Director: Marielle Heller
Writers: Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
This has to be one of the best movies about writing that I’ve seen, one shows, in a realistic way, the difficulty of making a living as a writer, and the special cruelty of the New York publishing world. Based on Lee Israel’s memoir of the same title, it’s about a down-on-her-luck biographer (Melissa McCarthy) who turns to literary forgery as a way to pay her bills. Israel, who died in 2014, found plenty of work as a journalist and author in the 1970s and 80s, but had a dry spell after her biography of Estee Lauder was panned by critics and sold poorly. Can You Ever Forgive Me? takes place in the early 1990s, when Lee begins to forge letters by famous writers like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward to sell to collectors.
Lee hits upon the idea of forging notable correspondence after she sells a prized possession, a personal letter from Katharine Hepburn. Then, in a piece of luck, she happens upon another piece of correspondence from Fanny Brice. When she tries to sell that one, she’s told it’s ‘not interesting’ enough, so she embellishes it, with a p.s. to make it more interesting. Suddenly, the letter is worth a lot more. After that, she begins writing letters from scratch, taking on the voices of people she has gotten to know in her former career, as a biographer.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? takes its time to show the particular circumstances that lead Israel to break the law and the trust of the collectors whom she sells to. It’s not only that she needs the money, she also needs a writing project that other people appreciate. After months of rejection, Lee finds that it’s nice to watch rare books dealers chuckle at her witticisms written in the voice of Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman. Writing and selling the letters also provide her with a social life, which she desperately needs, even as she does everything she can to push people away. Lee is a blunt personality whose wit veers toward caustic. She drinks too much, cares little for social niceties, and claims to prefer the company of cats to people — in fact, it’s a vet bill for her cat that prompts her to sell her Hepburn letter.
Her life in crime leads her to team up with an old acquaintance, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a fellow drunk who doesn’t have a permanent address and gets by, somehow, on his fading good looks and charm. She confides her scheme to him, and he later helps her to sell the letters in order to draw suspicion away from her. Unlike Lee, Jack has enthusiasm to spare, and their contrasting personalities make them quite a pair. They both love a good prank, especially one that takes the piss out of pretentious New Yorkers — so, the literary world is a perfect target. But most of the people Lee encounters in the rare books world are quite earnest and friendly, and McCarthy shows Lee’s inner conflict as she must continue to lie to buyers whose trust she has earned over time.
I read on Wikipedia that this movie was originally going to star Julianne Moore, but I can’t imagine it without McCarthy at its center. Without her, I think this story might have been more dour, and Lee’s curmudgeonly qualities might have played as bitterness. McCarthy finds Lee’s humanity by showing how isolated she is, a lonely person whose self-involvement has blinded her to reality. She’s genuinely shocked when her agent tells her that the books she’s working on is unsaleable; later, when a pest controller comes into her apartment, she’s surprised to find out that she’s living in a place that smells terrible. In a pivotal scene with an ex-girlfriend, it becomes clear that Lee has never really opened herself up to anyone. McCarthy finds something innocent and vulnerable in Lee — and also something gleeful. McCarthy’s trademark dimples emerge as she fools people who take pride in their powers of discernment.
As I was walking home from this movie, I couldn’t decide if it was a film about finding your voice as a writer or losing it; inspiration or dead ends; authenticity or ventriloquism. The tension between these ideas is, in my experience, one of New York’s defining moods, and in addition to being a great movie about writing, it’s wonderfully observant of life in Manhattan — not the glittering life so often portrayed in film, but the linoleum-floored walk-up life, the sick cat life, the wood-paneled dive bar life. The are moments of beauty, too, like when Jack and Lee go to a cabaret bar, late one night, or when Jack offers to help Lee clean her apartment. There’s a complicated friendship at the heart of this story, making it more than just a movie about someone getting away with a silly crime.