Generally speaking, biopics tend to centre around an exceptional person (in one form or another) overcoming an adversity of sorts. And whilst Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? adheres to the formula, her subject – author Lee Israel – is far from exceptional and her challenge to overcome is to not get caught for the acts of criminality she has undertaken.
In the grand scheme of things Israel’s illegal activity of forging letters from the likes of English playwright Noel Coward and American satirist Dorothy Parker and selling them to collectors for large sums of money doesn’t seem like such a large crime, but in the early 1990’s it garnered attention from the FBI. Ironically, Israel being caught out gave her stalled the career the jumpstart she so desperately craved, and the autobiography on which this film is based – Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger – became her best-selling opus.
Prior to her criminal activities, Israel (played here with determined wit and grit by Melissa McCarthy) was a once-best selling author who made the New York Times Best Seller list through her autobiographies of such figures as gameshow host Dorothy Kilgallen, cosmetics tycoon Estee Lauder, and actress Tallulah Bankhead. The opening scene effortlessly introduces us to Israel’s hostile demeanour as she’s let go from her workplace for drinking on the job and firing back to her employer, allowing us an insight into her alcoholism, anti-social behaviour, and dwindling money problems all in one moment.
Months behind on her rent, unable to secure an advance for her latest work (Jane Curtin has a neat supporting turn as her fed-up agent) and desperate to aid the failing health of her cat (Israel’s one true companion), she’s sinking and, without actively searching, finds a lifeboat in the form of personal letters tucked within the biographies she’s researching for her latest pitch. Selling the letters for a handsome-enough fee to help her temporarily, Israel learns that collectors pay a much healthier price for letters of greater detail. With her own writing skills and knowledge of classic literary figures on hand, Israel hones her craft of forgery and begins to write her own letters, selling them on to a series of enthusiastic collectors for increasing value.
Coming fresh off its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival last month, much has been said of McCarthy’s performance, and indeed the praise is justified. Allowed the rare occurrence to flex her dramatic acting chops, McCarthy wholeheartedly embraces Israel’s unlikeable characteristics – the disdain for others, her narcissism, her anti-social status – but at the same time she makes her a character we are completely invested in, highlighting Israel’s own vulnerability, stemming from an environment where her opinions are often deemed invalid, no doubt due to her own frumpy appearance and sexual orientation.
This isn’t to say Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a gloomy experience, in fact it’s actually quite funny, with McCarthy’s knack for biting one-liners utilised throughout as Israel showcases no fear in a verbal takedown. Much of the humour though comes courtesy of her interactions with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, a contender for Best Supporting Actor if ever there was), an ageing New York queen with a fondness for theatrics, cocaine, and younger men, who becomes both her confidant and eventual partner-in-crime when, he too, feels the pinch of financial hardship. Grant is simply fabulous here, and it’s the scenes between himself and McCarthy that lend the film a surprising tenderness.
At once a low-key crime drama, a period piece, and a buddy-comedy of sorts, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a loving tribute to a figure I’m sure many of us never knew about but deserves to be profiled all the same. Lee Israel was evidently a difficult figure (the film is dedicated to her memory following her passing in 2014) but in the hands of McCarthy, under the direction of Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), and through the words of Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), she proves a joy to meet.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? will appear in Australian cinemas from 6th December 2018.
About Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy stars in the adaptation of the memoir CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?, the true story of best-selling celebrity biographer (and friend to cats) Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) who made her living in the 1970s and 80’s profiling the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. When Lee is no longer able to get published because she has fallen out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack (Richard E. Grant).