Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Melissa McCarthy’s Oscar-nominated performance in Bridesmaids.
Just like how the Academy Awards routinely forgets to honor horror movies, they also rarely recognize comedians for their comedy. When an actor known for comedy is nominated for an Oscar, it’s almost always because they are delivering a “serious performance” that’s diametrically opposed to what made them famous.
For instance, Bill Murray gave powerfully nuanced comedic performances in everything from What About Bob? to Ed Wood, but it wasn’t until his melancholic role in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation did he finally get recognition from The Academy for his work.
A reason why I find this disparity so interesting is when you consider one of the most well-known quotes on acting, “Dying is easy, it’s comedy that’s hard!”
There’s a lot of truth to that idiom. It can be easy to pull an audience’s heartstrings – just look at those Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercials – but getting them to laugh can be a difficult mountain to climb. That’s because while laughter is universal, humor isn’t. Everyone has a different sense of what’s funny. Sophomoric humor that’s a hit with teens may not land with an older, buttoned-up audience. Conversely, understated wit may come across as flat to viewers who need a little more energy to tickle their funny bones.
The fact is, if comedy is so difficult to do, then why are so few comedic performances recognized at the Oscars? It’s not like there haven’t been any. Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles and Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny are both perfect examples of the Oscars honoring full-blown comedic performances. But often, like with Jack Palance in City Slickers or Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, the Oscar-nominated humor comes from the actor working against the comedy, rather than for it.
That’s why Melissa McCarthy’s revelatory performance as Megan in Bridesmaids is such a stark departure from other Oscar-nominated comedic roles. McCarthy doesn’t work against Bridesmaids‘ humor. Her broad comic characterization is the glue that holds the entire film together. From hilarious interpersonal tête-à-têtes to ribald scatological humor, McCarthy is able to embody the complete spectrum of comedy in a warm, riotous performance that has rightfully become recognized as a modern classic.
Melissa McCarthy’s pathway to her role in Bridesmaids began in New York City. Born and raised on a farm in Plainfield, Illinois before attending Southern Illinois University to study Fashion Design, McCarthy quickly dropped out of college and headed to New York to pursue something more for her life. She crashed with a friend who urged her to try out stand-up comedy. After finding moderate success in the comedy scene – and booking a few Off-Off-Broadway shows – McCarthy moved to Los Angeles and began studying at The Groundlings, the formative improv and sketch comedy troupe where she would meet her future Bridesmaids co-star Kristen Wiig.
She got her foot in the door in Hollywood through her cousin, Jenny McCarthy, on her titular sitcom Jenny. After a series of bit parts in Go and Charlie’s Angels, McCarthy landed her big break as Sookie St. James, best friend to the main character in Gilmore Girls. While she would continue to establish herself on television, those roles didn’t ask more from her than showcasing her affable charm. It wouldn’t be until Bridesmaids that she’d be given the chance to deliver a bold, fearless performance that would come to typify her career.
McCarthy’s comedy training helps her understand how to mine a character’s personality to uncover interesting, funny quirks that she can then humorously embellish. As Bridesmaids director Paul Feig told GQ, “Melissa has the ability to take something that’s weird or challenging and personalize it and make it real.”
In the film, McCarthy’s Megan marches to the beat of her own drum. Even though she has no history with the other bridesmaids, she doesn’t allow that to stop her from being unapologetically herself. We’re first introduced to Megan at an engagement party where she brags to Annie (Kristen Wiig) about how she was saved by a telepathic dolphin after taking a violent fall off of a cruise ship. It’s a hilariously blunt conversation, not so much in what Megan is telling Annie, but how Megan is telling her. They’ve never met before this moment, but Megan speaks to her like an old friend. It’s an introduction that sets the tone for the rest of her performance.
Immediately McCarthy gives us a clear picture of Megan’s character; someone who exists as an open book, unconcerned by the impression she gives because she is so self-assured. As McCarthy told GQ, “I love those no-bullshit women with close-cropped hair that you’ll see together and think, “Is that her partner?” Then they talk about their husbands and six kids. I just love anybody who’s that comfortable in her own skin.”
That comfortability is cranked up to eleven in Bridesmaids most famous scene. After a group lunch at a Brazilian steakhouse, the women visit a bridal shop to try on dresses. As they browse, the group starts to break out in a cold sweat, their stomachs gurgling as they realize their food is moving a little too quickly through their system. In quick succession, the women succumb to their exploding bowels, absolutely destroying the bridal shops bathroom. As we watch Becca (Ellie Kemper) vomit onto the back of Rita’s (Wendi McLendon-Covey) head, the camera pans over to McCarthy’s Megan, perched over the sink, releasing her insides as she screams through a beet-red face “Look away! This sinks a goner. It’s coming out of me like lava!”
It’s not funny because poop humor is an easy laugh, it works because of McCarthy’s fierce commitment at making her diarrhea believable, and relatable. Sure, not everyone has shit in a sink before, but in this moment she forces the audience to reflect on when they’ve been in similarly undesirable situations.
While we may immediately remember Megan for this scene, McCarthy doesn’t allow her performance to simply be based on her character’s inherent grotesqueries. Much of Megan’s warmth comes out of a direct contrast with her brash characterization. When an opulent pre-wedding party gifts puppies as party favors, Megan manages to sneak out a bundle to her van as her own way of liberating these adorable pups from less than deserving guests.
Her depth of compassion grows deeper after Annie has a meltdown over feeling displaced by Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) new friend Helen (Rose Byrne). As she withdraws from everyone close to her, Megan goes to see Annie in person to help her in the only way she knows how: tough love. She pushes Annie to “fight for her shitty life” by opening up about her own rough childhood and how she had to overcome bullying through self-resilience.
In these moments, she’s still the bombastic character we’ve come to love throughout the film, but this monologue humanizes Megan, making us truly see her as a fully-fleshed out person, and not just the wild antics of McCarthy’s performance. This depth, combined with her commitment to her character’s most outrageous moments, is what makes McCarthy stand out from the stacked cast of comedians. This fusion of characterizations is not only why she was nominated for an Oscar, but what has made her an enduring star.
Despite having a rich career before her role in Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy had a meteoric rise in the immediate years following her Oscar nominated performance. She’s become a huge box office draw, leading numerous films that are written to bring out the best of what McCarthy does. She has a down-to-earth charm that can resonate with any audience, but that doesn’t soften the extreme’s she’s willing to go. McCarthy’s handle on surfacing emotional nuances through broad comedy is what makes her work feel deliciously fresh.
Whether intentional or not, Melissa McCarthy broke a glass ceiling with her performance in Bridesmaids. Not just for women being taken more seriously as broad comic actors, but in broad comic acting being taken more seriously in general. Who knows what actor will shit in a sink next to land a coveted Oscar nomination, but I do know that when it happens, we’ll only have Melissa McCarthy to thank.