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‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ evokes sympathy for estranged author Lee Israel

film review

Marielle Heller's "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" follows unemployed biographer Lee Israel as she attempts to regain her former success.
Marielle Heller's "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" follows unemployed biographer Lee Israel as she attempts to regain her former success.

In Marielle Heller’s film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” 90s era Manhattan possesses a melancholy that seemed to seep out of its very being. In an ever-damp and ever-cloudy setting, we are introduced to the now-unemployed Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a foul-mouthed and cynical writer known for her biographies of Dorothy Kilgallen and Estee Lauder. The film is an adaptation of the real Lee Israel’s terminal publication by the same name, one that she published late in her career before succumbing to cancer.  

Israel’s story is a plaintive portrait of a “starving artist”’s life in the city. Her life was all but under control, with a sick cat, late rent and a chronic case of writer's block. As her agent makes clear, a writer’s worth rests solely on their longevity, the limit of expression: marketability. The rules, as they have it, are to be well-mannered, amicable, and through necessary social manipulation, become established within a well-regarded sphere of influence. Such spheres that preclude introvertedness, the trait that fuels Israel’s tendencies.

McCarthy is virtually unrecognizable in her characterization of Israel. She metamorphoses with ease into the writer’s equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge in an honest and deft portrayal. McCarthy creates plenty reason for the audience to abhor Israel, but Heller’s careful direction manages to humanize the hermetic author, notably after the death of Israel’s cat, Jersey. McCarthy’s performance demands empathy and pity for the forsaken pair of miserable creatures. 

Heller, who previously directed the well-recieved film “Teenage Girl,” is able to capture the nuances in Israel’s essence as not only an uninspired grouch, but deeply unsatisfied and self-critical of her incapacity to galvanize her career. Under Heller’s direction, the film delivered the emotional blows that it dealt. Sensations of misery, grief and guilt each sustained their impact as the the events unfolded. 

McCarthy’s Israel lives under the delusion that her aversion to people is rooted in her distrust of them. But, her anxieties seem to lie elsewhere: Her unwillingness to open up is the root of her discord with the page. Israel’s failed relationship with previous partner, Elaine, was a result of her inability to be emotionally honest and available, bearing a striking parallel to her relationship with the typewriter. Good writing requires a certain vulnerability and personal determination, but Israel has built a wall so lofty that not even her words are allowed to breach its sturdy walls, and no criticisms can penetrate. The introvert’s hamartia is her very predisposition.

With each sulking journey to the bar on 87th, McCarthy absorbs the perpetual scotch-fueled reality that Israel operates in, always maintaining an earnest grip on her beverage of choice. Israel was an alcoholic — a notorious one at that — but not undiscriminating, noting that no self-respecting writer would ever drink sherry. Of course, it is at the bar when Israel is re-acquainted with charming expatriate and future conspirator Jack Hock (Richard Grant). 

Where Israel’s escape is through her endless glass of scotch and literary impersonations, Hock has his own vices: dope, coke and escorting half of Manhattan’s inhabitants to bed. With no known occupation or permanent home address, Grant’s Hock is the embodiment of a bohemian vagabond living in a romanticized reality, where anything is fair game, including sordid Bonnie and Clyde-esque crime schemes. His spunk breathes life into Israel’s despondency and together they forge and sell literary letters to prestigious collectors, a shocking breach of the writer’s moral code. What began as seemingly innocuous embellishments to perfidiously procured letters quickly transformed into full-fledged fraud. 

The film inspires thought on the idea of the authentic versus the replica. Philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that the reproduction severs ties with the time and creator of the work. That the reproduction lacks a certain “aura” possessed by the authentic. This suggests that the authentic work is inextricably linked to time. Although Israel’s forgeries reflected the “aura” of the individuals she impersonated when presented as authentic, the moment they are revealed as fakes, the collectors deem them worthless. 

Perhaps this is evidence of a flagrant preoccupation with nostalgia and a fetishization of the private lives of salient individuals. Benjamin also stated that a work’s influence can be so great that there is an instinctive drive to reproduction, offering some semblance of control. Israel’s forgeries seemed to assuage the lack of control in her own life, at least for some time. 

Writing the forgeries allowed her to take on the the personas of such successful literary icons as Dorothy Parker and Nöel Coward, known for their style and sharp wit. Writing about the throes of the midcentury under the guise of the famous and established allowed Israel to remain impervious. Rather than to write anything of her own, that expressed her own voice or style, she was able to continue hiding from herself, feeling comfortable and in control in anyone’s voice but her own. Even her specialty in biography hints at a preoccupation with others as a means of avoiding or developing the self. Even when she was aware that the FBI were on alert, she continued to compose the letters, writing over 400 of them by her court summons. It was a way of coping, and in the end, it did not cost her much. 

At the start of the film, we hear a snobby party-goer boast that writer’s block is an entirely made up notion by writers to excuse for laziness, claiming that he has the capacity and stamina that it takes for the field. For some, a lack of inspiration is the lack of a valuable experience or an extended encounter with the mundane. For others, it does not exactly take a run-in with the FBI to conjure creativity. In any case, the real Lee Israel was able to capitalize on her brush with crime in her successful memoir by the same name. 

The title “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is jarringly sardonic, posing as repentance on the surface.  A line from her forged Parker letter, Israel directly references the sheer brilliance of “her” work.  But Israel never regretted her actions, acknowledging the letters as some of her best work. Heller makes us feel for the resentful protagonist until the bitter end, making it difficult to determine whether she deserves our sympathy. Whether she does or not remains contentious, but one thing is for certain: she certainly does not need our forgiveness. 


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