As we exit the Halloween season, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is something of a fright fest for writers, this real-life story of a notable published professional whose well runs so dry that she must concoct a criminal scheme in order to pay the bills and attain artistic fulfillment. Thankfully, the horror is blunted by the film’s sardonic humor and fact-based intrigue, which permits us to root for the de facto villain, in part because we can likely identify with her desperation, and in part because she isn’t so much an enemy against commerce as she is an enemy against herself.
Lee Israel is that “villain,” a journalist and author who gained a degree of notoriety in the ‘70s and ‘80s for her profiles and biographies of various celebrities. Melissa McCarthy plays Israel as one whose disdain for the world masks her larger disdain for herself, whose prickly demeanor is armor against any meaningful human connection. In a heated exchange, Lee’s publisher (Jane Curtin) reminds her that her strength is the ability to disappear behind her subject, but that she has yet to ever write anything in her own voice. Having grown cynical after her personal life torpedoed and facing dire financial straits as her professional success diminished, Israel turns the tendency of disappearing behind a subject into a new career path: criminal forgeries.
Over the course of three years in the early ‘90s, Israel became the world’s pre-eminent dead celebrity letter forger (prestigious designation, that), crafting over 400 letters posing as the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and others, selling them for escalating price points to a burgeoning literary market for “authentic celebrity letters.” In this grand con, Lee rediscovers her zeal for writing, turning this deception into its own art form, a felonious literary subgenre. Ironic that Lee Israel, whose career once depended on disappearing behind the famous subjects of her profiles, could only write in her own voice if she was posing as similarly famous subjects. She could write in her own words, but wasn’t able to claim them.
By now we are all familiar with McCarthy’s blunt comic creations, and in Can You Ever Forgive Me? she projects a similar bite but with a swirl of pain and fear just beneath the surface. Her performance embodies Israel’s rightful anger at a shallow and pitiless publishing industry, but also the self-inflicted wounds of inaction and alcoholism. There is a willfulness to Lee’s professional station, a profound discomfort with writing from her own perspective, a refusal to be vulnerable enough to truly possess her own voice. The forgery scheme is certainly an act of financial desperation, but it’s also one of self-preservation – easier to be celebrated indirectly than rejected directly.
Lee’s only confidant is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a homeless drifter for whom conning has become a way of life. When Lee questions whether she can trust him, Jack responds, “Who would I tell? All my friends are dead.” He’s referring to the AIDS crisis in early-‘90s New York City, something the film doesn’t address but in passing, though it’s another element of unforgiving isolation that hovers over these characters, linking them in both desperation and defiance.
An elegant confidence propels Can You Ever Forgive Me?, one that confirms this as a film that knows precisely what it wants to be. The director is Marielle Heller, whose first film, 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was an odyssey of moody period detail, darkly biting satire, and melancholic reflection. Can You Ever Forgive Me? operates on the same equilibrium, a story of cynical ingenuity, an artful execution of an artless practice, a woman who is at once finding her voice and rendering herself voiceless.