IN THE FIRST SEASON of the recently shuttered sitcom 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, attractive faux-spinster and noted bossypants-in-charge, finds herself in a standoff with the writing staff. Before long there is mutiny afoot, and her underlings become violent. “Okay, fine,” Lemon says after a water bottle whizzes past her face. “Get it out of your system.” A curious barrage of workaday items proceeds to fly in her direction, including a grapefruit, some cheese puffs, running shoes, a Wiffle-ball bat, and finally — yes — a microwave. Lemon has met her threshold. “Hey, nothing that plugs in, you guys! Nothing that could really hurt me!”
“Nothing that plugs in” is an excellent, sensible rule, funny in its roundabout specificity, but it’s funny only because the microwave misses Liz Lemon’s slender frame, crashing instead into some piece of soundstage drywall. Now imagine Melissa McCarthy in the same scenario — cheese balls flying hither and thither, a microwave shuttling past her head — and picture the punchline this time. Chances are it’s less about a new rule and more about over-retaliation: McCarthy sees your microwave and raises you a flatscreen.
That’s just how Melissa McCarthy rolls, you see: head-on, balls out. If she lacks the grace of some of history’s greatest physical comediennes, from Mabel Normand to Kristen Wiig — has no time for it, in fact — she projects a bodily fearlessness that sets her apart from any forebear who comes to mind. For a hundred years, from Olive Oyl to Liz Lemon, slapstick has flirted with the notion of inflicting serious pain on the dainty female body without quite allowing it to happen. Midway through Identity Thief, McCarthy’s latest film — and first starring studio turn — she gets rammed by a muscle car traveling at full speed. It is the funniest (and, plot-wise, probably most touching) moment in the movie. My first impulse, in retrospect, was to feel bad for the car.
Over the years, film comedy has emphasized and telegraphed various aspects of femininity depending on era and context: the feeble-minded, the overearnest (she just cares too darn much!), the retaliatory (she had it coming), or the innocuously free-spirited (the zany best friend in any garden-variety rom-com, 1930 to the present). At the same time, specific women — since the very beginning of cinema — have commandeered the formal simplicities of slapstick to shape many of the comic styles we see today. The great early film critic Walter Kerr once asserted that “[n]o comedienne ever became a truly important film clown,” but “important” is surely a relative term. Consider Mabel Normand, the first dame to throw a cream pie at Chaplin, who named her as a chief comic influence. Normand was a prolific writer and director and a star in her own right; the same year she wrote and directed her first feature, 1914’s Won in a Closet, she appeared opposite Chaplin the first time he played the tramp, though her capital-M Major contributions to early film were overshadowed in her time by her substance abuse and implication in two mysterious murders.
Meanwhile, across the pond, Betty Balfour, Britain’s “Queen of Happiness,” was taking daring tumbles in her role as circus assistant in Monkeynuts (1927). And Marion Davies, whose reputati...read more