Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant speak onstage at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for SBIFF

A producer, director, actress, and self-proclaimed ardent lover of wigs, Melissa McCarthy proved herself once again as Hollywood’s most delightful of polymaths on Sunday evening, when she became the recipient of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Montecito Award. The award intends to honor an individual who has contributed greatly to cinema and McCarthy, whose career began on the New York City stand-up comedy stage and now finds herself in the entrance hall of the Academy Award for Best Actress, is more than deserving.

McCarthy is known more for her comedic streak, as the kooky Sookie St. James on the beloved Gilmore Girls, the hilariously weird and weirdly crude Megan from Bridesmaids, and the best possible version of Sean Spicer the world will ever see. However, with her latest performance as the impossibly embittered but somehow enjoyable Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy solidifies herself as a serious dramatic actress.

Highlight reels from McCarthy’s films, which included Go, Charlie’s Angels, The Heat, Tammy, Spy, The Hangover Part III, Ghostbusters, and her latest Oscar-worthy Can You Ever Forgive Me?, were introduced by moderator and IndieWire editor Anne Thompson at Arlington Theater which, despite the rain outside, was packed. The applause was thundering and the laughs aplenty as thousands gathered to listen for over an hour to the seasoned actress pick apart her fan-favorite roles and take the audience through her life; McCarthy went from a young farm-town girl to a devoted Groundlings student at the famed Los Angeles improv school to an awards season regular.

McCarthy noted her first dip into acting began with her obsession with costumes during high school theater. Costumes “let you be who you want to be [and] step in other people’s shoes,” she said, and it was this love of fashion that prompted her bold move to New York City from Southern Illinois where she was studying in college. “I thought I should take time off of not going to class,” she joked. One day into life as a New Yorker, however, and McCarthy found herself not in the backroom designing costumes, but on stage at a comedy club.

Melissa McCarthy and Anne Thompson at the SBIFF
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for SBIFF

Encouraged to continue her stand-up career by her parents, who she noted are themselves funny people, McCarthy decided to veer into the world of acting, taking up an intern position at the Acting School, watching classes between her administrative duties. “I tried to do anything, jut soak up as much as I could,” she recalled.

Eventually graduating to the Groundlings in Los Angeles, McCarthy landed Gilmore Girls, which she fawned over as a tribute to mothers and daughters. She then began a director-actress partnership with Paul Feig after auditioning alongside Groundlings peer Kristin Wiig for Bridesmaids. From then on, McCarthy successfully wove through a rich career as a comedic actress, and her easy-going sense of humor was apparent as she recalled various auditions and experiences.

“You got in there and were too weird!” She laughed about feeling unnecessarily humiliated on the drive back from her first Bridesmaids audition, and when asked about rudely shutting down Bradley Cooper’s character in Hangover III, quipped with a wave of her hand, “This is probably good for him.”

McCarthy also discussed the physicality of her comedic roles. An athlete growing up, she desired to do her own stunts, sometimes at the consequence of her own bodily safety. It soon became clear that throughout her career, McCarthy’s strength is that she’s willing to go all in, to try it all. Except, that is, for maybe one thing: “I don’t know how to play pleasant,” she said, noting her exasperation of many bland female roles she reads in scripts. Indeed, all of McCarthy’s characters, whether you like them or not, are flawed, nuanced, lovable, laughable, and honest.

“I’m very interested in all of their self-defense mechanisms,” McCarthy said of what she finds the most intriguing in her characters. It is this introspective nature coupled with her effortless funny streak that sets her apart from other actors and rightfully garnered her a Best Actress nod for her role as writer-forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a role she offered up herself for after falling in love with the script.

McCarthy’s own character was also brought to center stage by her Can You Ever Forgive Me? costar Richard E. Grant, who is also nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor. After effusive and playful praise, Grant got down on one knee to hand McCarthy her trophy, and the obvious admiration and respect between the two allowed the night to end in a celebration of humor, friendship, and a loving, long-lasting career.


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