This fact-based account of author Lee Israel’s 1990s crime spree as a forger of literary letters makes for blackly comic, compelling and ultimately moving cinema. Director Marielle Heller’s film showcases two stand-out performances: from Melissa McCarthy as Israel and from Richard E. Grant as fellow boozehound renegade, Jack Hock.
In adapting Israel’s 2008 memoir screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty have a treasure-trove of bitchy one-liners to draw upon. The biographer was evidently a ‘difficult’ personality, someone whose bad behaviour enlivens Can You Ever Forgive Me?
But McCarthy doesn’t play for easy laughs; she breathes depth and soul into this frumpy middle-aged New Yorker with a caustic tongue, who refuses to play the publishing game and likes cats better than people. At first the actor’s Jimmy Krankie hair and spinster librarian wardrobe jolts the viewer – it is nearly as off-putting as her drunken response to journalist colleagues at the start of the film (“fuck off!”). But we soon get used to her misanthropy and “crimes against fashion.”
In 1991 hard-drinking Lee is “going through a rough patch,” behind with the rent and in need of funds to pay vet’s bills for her sick cat. Her apartment is also in need of a detox – it has a plague of flies, probably attracted to the fossilised cat turds under her bed. Once on the New York Times Bestseller list, Lee is trying to write a biography of comedienne, Fanny Brice, but writer’s block gets in the way: “This is me sitting down to fucking write,” she types on a blank sheet of paper.
A way out presents itself when Lee sells a personal letter she received from Katharine Hepburn to a local book dealer for $175. Told that she would have been paid more for if the content of the letter had been more interesting, Israel begins to forge and sell letters by famous dead writers and actors, embellishing them with postscripts and intimate and scandalous details. She invests in a collection of second-hand typewriters similar to those used by her subjects.
A chance meeting in a bar with old drinking buddy Jack Hock (Grant) leads to shared reminiscences and mischief. The two scoundrels play phone pranks on her enemies and crease up laughing like teenagers – McCarthy does a wicked impersonation of director Nora Ephron.
Richard E. Grant almost steals the show as Jack, a rakish old queen who recalls the actor’s memorably debauched debut in Withnail & I (1987). Asked by Lee if he is working, Jack replies “this and that. Mostly that.” With his flamboyant swept-back hair, scarf, perma-fag and one cutting use of the ‘c’ word, Jack’s cheery “Chin chin!” seals the deal.
When the FBI finally catch up with Israel she is unrepentant, confessing in court that “in many ways this has been the best time of my life.” Nobody got hurt, after all, and the people who paid inflated sums of money for her forgeries are mostly presented as greedy and pretentious. This was hardly a scam on the scale of the Hitler Diaries.
In a strange way Lee is keeping the literary flame alive (“I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”). She believes in her own integrity, that her letters provide “a portal into a better time and place when people actually honoured the written word.”
Lee Israel forged and sold around 400 letters. Two of her forgeries were included in a 2007 biography of Noel Coward. A critic called her 2008 memoir “a sordid and pretty damn fabulous book”. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a sordid and pretty damn fabulous film.