My notes on Can You Ever Forgive Me?
In the 1990s, Lee Israel – a writer of showbiz biographies about folk like Katharine Hepburn – found that her current subject (Fanny Brice) wasn’t exactly generating publishing interest, work as a copy-editor was drying up, and her longterm alcoholism/assholism was making it hard to find other sources of income. After selling a personal letter from Hepburn, she slid into the practice of forging letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward and selling them to high-end Manhattan bookshops and dealers. When she got semi-rumbled and blacklisted, she had a flamboyant, if blatantly unreliable friend called Jack Hock act as middle man. He got busted and ratted her out, and she eventually wrote a memoir that has wound up as an odd, engaging little awards-bid film starring a dowdied, very creditable Melissa McCarthy as Israel and an equally convincing Richard E. Grant – in Withnail mode – as the doomed-to-die-of-AIDS Jack.
As someone on the fringes of the sort of business Israel was in – I know plenty of people who write the kind of books she does – I can appreciate a few of her quandaries – I also know people who have found freelance work drying up thanks to changing fashion, sometimes but not always exacerbated by bad habits – but have a lot of questions about the whys and hows of what she did and how she came to do it. A few inciting incidents are slipped in, including a grandstanding party cameo by Tom Clancy (Kevin Carolan), denying the existence of writer’s block and scoring a huge advance for a right-wing thriller which sets off Israel’s jealousy as her agent (Jane Curtin) can’t get her a fraction of the money … and the find of a bland but authentic Fanny Brice letter she sexes up with a forged PS to make saleable, the first step on her path to forgery on an industrial scale. We see Israel fill her apartment with old typewriters and research materials, and do basic ageing on the paper – also using a CRT TV as a light-box so she can trace a coward signature. It’s hinted that much of the celeb letter/autograph market is a racket infested with phonies, but even the dodgy dealers Israel sells to seem sincere. My preference would have been for a lot of Blowup style detail on how the scam was pulled, with some notes on the authentication process – if any – used by the dealers, and then the more rigorous work the FBI did to expose the fraud … but this isn’t that kind of film.
Director Marielle Heller (the upcoming Mr Rogers film), working from a script by Nicole Holofcener (writer-director of Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing and others) and Jeff Whitty (an actor in Shortbus, which leads my forensic senses to suspect he came in to spruce up Jack Hock’s patter), is focused on character and milieu … in many ways, this is an antidote to the kind of New York literati movie Woody Allen used to make, showing the sadness and desperation existing on the edges of the scene, where booze and self-hatred rather than amusing neurosis and casual sex are the order of the day. Lee only trusts her cat, and needs funds to pay its vet bills, but the stereotype of the funny, acid-tongued cat lady is presented with rare realism – other people wilt at the stench when they step into Israel’s catpiss-soaked, shit-littered, fly-infested apartment, and the scenes where Lee looks up her ex (Anna Deavere Smith) not to reconnect but dump her woes on someone else are believably awkward. A minor aside to the tragedy is that Lee first makes sales to Anna (the underrated Dolly Wells), a woman with similar interests who she goes out with on a single date – before the scam comes out, and she’s too ashamed to go back to make any kind of explanation.
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