Celebrity biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) makes her living profiling the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. But, when Lee is no longer able to get published because she has fallen out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack (Richard E Grant).
Lee Israel (Best Actress nominee Melissa McCarthy) is an irascible and arrogant alcoholic, with a preference for cats over humans. As her agent (a wonderful, albeit all too brief, turn by Saturday Night Live’s Jane Curtain) puts it, she is “not famous enough to be this much of an arsehole”.
It’s no wonder, then, that the once successful biographer of old Hollywood stars is unemployable and on the brink of poverty come the early Nineties. However, when she finds herself unable to pay the vet bills needed to keep her beloved cats alive and well, she decides to try her hand at a new career. Cue a successfully sedate criminal enterprise of celebrity letter forging, which sees Israel impersonate the likes of Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and Fanny Brice in exchange for seriously big bucks.
Based on her memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? presents Israel as something of a misanthropic anti-hero. However, the biographer is by no means a one note character. Indeed, we soon learn – from a brilliant rant about the blockbuster novelist Tom Clancy – that much of her frustration is born from the fact that she’s clearly a talented writer, but has been told that she’s fast becoming obsolete in a changing world.
Of course, it is due to comedy maven McCarthy that we are able to see Israel in this way. The actress may have started her career in dramatic roles off-off-Broadway, but, nowadays, she is best known for her scene-stealing physical comedy in Spy, Heat, Saturday Night Live, and, of course, Bridesmaids. It is McCarthy’s portrayal of the embittered and whiskey-soaked Israel, though, which has earned her a Best Actress nod at the 2019 Academy Awards, and no wonder. Her brilliant depiction of aggressive wit in the face of unjust misfortune strikes just the right note, emoting empathy for a woman who would most likely want none of it from us.
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Israel isn’t just a seething sourpuss, though. As McCarthy shows us, the biographer can be loving, too – mostly to cats, sure, but also to her friend and accomplice, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant on fabulous form as a latter day Withnail).
Hock, who has the temperament of a drunk Labrador (think endearing but destructive), is the only person Lee lets into her world. Together, they hover on the margins of society. And, when they find each other, they bond over their semi-functioning alcoholism, their distaste for suburban mundanity, and their crushing loneliness.
As you may have guessed from the above, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is – despite its many laugh-out-loud moments – a film which is steeped in sadness.
This point is underlined by the fact that the gay bars, frequented by Israel and Hock, are so quiet. Why? Because this film is set in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic (New York was the most affected city in America in the Eighties) and, as Hock points out, all of his friends are dead.
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Yes, on the surface, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a librarian heist film (something of a genre now after American Animals last year), but, at its heart, it’s an uncomfortably relatable portrayal of loneliness, infused with comedy and heartbreak.
There is no doubt that this clever blurring of genres is due to the direction of Marielle Heller. However, while Can You Ever Forgive Me? is being recognised at the Oscars for its performances and script (penned by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty), the film’s fantastic – and female – direction has been largely ignored by the Academy.
As Grant, reacting to his Best Supporting Actor nomination, said: “My only real disappointment is that Marielle didn’t get nominated for her directing. These performances didn’t come from out of the sky.”
Perhaps the only unforgivable thing about Heller’s critically-acclaimed film, then, is the lack of recognition she has received.
Image: 20th Century Fox
Emily Gargan is one of Stylist’s resident film critics. She has a deep love for Pedro Almodóvar, Winona Ryder, felt-tip pens, and dogs named after food.