Desperate times call for ingenious measures – especially if you’re a writer who has gone out of fashion. That’s the premise of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, in which Melissa McCarthy gives a powerhouse performance as literary forger Lee Israel.
In 1991 Manhattan-based writer Lee Israel is summarily dismissed from her copy-editing job for being drunk (and abusive) in the office. Unable to pay her rent, Lee’s desperation is compounded when the vet refuses to treat her sick cat until she settles her bill.
Lee, who is 51 and single, has enjoyed past successes with books about Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen. But her biography of Estée Lauder is gathering dust in the bookshops, and her agent isn’t even lukewarm about her latest project, a biography of Fanny Brice. She bluntly tells Lee to ‘find another way of making a living’.
She begins by stealing a genuine letter from Fanny Brice and boosting its value by adding a witty postscript. From there it’s a short step to acquiring an enviable collection of vintage typewriters and inventing fictionalised correspondence from literary greats like Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward and Ernest Hemingway.
You may wonder why the bookstore owners of Manhattan are so eager to buy these artefacts without any proof of authentication. But Lee and her drinking buddy Jack Hock (the fabulously louche Richard E Grant) are having such a blast with her criminal activities that you go with the flow, even as the FBI start to close in.
I’d never heard of Lee Israel before I saw this film, which is based on her 2008 memoir and directed by Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl). In her dowdy wig and frumpy clothes, Melissa McCarthy portrays the scotch-guzzling writer as a brusque, unapproachable and thoroughly unglamorous figure. Yet I still found myself rooting for her – right from the opening scene.
McCarthy, who is better known for her comic roles, accesses all the complexities of a woman who is used to putting up barriers with everyone apart from her beloved cat, Jersey. This failure to engage with people is spelled out in a short but heartbreaking scene between Lee and her ex (played by Anna Deavere Smith).
Lee is able briefly to bask in the admiration of bookstore owner Anna (Dolly Wells), when they go out to dinner. But it’s her relationship with Jack, a gay coke dealer of no fixed abode, that proves the most turbulent. You see her struggling with the intimacy of allowing him into her squalid home (there’s a mountain of cat crap under the bed). Their angry exchanges over the proceeds of her fraud show Jack acting as a mirror. As her ego and mistrust get the better of her, Jack reminds her, ‘No one is buying Lee Israel letters.’
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is definitely a film for bibliophiles. A Smith Corona typewriter, picturesque shots of Central Park and acres of bookshelves wouldn’t be out of place in many of Woody Allen’s early films. A soundtrack that features Peggy Lee, Chet Baker and Dinah Washington makes it seem as though we’ve travelled further back in time than the early 90s.
But despite the freewheeling, carousing fun of the early Lee and Jack scenes, there is no disguising the bleakness of this story. The law eventually catches up with Lee, while a much worse fate awaits Jack in the era of the Aids epidemic.
The words ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ are from a letter in which Lee Israel impersonated Dorothy Parker, a revered writer, wit and member of the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s.
I wouldn’t call Melissa McCarthy’s Oscar-nominated performance in this film just an impersonation. She shows us some of the many facets of the fiercely intelligent but flawed Lee Israel. It’s just a shame that Lee, who died in 2014, didn’t get to see it.