Oscars Watch: 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' and 'First Man' Are Ones to Watch This Weekend
By John Boone
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures / Universal Pictures
It's officially Oscar season. Between now and the 91st Academy Awards, on Feb. 24, 2019, ET will keep you updated on which films are most likely to land on Academy voters' ballots, breaking down each movie's Oscar odds and predicting where it will be nominated.
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Melissa McCarthy's first Oscar nomination, for Bridesmaids in 2012, was an exception, not the rule. The Academy is not historically wont to recognize broadly comedic performances, but McCarthy was just so undeniably funny, the biggest personality in the zeitgeistiest movie that year, that she steamrolled right past their poo-pooing to the Oscars. We're accustomed to McCarthy devouring that type of larger-than-life role, to watching her being the life of the party (or Life of the Party), none of which is evident in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, for which the actress plays a misanthropic party crasher, the woman you avoid at all costs until she corners you, only to insult you, then steals the host's toilet paper and exits.
McCarthy plays the late author Lee Israel, a biographer whose choice in subject matter has gone out of fashion and so she turns to literary forgery, doctoring letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward to pay her rent. The film unfolds as a character study, and McCarthy tears back each of Israel's many layers: The prickly, hard-drinking exterior, the bitterness and self-importance, and, perhaps most overwhelmingly, the loneliness. McCarthy's Israel is often hilarious, too, a caustic humor that plays out in conversation with her drinking buddy and reluctant friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). Grant is the one who gets the laugh-out-loud lines and also delivers the movie's most heartbreaking moment. Each actor is great on their own, but McCarthy and Grant are best together -- and no doubt Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor shoo-ins, respectively.
Those are the surest bets for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, though I imagine that it will also appear in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener's adaptation of Israel's memoir. There is still plenty left unsettled with this year's Oscar race, though -- and many months until February -- so Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) shouldn't be counted out completely for Best Director. (Her nomination would help to avoid another year of all-male nominees.) If those nominations all pan out, then there's a road laid for Can You Ever Forgive Me? to conceivably compete for the Academy's top honor, Best Picture.
If the moon landing really was faked, as conspiracy theorists have gassed for 40 years, then it's a shame NASA didn't have Damien Chazelle around to fake the footage. The Oscar-winning director forgoes the razzle-dazzle of La La Land, but creates something stunning in First Man, his recounting of the years of trial and error, of blood, sweat and tears, that led to Neil Armstrong taking that one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
The technical mastery is immediately apparent in the film's bracing opening sequence, which thrusts the viewer inside the cockpit of a jet being flown by Armstrong. You hear every creak and groan of the craft, a bunch of metal held together with bolts and a prayer, as the film cuts feverishly from the rattling wing to blinking knobs and dials. The jet blasts through the atmosphere, then everything goes quiet. We close in on Ryan Gosling's eyes, settle on the blue crest of Earth reflecting in his helmet. It's awe-inspiring and terrifying, beautiful and difficult to watch, all at once.
Which is a flowery way of getting at First Man's odds in the technical categories, where it is practically guaranteed nominations for Film Editing and Sound Editing and Mixing, along with recognition for Linus Sandgren's grainy, sun-soaked Cinematography and Justin Hurwitz's lovely accompanying Original Score. (Hurwitz won the category last time he collaborated with Chazelle, on La La Land.) The costuming here may be overlooked for more regal period fare, however, the duteous recreation of the 1960s, from the Armstrong home to NASA's control room to the surface of the moon, will make this the one to beat in Production Design.
Opinion as to how emotionally effective the film is, nonetheless, remains split. I've seen First Man twice now, first in Toronto and again more recently, and the second time around, I was better able to connect with the humanity of the story, though it can be pensive to the point of occasionally feeling cold. That isn't a knock on the performances. Gosling's Neil Armstrong is the stoic American hero, his stiff upper lip masking a well of grief, and it's a fine performance that will see him compete for Best Actor. Claire Foy is Janet Armstrong and gets the blood up, taking a role that might read as thankless on paper and imbuing it with ache and square-jawed grit, certainly worthy of inclusion in the Best Supporting Actress category. It's difficult, then, as the likely nominations stack up, to imagine a Best Director pool that doesn't include Chazelle or a Best Picture race that doesn't include First Man.
Also in Theaters: A STAR IS BORN continues its reign at the box office with hopes that it will carry over to the Oscars, where it will compete for basically every statuette available; BEAUTIFUL BOY expands outside L.A. and NYC this week and boasts a Best Supporting Actor-worthy performance from Timothée Chalamet; National Geographic's rock climbing documentary, FREE SOLO, is out now and has Documentary Feature buzz behind it -- here's hoping Academy voters aren't afraid of heights.