On paper, Can You Ever Forgive Me? sounded like catnip to me: Melissa McCarthy plays lesbian writer Lee Israel, whose confessional memoir details her short-lived detour from struggling writer to literary criminal mastermind. In the early ’90s, nearly destitute and with no new publishing prospects on the horizon, Lee began forging letters from famous historical writers to sell to collectors. She estimates she crafted about 400, total, before she was busted. I thought the film would be a caper, a heist flick, a quirky crime comedy. Instead, director Marielle Heller has created one of the most tender, visceral depictions of loneliness I’ve ever experienced. Not witnessed. Experienced. I saw this movie two weeks ago and I still haven’t recovered.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Lee Israel was a freelance writer who most notably profiled Katherine Hepburn for Esquire. By the ’80s she was writing full memoirs of the rich and famous. Her biography of journalist and game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen even made the New York Times bestseller list. By the ’90s, though, the publishing world was looking for celebrity authors, not authors who wanted to hide behind celebrities. That was a huge problem for Lee, who was notoriously misanthropic and antisocial. She was also a cat rescuer, and much preferred the company of furry friends to actual human beings. This is where Can You Ever Forgive Me? picks up. Lee’s most beloved cat and companion is sick, she’s months late on rent, no one wants to buy the Fannie Brice book she’s working on. She’s out of options.
When she finds a letter from Brice in the archives at the New York Public Library, she lifts it and hawks it at an antique shop — and thats’s when she realizes there’s big money in selling the right letters penned by the right people. She doesn’t have anymore letters, though; so she writes her own. This decision becomes both the catalyst for real connection in her life and a source of even greater discontent. She’s actually a very good writer! The words she’s putting in these other writers’ mouths are, often, even better than their own!
She meets two people who have the potential to change her life, during her charade. One is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), another writer who’s been chewed up and spit out by the New York literary scene. Where Lee is curmudgeonly, Jack is gregarious. She needs his help with her crimes, but really it’s an excuse; what she needs is him. The other is Anna (Dolly Wells), a bookshop owner and one of Lee’s buyers; they form a halting, hopeful wisp of a relationship, even managing to work their blossoming connection into a few real dates. There’s real affection here, between Lee and the two new people in her life, but she pushes and pulls and pushes and pulls, her default aversion to human connection compounded by the lies she’s telling and the secrets she’s keeping.
There are a few things that spin actual brilliance out of the bleak straw pile this movie could have been. The first is McCarthy’s performance. I’ll be shocked if she isn’t nominated for an Oscar (along with everyone else who worked on this movie). On the one hand, Lee Israel is an antihero, and a surly one at that. McCarthy doesn’t shy away from it; she leans into Lee’s most intensely unlikable moments. On the other hand, McCarthy completely inhabits the aching, sprawling, festering loneliness of Lee’s life, and shows us a woman who is desperate for affection. McCarthy’s funny, too, and not in that type-cast way she’s been forced to play since Bridesmaids. I’m talking about subtle, piercing humor. Dolly Wells and Richard Grant play Anna and Jack as characters who are willing to give Lee what she so desperately needs; characters who feel the sting of her worst behavior, accept it, and continue to extend grace to her. Sometimes it seems as if they need it as much as she does.
Finally, there’s Marielle Heller’s direction, which is courageously open-handed and full-hearted in its depiction of all these characters. There’s a scene between Lee and Anna that requires absolutely no talking whatsoever and is as affecting a lesbian date scene as any I have ever watched. They say nothing. You know what both of them mean, you feel what both of them feel.
It’s been a banner year for lesbian and bisexual women on film. Not just the number of films, but the quality of films, and the caliber of talent those films have attracted. Most notably, nearly every film about queer women this year has ended hopefully, many of them even happily. Can You Ever Forgive Me? stands alone in being, often, deeply sad. But it also stands alone in the larger canon of deeply sad lesbian movies (read: most lesbian movies). There are no stray bullets, no heat strokes, no leaping off tall buildings, no being beaten to death. No one’s paying for enjoying a single moment of queer happiness with their literal life.
“Can you ever forgive me?” is a line from one of Lee Israel’s forged letters. It’s one she crafted for Dorthy Parker. In fact, she was so proud of it she called herself “a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker” and even used the quote to title her autobiography. Amazingly, Heller doesn’t seem to care if the audience is willing to forgive Israel. She has a better question, one we never ask about lesbians on TV and in film: Can you not see the humanity of this brilliant, complicated woman who never let herself be loved?