Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an ironic title for an ironic true story, that of Lee Israel, the author of several well-received biographies in the 70s and 80s, whose personal and financial misfortunes led to some very poor choices. The film, with a clever screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, and directed by Marielle Heller, stars Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, and this turns out to be one of those fortunate instances of a comedy star getting the opportunity to stretch into a part of more substance, and succeeding.
The film opens in 1991, and Lee, in her early 50s, is finding that she can no longer get by in New York on the royalties from her previous books. Her interest in female celebrities of an earlier time doesn’t match the current interests of publishers or readers. Her current project, for instance, a biography of the actress and singer Fanny Brice, receives puzzled responses from most people, who clearly don’t even know who Fanny Brice was.
In addition, Lee’s abrasive, curmudgeonly personality has alienated a lot of folks on the literary scene, a situation that is aggravated by her alcoholism. When her cat gets sick and she can’t afford a veterinarian, while at the same time her landlord threatens her with eviction because she’s months behind on her rent, she’s clearly in big trouble. In desperation, she sells a letter she owns from one of her previous subjects, Katharine Hepburn, and then one from Brice that she discovers by chance. She gets nice little sums, but they’re too small to go very far. A letter needs to have something special in it in order to inspire the small subculture of people who collect letters by the famous. So Lee then writes an imaginary letter by Noel Coward, using her knowledge of that playwright’s style, and copies his signature from a photo in a book. With the sale of this letter, she is able to pay her landlord. And thus a career in forgery is born. She buys a bunch of old typewriters and forges a series of letters from various dead authors and celebrities, including Lillian Hellman, Marlene Dietrich, and Dorothy Parker.
McCarthy maintains a delicate balancing act here. Her character is never exactly likeable, but her cynical attitude about the world of New York intellectuals, and her defiance of that world’s norms, is highly entertaining. We also glimpse the loneliness and low self-esteem behind the façade. The film is also greatly aided by another character—Jack Hock, a wickedly funny social gadfly who shares Lee’s love of malicious practical jokes, and who is also clearly an alcoholic. Jack is played by British actor Richard E. Grant, who has appeared in scores of films for the last thirty years, almost always in small or supporting roles, and has a sort of cult following among movie lovers. Here he gets to shine, almost stealing the movie. The comic chemistry between him and Melissa McCarthy is irresistible—he’s her partner in crime, but also her opposite in many ways, some of which end up causing trouble. And although it’s not emphasized very much in the film, both characters are gay. The bitchiness and camaraderie that often typifies gay New York, at least in popular culture, are flavorful elements, taken to delightful extremes by Grant.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an ironic title because it’s from one of the fake letters, in which Lee Israel was pretending to be Dorothy Parker. Lee doesn’t really want to be forgiven. As she says eventually in the film, she felt that the forged letters were the best things she’d ever written. She really believed that she was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker. In creating phony documents from geniuses, Lee Israel was reaching for some kind of experience of the genius in herself. Without overreaching or trying to be self-important, the film displays a rich sense of humor, along with a glimpse of sadness at the heart of an American soul.