Dr. Nancy West, a longtime cinema member and Professor of English at The University of Missouri, writes about Ragtag films for our website.
I first saw Melissa McCarthy in The Heat, an action movie in which she plays a lusty, brash cop alongside Sandra Bullock’s buttoned-up FBI agent. My son Silas, who was 10 at the time, watched it with me. If I were a normal mother, I would never have let him see The Heat, where McCarthy spews an endless stream of “mother fuckers” and “dick faces” while terrorizing male suspects and superiors alike. I thought about changing the channel (honest) but couldn’t. With her twinkling eyes and moon-pie face, McCarthy was funny, genuine, and somehow lovable. And thanks to her, I was Cool Mom for weeks.
In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, her latest movie, McCarthy plays another gutter-mouthed misanthrope. Her character is Lee Israel, the freelance writer who took to forging celebrity letters in the early 1990s after her career as a biographer went bust. Lee is McCarthy’s first dramatic role, one sure to land the 48-year-old actress an Oscar nomination and maybe re-make her career.
Can You Forgive Me? opens on a late winter night in the hallowed offices of The New Yorker magazine, with Lee hunched over a manuscript. She tells another copyeditor to “Fuck Off” and gets fired on the spot. Soon afterward, we see her attend a literary party hosted by her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin). Slugging Scotch and muttering to herself about “pretentious assholes,” Lee makes the rounds, hoping to persuade Marjorie to pitch her biography of Fanny Brice, the great vaudevillian, to publishers. When Lee corners her in a hallway (after pilfering a few rolls of toilet paper), the exasperated Marjorie tells her client, “No one will want to read a book about Fanny Brice. Who cares about Fanny Brice? She’s not sexy.” It’s a tough moment, anticipating today’s publishing world where even successful writers can’t sell books that don’t promise to command a big readership.
Desperate for money and incapable of wage labor (“No one would work with her,” remarked one editor in 2015), the real-life Lee Israel forged over 400 letters before the FBI nabbed her in 1993. Her subjects included Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, and Ernest Hemingway. Using the research skills she honed as a writer, she studied their memoirs for notable details; their published letters for epistolary style; and their archived letters for typing idiosyncrasies. She bought a clutch of old typewriters from secondhand shops and, on stealthy library visits, ripped out blank sheets of paper from old journals. For nearly a year and a half, she managed to fly under the radar by charging only $50 to $100 for each letter.
By all accounts, Lee Israel was a brilliant literary mimic, which makes sense. The forging community tends to be populated by miscreants, who say they fake only to show up how stupid and pompous the establishment is. “It was my best work,” she stated unapologetically in her 2008 (best-selling) memoir about the experience, and we can understand why. What Israel did was grift, cheap and contemptible, but it was also a literary form at which she excelled. And as the film implies, she excelled at it precisely because the people she mimicked were miscreants too, all possessed of the same brazen inventiveness that makes her so compelling.
The real Israel had a partner-in-crime named Jack Hock (played here by the underrated Richard E. Grant). A gay man of irrepressible charm and no fixed address, Jack is a couch-crashing Oscar Wilde, all slender flamboyance to Lee’s squat reserve. Together they drink, plot, and commiserate in corner bars, forming an unlikely intimacy that is the heart of the film. Near the end of the movie, in what risks becoming a tender scene, Jack asks Lee if she’ll finish her book on “Fanny Price.” Disgusted by his ignorance, she mutters, “Goddammit, it’s Fanny Brice.” Then she pauses and asks, “Are you sure you’re a fag?”
Can You Forgive Me? is a booklover’s delight. It will also appeal to anyone, like me, who loves movies about an older era of New York. Evoking the early films of Woody Allen, Can You Forgive Me? shows us a lived-in Manhattan, one that still abounded in gay bars, shabby taverns, and used bookstores. There isn’t a Starbucks in sight. That New York is nothing but a felt absence now, something we experience as missing even if we’re not wholly aware of it. We miss it because it seemed so utterly itself, as genuine, perhaps, as the woman who made a brief living pretending to be other people.