We live in an age where swathes of journalists get laid off at the drop of a hat, and where the idea of writing for a living seems more fantastic with every passing day. Writers get used to practicing a kind of stoic optimism: with no (monetary) reward or any recognition guaranteed, writing is something to do for the pure enjoyment of it, something you must be compelled to do for its own sake. To expect anything else is entitled. In Can You Ever Forgive Me, biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has not published a book in years, and she’s still as entitled as ever, stumbling through both the glamour and squalor of early ‘90s New York with prickly self-possession. She may be unable to pay rent, cat droppings piling up under her bed, reduced to stealing a coat at one of her agent’s fancy parties, but through all this she maintains the confident bitterness of someone who knows their own considerable skills, and also knows how unmarketable those skills have become.
In other words, Lee Israel is the hero that every film critic— no, every journalist, academic and writer of almost every stripe— deserves and cries out for. And that’s before, in desperate need of money, she appends a juicy, entirely forged post-script to a Fanny Brice letter she ‘found’ folded inside a book in a library archive. The PS turns a dull missive into a sparklingly witty artefact of the Jazz Age, and soon Israel is using her literary talent and nous as a researcher to make completely fabricated snippets of correspondence from writers like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. Along the way, she encounters the only boy in New York lonely enough to want to talk to her, ageing hustler Jack Hock (Richard E Grant).
They meet in historic gay bar Julius’, one of the many real-world locations that director Marielle Heller filmed at, all of which, like the films’ characters, come across as storied, gloried, run-down and infested with melancholy. In the corner of one window is a sticker with the slogan SILENCE=DEATH and a pink triangle. Grant’s Jack is beset by even more desperation and personal decline than Lee, but he’s putting up a more fabulously defiant front (and dealing coke on the side). Despite the fact that Lee ostensibly goes to gay bars with the express purpose of drinking alone, a co-dependent platonic friendship forms between the gay man and the lesbian— one which she will eventually exploit to further her criminal activities.
McCarthy gets exactly the kind of complex, no-nonsense role in a funny movie (but not a comedy movie) that I’ve always wanted to see her play. But what Grant supplies is a preternaturally hungry performance, turning every line into a noisy, messy feast. His character is always looking for the next thrill; Grant’s own delight is palpable, proving that a great performance can also be a fun one, especially if that sense of fun seems conspiratorially intimated to the viewer. The unlikely friendship between the two remains rich and interesting even when they aren’t playing off of each other, as when Jack takes Lee to a bar and they see a queer cabaret performance of Lou Reed’s ‘Goodnight Ladies’. The moment stands out to me partly because it brings the Jazz Age that Lee is so nostalgic for, and so fixated on in her writing, into her present, while at the same time queering it, charting the creation, by a queer artist, of something new and strange out of the scraps of bygone eras.
This is the unresolved question at the heart of the film— are Lee’s forgeries art, and are they commendable? Are they even, as the title asks, forgivable? (Actually, the title refers to a Dorothy Parker line that the real Israel made up— lots of her work is still quoted as original wit and wisdom in reputable biographies). Is Lee hiding behind these famous personas because she’s afraid her own work won’t sell, and she’s afraid of not being able to adjust to the changing demands of readers? Mercifully, the story is not one of redemption or repentance, or any other conventionally Hollywood (and conventionally heterosexual) narrative arc. Lee seems proud of her forgeries ’til the end, but not without McCarthy supplying shades of possible regret to look for behind all the bluster of it. Lee and Jack’s friendship doesn’t get them out of any holes, it just makes their shared pit of loneliness briefly more bearable (though sometimes inflicting its own agonies).
Lee mistreats a lot of people, including a bookstore owner who she goes out on one dysfunctional date with, and she never manages to entirely patch up any aspect of her life or relationships. She spreads a lot of falsehoods, causes a lot of hurt and confusion. But there is something punk-heroic about how she refuses to gently disappear. It’s as if her forgeries are a last cry for help, an attempt not to hide behind literary personas, but to reveal to people her real circumstances and how far she’s fallen. In an age when organisations like Act Up were staging desperate protests out of necessity and anger, pain and joy, it might seem a bit curious, even perverse to make a film about an isolated, prickly New York lesbian who engages with queer spaces only insofar as they offer her sanctuary from other people, to whom SILENCE=DEATH is a mantra encouraging her to always get the last word. But there’s also something affirming, hilarious and poignant about seeing a gay woman on screen who is a total mess, who is so completely deprived of everything she needs and everything she feels she deserves, yet who somehow makes an indelible mark on literary history using a few vintage typewriters and some scraps of old paper. It’s a complicated legacy. She confused and complicated the stories of these canonical writers who she loved so much, making it harder to sort fact from fiction. But she also exposed the shortcomings of those who claimed to have a handle on such matters. Marielle Heller’s romantic, bitter old soul of a queer film is a fitting tribute to a writer who left the world with unanswered questions, unparalleled one-liners and unresolved mysteries.