Melissa McCarthy’s movie portrayal brings a criminal to life
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a honest look into real-life writer Lee Israel’s criminal career in the 1990s. The film, directed by Marielle Heller, opens with a disheartened Israel, whose celebrity biographies were no longer turning a profit. Behind on rent and swamped with her sick cat’s veterinary bills, Israel turns to a life of crime. She comes across a letter from a well-known author and discovers it’s worth a small sum to New York City’s many used bookstores.
More interesting content, however, could bring in more money, which is what Israel soon learns as she dives into the world of literary forgery. Purchasing various typewriters to match the typefaces and age of the letters, Israel begins embellishing letters and passing her own writing off as the work of Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and other deceased authors. Israel graduates to replacing archived letters with her own fakes and sells the originals to collectors.
As Israel’s crime spree takes off, the film similarly picks up speed. Israel, who was often described as having a difficult personality, is portrayed brilliantly by veteran comedic actor Melissa McCarthy. In “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” McCarthy transforms into a reclusive alcoholic and does so in a way that avoids stereotypes and an overly villainized portrayal, emphasizing how Israel is still human despite her transgressions.
Israel soon finds an accomplice in the dashing hedonist Jack Hock, who becomes Israel’s only friend (besides her cat, Jersey). Israel’s intensive research and writing dexterity combined with Hock’s street-smarts and relaxed morals produce and sell over 400 letters in a two year period.
“I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” McCarthy, as Israel, brags in the film.
In real life, Israel identified as lesbian and Hock was openly gay, which the film deals with in a respectful, matter-of-fact way.
“[Sexuality is] a part of who you are, and it’s integrated into your being from the beginning,” McCarthy told Curtis M. Wong, during an interview with the Huffington Post. “It shouldn’t be like this separate entity that’s added on, like you picked it up along the way.”
A major theme in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is Israel’s reclusive nature. Her fear of intimacy becomes apparent through an encounter with an ex-partner and by the harsh criticism of her literary agent, who berates Israel for hiding behind others’ lives in her biographical writing. Even Israel’s letter forgeries, although masterfully written, contain nothing of their writer.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is an adaptation of Israel’s 2008 memoir of the same name, which is her most intimate work and details her years as a literary forger. In this memoir, she considers the forgeries to be her best work.
The film adaptation captures Israel’s sassiness and caustic wit. Despite the depressing tone of the film there are many humorous moments, placing it in the genre of dark humor. The film does not attempt to judge its characters or imbue their stories with a positive message. The Lee Israel on screen is the same cat-loving, cranky Lee Israel many came to know, but perhaps not love. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is an authentic portrait that’s worth a view. It is currently showing at the Davis Varsity Theatre.
Written by: Cheyenne Wiseman — firstname.lastname@example.org