A film about a briefly notorious literary forger has the potential to be dull and straight-forward, emphasis on the straight. Thankfully, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is neither.
The forgery in question — approximately 400 letters “written” by dead 20th century greats but actually penned by failed, butch biographer Lee Israel — really happened and is somewhat interesting, but is not the true story on display here. Refreshingly, the writers and director are less concerned with their subject’s crimes, and far more fascinated by the forces that drive people to do desperate things.
Lee Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy) enjoyed moderate success in the 70s and early 80s as a celebrity biographer. But in 1985, a poorly conceived and received biography of Estée Lauder tanked her literary career. Struggling to hold down a job (she was famously cantankerous and unpleasant), she turned to counterfeiting private letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway, sometimes fetching as much as $2,000 per forgery. Israel, a writer at heart, had a knack for embellishing the letters with uncharacteristically personal content — which would ultimately become her downfall. Assuming the guise of Noël Coward, she made “self”-references to his homosexuality, something collectors and still-living friends of the playwright said he would never have done. Eventually, the FBI was alerted and Israel was convicted.
I walked into the theater expecting only fleeting mention of Lee Israel’s lesbianism but was pleasantly surprised to find that Can You Forgive Me? is gay from start to finish.
Early in the film, after she’s been fired by her agent for being particularly nasty, we see a frustrated Israel downing whiskey at Julius’, a historic Greenwich watering hole. She runs into aging queen Jack Hock (played beautifully and sensitively by Richard E. Grant), who will become her accomplice, helping her sell her forgeries once she’s blacklisted by collectors. While the film features constant mention of Israel’s past lover and even a briefly budding relationship with a soft-spoken bookstore owner, it is Hock and Israel’s relationship that is the centerpiece of the movie.
He chides her fashion, she tolerates his flamboyance; but, when he turns up at her apartment beaten after failing to pay for drugs, Israel cares for him. Both horrors in their own way — Hock will eventually steal from her and negligently murder her cat — their friendship is one borne of mutual loneliness. And frankly, one of the more nuanced depictions of gay-lesbian relations in recent years.
McCarthy, who’s built a career on memorable caricatures (her legendary turn in Bridesmaids perhaps foreshadowed she’d one day play a lesbian), is as funny as ever, but the laughs here are more tragic. Israel is cruel to those around her, and at first, you relish in her verbal sparrings. But they become less funny as she begins to alienate herself. “I’m always looking for a drinking buddy,” she reflexively tells a date (who she also sold a forgery to) when they try to get intimate. McCarthy’s eyes flicker in the delivery, and you get the sense that Israel is a woman trapped by her own unkindness. A later scene with an ex-lover reveals that, even when she thought she was being intimate, she was closed off and hurtful.
Once busted, the movie doesn’t exactly portray its subject as remorseful, and it shouldn’t; the real Lee Israel wrote a biography of the same name during her probation which bordered bragging. However, at the end, they do show a weepy Lee attempt to make amends with Jack Hock, her only friend, who she throws out after the cat debacle. This mea culpa is doubtful, especially considering how, once the credits rolled, an older woman sitting behind me in the theater who had worked with the real Lee Israel at Scholastic told her friends, “She was far worse than this.”
What sticks with you is the dark stuff; how bitterness is caging, how professional and personal rejection can eat away at a soul. It’s not necessarily happy viewing, but it’s well-crafted and there is comfort in seeing a queer person accurately and unapologetically portrayed — frump and all.
Jacob Seferian is a Texas-bred journalist living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @disco__bitch. That's disco, two underscores, bitch.