Melissa McCarthy is quietly stunning as author-turned-criminal Lee Israel “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Known for outrageous comedic characters in such films as “Bridesmaids,” McCarthy shows us a side we have never seen before — an acerbic, intelligent writer on the skids after earlier success as a New York Times bestselling biographer of people such as Katharine Hepburn and Estee Lauder.
McCarthy is a dynamic, sparkling actress, and it’s fascinating to see her shine in this role — not dulled at all, but completely redirected. Her character, Lee, is a painfully self-isolated alcoholic pining, in her own way, for her ex-girlfriend and caring only for her cat. The film’s real sparkle comes from the incomparable Richard E. Grant as Jack, a streetwise charmer equally devoted to alcohol. They become each other’s only friends. Jack flatly declaims all his friends are dead and is himself HIV-positive. This true story, set in Manhattan in 1991, has a richly developed background in the LGBTQ community.
Fired from a job as a proofreader and unable to get her agent (a scene-stealing Jane Curtin) to sell her book proposal on the life of Fanny Brice, Lee is forced to sell a personal letter Katharine Hepburn wrote to her. She soon makes the odd, but in many ways natural, progression to generating more such correspondence to sell, forging letters from the kinds of writers and people she admires and feels connected to.
This is a fascinating avenue for her recently stunted creativity. By dreaming up new, fake words in the voice of kindred spirit Dorothy Parker, Lee Israel does not just find a way to make cash, she finds her own voice as well. The film presents wonderfully slippery positions on issues of identity, forgery, impersonation and creativity. Lee writes faithful biographies, but also entirely invents aspects of biographies. She eventually writes her own story and, through various fans, detractors and collectors, the importance of authenticity is particularly called into question, especially in the film’s perfect final moment.
In the world of “white collar” crime, literary letter forgery must rank somewhere below even more white collar crime, like “oatmeal-colored cardigan” crime. The personal stakes are certainly high, but as crimes go, this is mercifully unsensational. The details of Lee’s crimes, eventually abetted by Jack, are wonderfully satisfying, from her turning her television sideways to act as a light table in order to trace Noel Coward’s signature, to the amazing moment when Lee orders stationery and the clerk assumes she herself is a woman named Dorothy Parker. Hers is a decidedly tweedy underworld, with crimes enacted in libraries and New York City bookstores.
Based on Lee Israel’s actual memoir, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” feels emotionally and historically authentic throughout. The relationship between Lee and Jack is refreshingly unflinching and their connection is unsentimental, halting, often self-serving and, therefore, incredibly realistic. Although Jack basically survives on being likable, Grant still manages to make this character so much more than just a sassy sidekick.
There is profound pathos and regret in both lead performances, but also an incredible degree of self-acceptance. The many award nominations for Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, including for Oscars, are richly deserved. The actors themselves and the characters they play explore so many aspects of creation, and there is so much here to think about, long after the film ends. May this film lead to more dramatic roles for McCarthy, and a full-blown Richard E. Grant renaissance.
“Can You Ever Forgive me?” is currently available to rent.
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