Films about writers are hard to make. Films about real-life writers impersonating multiple famous celebrities in letters bring an element of some much-welcomed lunacy that makes Can You Ever Forgive Me? more of a literary Catch Me If You Can.
The life of a biographer must be hard to deal with on a professional level. You are tasked with writing up a famous person’s life or telling a story of an unknown who was involved in a high-profile incident. Your job is to help portray those people in an interesting way to the public, that shines up real life to sell books. You are either hero-maker or an authority on documenting history. The only difference between “you and Tom Clancy is that people know who hell Clancy is.”. Lee Israel chose to document her place in history by writing her own biography, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, on how she sold over 400 fraudulent letters, of her own handy work, to make ends meet. Some real-life stories write themselves.
Israel was a biographer for famous actors, actresses, titans of industry, and famous journalists. She is a brilliant writer with no pull, because she writes about famous people, and nothing is her own creation. After writing a well-received article in Esquire on Katherine Hepburn, and a biography on actress Tallulah Bankhead, she hit a career peak that made the New York Times Bestsellers list with a biography on journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. Shortly after, her career took a nosedive with a professional low, an unauthorized biography on Estee Lauder that was lauded by critics and readers alike.
Her literary agent Marjorie (a biting Jane Curtain) ignores her calls and requests. After being exposed to one of Israel’s trademark beratings, she bluntly tells her she is not successful enough to be an *******. With no job, months behind on her rent, and vet bills piling up for her cat, she starts to do what she does best: forging letters from famous writers and actors. The more she writes them, the more colour she adds, and the more valuable they become to the pompous, pinkie-out, fuss-pots in the literary antique world.
There’s something absurdly funny about an out of work biographer who makes ends meet by impersonating famous writers, which is basically what she did on the up and up for years, colouring someone’s life in the name of book sales. What makes it even more surprising is how people gobbled it up; or does it, really? The world of collectables has always been fraught with con-artists; is it more surprising that the self-proclaimed educated crowd selling these items as middlemen are really wolves in sheep’s clothing? Israel’s letters brought joy to those who read them, it just brought them joy at a price that was too much for an original work by Lee Israel.
Melissa McCarthy’s take on Israel is a curmudgeon, who has fallen into depression and deals with it by dousing herself liberally with alcohol, even at her day job. She is wrapped up in her failed career, so much so she has very little understanding of even her own surroundings. She is mean, bordering on cruel, to almost everyone she encounters. She is so socially awkward she has trouble returning the slightest flirtation with a local bookstore owner (Dolly Wells) and her only real friend is a fellow failed writer, and somewhat of a con-artist Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who drowns his own inadequacies by abusing drugs and alcohol as well. Together, they are essentially all they have, and sometimes you treat the people closest to you in a way that is unbecoming of your respect.
Grant does a fine job as a man who stays afloat by hitching his wagon to the nearest person he can leach a free meal, drink, or shelter from, while slowly beginning to care for Israel as a friend. McCarthy goes beyond her usual tough but lovable comedic characters and delivers a deeply felt sadness. She makes Israel unlovable, while at the same time, you feel sorry for her. That’s something only the best actresses can do.
Films about writers are hard to make. Films about real life writers impersonating multiple famous celebrities in letters bring an element of some much-welcomed lunacy to a film that makes Can You Ever Forgive Me? more of a literary Catch Me If You Can than The End of Tour. Marielle Heller’s film is a highly entertaining ride with one of the year’s best performances from Melissa McCarthy and a terrific supporting turn from Richard E. Grant
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.