This year will likely be remembered as a time when women continued to take on the patriarchy and gain a public voice. So, it’s only fitting that one of the year’s finest, most delightful films contains a career-best performance by an Oscar-nominated actress—who’s rarely afforded a role this complex—in a perceptive movie that’s helmed by a gifted woman who deserves to work more. And not to be overlooked is the large crew of female collaborators who brought the rise-and-fall story of bestselling author and great American forger Leonore Carol “Lee” Israel to the screen in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Based on Israel’s self-deprecating confessional memoir—which was released to great acclaim in 2008 six years before she died at the age of 75—the sophomore film from former actress Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) stars Melissa McCarthy as the lonely, hard-drinking cat lady. Set in 1991, the Manhattan-based drama allows the comedic dynamo to disappear beneath a dowdy wardrobe she’s worn a bit too long, unkempt hair that’s graying at the roots and a face without any hint of makeup. Lee’s prone to wearing layers of clothes that she hides behind as she keeps all but her beloved cat, Jersey, at arm’s reach.
In fact, it’s Lee’s love of her feline companion that inadvertently sets the misanthropic loner down the path toward crime. Once a well-regarded biographer with a New York Times best-seller under her belt—she spent the ’70s and ’80s working on books about screen star, Tallulah Bankhead, and showbiz reporter/game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen—Lee earned entry into New York’s upscale literary scene. But when her biography of cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauderbombed, writer’s block set in. Worse, her dour personality did little to endear her to a rapidly changing publishing industry, which had begun a shift toward mega-best-sellers written by brand-name authors such as Tom Clancy (Kevin Carolan), a blowhard who holds court at a party Lee crashes at the home of her literary agent (Jane Curtin), who no longer takes her calls.
“Writer’s block is a term invented by the writing community to justify their laziness,” bellows Clancy, who is surrounded by female admirers. “My success is nothing more than that I have the dedication and stamina to sit and get the work done.”
“Oh, to be a white man who doesn’t even know he’s full of crap,” mutters Lee, who exits the soiree wearing a better coat than the one she arrived in, her pockets stuffed with shrimp cocktail she’ll treat Jersey to once she returns home. But Jersey has no appetite for the crustacean treat—or anything else. Worse, Lee is unable to pay for Jersey’s emergency pet care, leaving her no choice but to sell everything of value, including her books—and a beloved letter written by actress Katharine Hepburn.
When a vintage bookstore owner (Dolly Wells) offers $200 for Hepburn’s personalized letter, it plants a seed. Lee has spent years working on a book that will never sell, a biography of pioneering vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice. During her research, she discovered a pair of typed letters by Brice that are housed at the public library—which she steals and sells for more even more cash. Adding a piquant post-script to one of the correspondences significantly boosts its value, and the seed begins to sprout. Realizing she has a talent for forgery, Lee sets about faking letters from the typewriters of very famous people, concentrating on members of the Algonquin Round Table: Lillian Hellman, George S. Kaufman, Louise Brooks and Dorothy Parker. Although this undertaking is illegal, getting away with it soon emboldens her to add the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Noël Coward to her repertoire, with two of her forgeries actually making their way into a 2007 biography of the latter.
But Can You Ever Forgive Me? isn’t only the story of one struggling soul. Expertly adapted from Lee’s autobiography, the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener (the acclaimed filmmaker behind 2001’s Lovely & Amazing and 2006’s Friends with Money) and Jeff Whitty (the Tony-winning book writer of Avenue Q) structures the film around the offbeat humor and unlikely friendship that develops between Lee and Jack Hock, a big-hearted, flamboyant rebel who eventually becomes her accomplice. Turning in his most charming work since he debuted in Withnail & I more than three decades ago, Richard E. Grant’s coke-peddling grifter is a fellow outsider. A homosexual, like Lee, he’s simply trying to live during the height of the AIDS epidemic, which hovers just beyond the frame, like the FBI agents who inevitably pay the most attention to Lee’s work. ◆
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky, Jane Curtin, Stephen Spinella, Christian Navarro, Pun Bandhu, Erik LaRay Harvey, Brandon Scott Jones, Shae D’lyn, Rosal Colon, Anna Deavere Smith and Marc Evan Jackson. Written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on the book by Lee Israel. Directed by Marielle Heller. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Seaport and in the suburbs.