It is not often that audiences are treated to a central character as compelling as Lee Israel in Marielle Heller’s new film, Can You Ever Forgive Me, which emerges as the surprise of the Telluride Film Fest. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant give bravura performances that hover on a high-wire between comedy and tragedy, as we watch the world of two barely-there people crumble.
McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a famous forger who spent several months plying that craft before she attracted the attention of the FBI in 1993. We first meet Israel as a once-legit writer of pop-biographies who has the skids. Her agent (Jane Curtin, who’s a sight for sore eyes) laughs in her face when she asks for an advance. No one wants to read her Fanny Brice biography, no one likes her because she’s mean, and no one takes her seriously because she can’t even manage the basics of taking care of herself.
Israel in the film is disconnected from almost all human contact. Grouchy, acerbic and wholly unbearable, she has one friend in the world and that’s her beloved cat Jersey, who has suddenly fallen ill. With no money to pay the vet, bills mounting, and her rent overdue, she decides to first steal and sell letters by famous authors. When that well runs dry she begins to type up fabrications herself, make them look vintage, and sell them to eager collectors who can turn them around for a higher profit.
It is a game that can’t last. It’s reminiscent of the crime of deception that’s uncovered in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, with similar tension and rapid collapse. Even though the scam is eventually uncovered, most of the participants are able to walk away trying to find a victim. Here of course, the victims would be those she fooled, who lost thousands and thousands of dollars when forced to give refunds to people who paid top dollar for fakes.
The script is written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, and serves as an astonishing step forward for Heller, whose work here ought to cement her cred as one of the major up-and-coming female directors. This is only her second film after Diary of a Teenage Girl.
It is McCarthy’s show, however, and it’s hard to imagine how this film might have turned out if Julianne Moore, and not McCarthy, had played Israel. McCarthy is renowned not only for her blockbuster comedy roles but for the depth she brings to those roles. Even Megan in Bridesmaids (“This was not easy going up and down the hallways in high school”) had a layer to her portrayal that was heartbreaking. In Spy, she works through her secret love for a disinterested Jude Law and makes us feel every self-inflicted emotional bruise. Here her Lee is hard to like, but even harder to dislike.
McCarthy is known for carrying movies, for her vulgar, gaudy comedy, but she’s also appreciated for her sweetness on the Gilmore Girls. Her range was already established and impressive. No comic can be such a skilled reader of human foibles and not have a serious actress lurking beneath the facade of humor. McCarthy, like so many comedians, clearly knows pain. As flawed as her Lee Israel is, as cruel as she can sometimes be, it’s impossible not to remain on her side, not to like her and feel for her by the film’s end.
Her sidekick is the hilarious rogue Jack Hock (Grant) who becomes her only two-legged friend, drinking buddy, and later, her accomplice. Ultimately, Israel is guilty of being too good at what she does, being such a good writer, as she says in the film, that she’s a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker herself.
Can You Ever Forgive Me is that rare movie you never want to end, a film about broken people, loners who hover on the fringes, who scavenge what’s left of the important stuff that more socially competent humans leave behind. It’s hard to understand how a writer as talented as Lee Israel ended up investing her time and skill in imitating others. McCarthy’s character offers an explanation. Deep down, it ended up being easier writing as other people so no one could criticize her.
Lee Israel would eventually write a memoir of her life in crime, such as it was. It made her famous in a way that her books about other people never could.
Can You Ever Forgive Me turns out to be one of the most popular films at this year’s Telluride Film Fest and should easily land both McCarthy and Grant Oscar nominations. Along with Holofcener who, after more than four feature films and countless television episodes, is finally looking at her first nomination here for screenplay, with Jeff Whitty.
One of the striking take-aways from the Telluride Film Fest is how different it is to see women directed by women, as opposed to being directed by men. Gone is the requirement to look good in every scene, and somehow this one subtle change has made all of the difference in the kind of range the actresses are allowed to explore. Nicole Kidman gives one of those performances in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, and McCarthy does the same with Marielle Heller’s eye behind the camera. Imagine that kind of freedom.