This article was originally published on SSP Thinks Film by Sam Sewell-Peterson.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018/19)
Director: Marielle Heller
Screenwriters: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone
Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? deftly tells a story that is so bizarre it could only be true, with characters so unlikeable they’re strangely compelling.
Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) may be a published author, but her books aren’t selling and her publisher won’t pay her for writing more unsexy, niche biographies. Lee’s abrasive personality and dislike of self-promotion turns people off personally and professionally, until fellow human-hating functioning alcoholic Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) befriends Lee, and Lee comes up with a lucrative scheme that’ll stick it to the snobbish writing establishment.
As entertaining as the escalating con job portion of Can You Ever Forgive Me’s plot is, really this is a love story; a love story between two loners who need friendship, whether they want it or not (one does not). Lee and Jack are platonic soulmates – well, unless Lee’s cat is around. Lee is almost impossible to like, but easy enough to understand. She just doesn’t get people and doesn’t want to get people. As she herself states, she prefers cats, fittingly an animal that will generally leave you to it.
I’d say the film ends up being pro-writers and very anti-publishing. Lee may not be at all willing to help herself, living in an apartment littered with cat turds so old they’re practically fossilised, and drinking herself into a stupor daily, but her industry won’t cut her any slack either. Without said slack being given or financial security on her horizon, her creative well runs dry and she ends up either not writing at all or writing something that will never sell.
Much like politics, publishing is a culture of personality and self-promotion, and if you’re an author without the former and unwilling to do the latter then you won’t get far. The film is very unkind to Tom Clancy, but he was undeniably the best of the best at preserving a brand.
Lee is driven to do what she does, to forge correspondence in the guise of more famous writers out of sheer desperation, but like all good stories of amorality she soon becomes addicted to her wrongdoing, to getting her own work out there to be read by any means necessary. “I was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”. Israel clearly had a talent: to convincingly inhabit the voices of others. A great visual for this is seeing her row of vintage typewriters, all labelled with the “characters” she is to play. A laugh-out-loud coda to the film states that Israel’s letters as Noel Coward were published in a Noel Coward biography, a screw-up I’m sure pleased the real Israel greatly.
You don’t often find yourself thinking “that cat’s a really good actor”, but here it’s true – Lee’s cat is the biggest feline scene-stealer since that one Oscar Isaac had to carry around for much of Inside Llewyn Davis. McCarthy is my pick for Best Actress this year (she won’t win) because her performance as Lee is the most subtle and nuanced thing she has ever done. Grant probably has a better chance in the Supporting Actor category as an “it’s about time” award. Yes, they both go through the classic Oscar-baity deglamorisation, but they’re such interesting, contradictory and hilarious figures and their every scene together is such gold that you don’t really mind.
This should have been nominated for Best Picture, but the Academy generally dislikes rewarding stories about terrible people outside the acting categories (see also There Will Be Blood and The Wolf of Wall Street). There’s a pleasing irony to the fact that the film that’ll introduce the vast majority of audiences to Lee Israel’s story and life’s work hasn’t quite got the recognition it deserves.
By Sam Sewell-Peterson
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