Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an intriguing film based on the true story of a struggling author who turned to fraud after her writing career hit rock bottom.
It features a brilliant Melissa McCarthy in a dramatic role – for which she’s garnered a Golden Globe nomination – quite different from the broad comedy performances for which she is best known. (If you haven’t yet seen it, dial up her hilarious 2017 send-up of Trump’s then press secretary Sean Spicer.)
She plays Lee Israel, an alcoholic misanthrope who achieved some success in the ‘70s and ‘80s with her biographies of actress Tallulah Bankhead and game show panellist Dorothy Kilgallen.
The film is set in New York in the ‘90s. Israel’s latest book has failed, no one wants her work and her agent tells her to get another job. She is in her 50s, behind with her rent, and friendless apart from her ailing cat.
Desperate for money to pay the vet bills, she starts stealing letters written by famous people, from collections in public libraries and archives.
She replaces the stolen letters with clever forgeries, or makes the celebrity letters more collectable by forging witty additions.
Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) has McCarthy dressed in dowdy brown and grey outfits, worn with a bobbed mouse-brown wig with grey roots.
Though Israel was thoroughly unlikeable, aggressively rude and slovenly in her personal habits, McCarthy manages to make the character somehow sympathetic.
She teams up with another rogue, Jack Hock, a dissolute but charming alcoholic, (a great performance by Richard E. Grant, also up for a Golden Globe), who helps her flog her celebrity letters.
When she confesses to him that she is involved in criminal activity, he asks, “What criminal activity could possibly involve you – except a crime of fashion?”
The film has moments of comedy but is also a sensitive account of a lonely and frustrated woman trying to survive in a tough, uncaring world.
Lee Israel purportedly stole, altered or forged about 400 letters from deceased actors and writers, including Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward and Ernest Hemingway.
She was one of the most successful forgers in literary history, and commented that the dealers were “spectacularly incurious”.
The film is based on Israel’s own account of her exploits, also titled “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, which ironically became a best-seller.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? Is now showing at Luna Leederville, Luna On SX, The Windsor Cinema and Luna Outdoor.
Watch the trailer…