I’m a sucker for movies about writers. But so many suffer from the same thing: depicting a writer’s angst with cliched shots of the writer furiously scribbling on a page before violently crumbling it up or ripping it out of the typewriter (in “Julia,” Lillian Hellman then hurls the typewriter out the window).
Melissa McCarthy in director Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” delivers one of the best on-screen portraits of a writer because McCarthy nails real-life scribe Lee Israel’s writerly torment. Despite penning three biographies, she can’t pay her rent; she drinks way too much; she battles with feelings of superiority/insecurity and the gnawing sense that no one (especially not her agent, a great turn by Jane Curtin) is interested in her work anymore. That Israel, who died in 2014, desperately turned to forging letters by famous writers and other celebrities to pay her bills but also to prove to herself, in the hellish vacuum of invisibility, that she still had talent is rendered as a tragically comic twist in the film. Yes, Lee is deluded, bitter and rather pathetic. But the smart, witty script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, and Heller and McCarthy’s willingness to make Lee unlikable is what makes the character relatable. She’s acerbic and eccentric, but never treated as a joke.
The real Israel’s crimes took place in the early 1990s. The film opens in an undefined time that looks much earlier but, judging from Lee’s ill-fitting blazers and clunky eyeglasses, style was never important to her. She’s drinking at a desk job and gets fired, so she pays a visit to her agent (Curtin) who tells her point blank that no publisher is interested in her anymore. Lee is irascible, doesn’t play the game, and her journalism is out of step with current trends. Her biographies of actress Tallulah Bankhead and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen did well but her latest book on cosmetics mogul Estée Lauder is languishing in the remainder bin when Lee visits a local bookstore hoping to sell a stack of used books.
As things spiral downward, Lee pulls from her wall a framed, signed letter from Katharine Hepburn, whom she’d profiled for a magazine piece. The lively note thrills a novice dealer, Anne (Dolly Wells), who buys the letter from Lee, triggering the writer’s bizarre second career as a forger. Anne is sweet, and seems genuinely interested in Lee, who proclaims her disdain for anyone’s company other than her cat’s. McCarthy conveys Lee’s reflexive sabotaging of opportunities, such as when she and Anne go to dinner and Lee dismisses the date with a curt, “I can always use a drinking buddy.” The flash of regret that crosses McCarthy’s face afterward is a stab to the heart.
Lee buys vintage typewriters, does research, and comes up with pithy, signed letters from Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Hellman, Hemingway, Louise Brooks and many others, selling them to Anne and other small dealers around New York.
Heller generates suspense, even for those who know Lee’s story thanks to her own memoir. She stages great scenes such as Lee browning stationary in her apartment oven or tracing a signature using her glowing TV as a backlight. When some dealers become suspicious, Lee enlists her fellow gay social outcast and drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, excellent) to front the letters for her.
McCarthy is, not surprisingly, terrific in this juicy dramatic role. Her subtle reactions reveal so much of Lee’s brash personality and damaged soul that she turns this darkly funny tale about an oddball into a biting portrait of a writer raging from the margins.