“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
In the 1990s, biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) became frustrated with lack of interest in a mooted project about vaudeville legend Fanny Brice. Israel was also struggling with money and alcohol issues and began a spree of literary forgery that amounted to over 400 faked letters.The film is based on Israel’s bestselling memoir and is a slow-burn crowd-please. It is evident from the very first scene when we see Israel being fired from a copywriting job, that there will be plenty of dark humor and a twisted narrative.
At first we think that this is going to be an introspective picture about loneliness, professional dissatisfaction and alcoholism but these ideas are ultimately subordinated to something that seems like “a caper, filled with imaginary cousins, dead cats, library heists and Noël Coward’s signature.” While the title hints at something more reflective, the narrative eventually reveals it to be a rather good joke. McCarthy has the ability to draw warmth and humor from her character who is basically unlikeable. She is an actor for whom pathos comes very naturally. This is really a performance of less subtly and restraint than you might imagine, though she is essentially in a two-hander with Richard E. Grant.
The film is, at times, both moving and funny, well-intended and unselfconscious. Israel is a very abrasive New York character, with a well-hidden humanity and heart of gold. McCarthy forges a memorable, individual, even unique on-screen character out of Ms. Israel. She forms a double act with Richard E Grant as Jack Hock, a kind of older variant gay male whose role is respectful and sympathetic, even if you have to say Mr. Hock isn’t exactly a good role model. Israel is also gay too, a short-haired, frumpy, lonely lesbian, whose only previous friend before meeting Hock is her cute pussy cat. She starts forging literary letters from Fanny Brice, Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. Desperate for rent money and cash for the vet, she then sells the letters for not very much to New York booksellers and meets a new friend – bookshop owner Anna (Dolly Wells), a charming lesbian, whose tentative approaches Israel declines.
The film tells a good story, and it tells it really well. There are a lot of laughs and a lot of truths. It is sharp, acid, hard-edged at times, but it is also warm hearted and a little sentimental. Lee Israel found her voice by impersonating the voices of more talented writers. For decades, she was an esteemed biographer, writing numerous books on the works of accomplished women ranging from actors such as Katharine Hepburn, to pioneering. However she fell upon hard times, with no publisher wanting to release her biographies on increasingly lesser known subjects – which led to a drastic career move that gained her notoriety.
Director Marielle Heller never portrays Lee Israel as a victim of circumstance or as a conniving schemer desperate to make a quick buck. We see her as short tempered and argumentative due to her diminished standing within the book industry. The film begins in 1991; Israel can’t get her publisher to return her calls, she’s been fired from a copywriting gig due to her short temper, and her only companion is an ageing cat given to her as a present by a former girlfriend. By chance, she happens to meet Jack Hock), an equally lonely man who has just been released from prison, where he served a sentence for armed robbery, only to discover all of his friends have passed away from the AIDS crisis during his time behind bars. As Lee discovers she can make hundreds of dollars plagiarizing letters from literary greats, she brings Jack into her operation.
With her arraignment imminent, Lee’s lawyer urges her to get an actual job, start doing community service, and go to AA. Also not a surprise: She starts volunteering at a cat shelter and goes to Julius’—not 12-Step—where she and Jack reach a caustic resolution and we get to have a relatively happy, gay-lesbian friendship ending.