” or “Doesn’t she understand that she’s testing our patience?” but rather, given her track record and talent, "Why isn’t the industry lining up to work with her, direct her, write better stuff for her, and see if it can make her even more of a success?" Don’t they like money? Or is proving that Melissa McCarthy isn’t a movie star more important to maintaining the status quo than benefiting from the fact that she is?