Can You Ever Forgive Me Is the Funny-Smart-Sad Crime Caper You've Been Waiting For
The letters of literary greats like Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, and Lillian Hellman can be among the most sought-after things they’ve written. For someone with the right level of notoriety, correspondence might be collected into an anthology or actual ink-and-paper letters sold for dizzying sums at antiquarian book fairs or tweedy bookstores, or to collectors via a shadowy network of private dealers.
For Lee Israel, an underappreciated biographer whose real life is the basis of the new film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, these sorts of letters were also a means of escape—from her troubled career, her mounting bills, and her feeling that people without her smarts were passing her by. There’s only one problem with the letters Lee was in possession of: they were fake.
In Can You Ever Forgive Me, which opens today, Melissa McCarthy gives a delightful performance as Israel, bringing undeniable charm to the irascible character who starts off small (selling a letter she’s pilfered from a library) and moves on to full-blown forgery. Lee’s an unlikable character doing illegal things, but somehow—knowing full well she wouldn’t want our approval—it’s impossible not to root for her.
Marielle Heller and Melissa Mccarthy on the set of Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Much of the credit for this success goes to director Marielle Heller (she directed The Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2015; this is her second film) whose genuine affection for her characters, and ability to show us things beyond their surface, makes Forgive Meone of the most enjoyable movies so far this year. Here, she talks to T&C about the film.
Did you know about Lee Israel before getting involved with this movie?
The project had a bit of a life before me. Movies require a minor miracle to get made. I was in the process, after finishing my first movie, Diary of a Teenage Girl, of figuring out how I would possibly follow that up and I was making decisions about who I wanted to be as a filmmaker. Then Anne Carey brought me this project. I was friends with [the writer] Nicole Holofcener and I loved and respected Anne so much, and when she told me there was a chance that Melissa McCarthy might be interested in joining the movie, it just sounded like this great chance to work with smart, interesting women and I immediately perked up. Then I read the story, and I found it fascinating and the character of Lee appealed to me in so many ways.
She’s not universally likable. What appealed to you about her?
She’s unapologetic, and the sort of woman we don’t get to see movies about. She cares about her intellect more than her appearance and doesn’t care about the things that we assign to women as what they’re supposed to be interested in, and she’s just always the smartest person in any room. And she’s an asshole, which we don’t let women be in movies even though a lot of women are. I found it refreshing.
As much as this is a movie about a person, it’s also about a time—a time when writers like Lee could still live in Manhattan, or when there weren’t easy ways to authenticate things like forged letters.
In many ways, Lee is out of step with her own era. She feels like she should have been a contemporary of Dorothy Parker and living a very literary life, but instead finds herself in 1990s New York. We were playing with multiple eras, because Lee wasn’t rooted in her own era but we were still trying to create that very specific time.
Dolly Wells, Marielle Heller, and Melissa McCarthy on set.
You also need actors who can play characters that are cantankerous and nasty and criminal, but also lovable. How did you strike that balance?
A lot of us love seeing characters on screen who say and do things we would never dare in real life. The only way to make a character like this as complex as they need to be to hold a movie is if you truly have affection for that person. Luckily, Melissa and I both saw Lee in similar ways and both had that affection. Yes, she had rough edges and maybe you didn’t want her as your neighbor, but what’s fascinating is how she got that edge and what has happened in her life to get her to that point.
There’s a lot being said about how the role is different than what we might be used to seeing Melissa do. It’s darker than some of her comedies.
Melissa is an amazing character actress; people know her from totally inhabiting the characters in her comedies, and this was no different. She and Lee aren’t alike—Melissa is sunshiny and Lee has the weight of the world on her shoulders—but it was a joy to watch her inhabit Lee.
Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy
Lee had some pretty incredible cons. Is there one you were most impressed by?
I come from the world of theater, and I know Noel Coward’s writing well. He has such a specific voice, and was one of the wittiest writers who ever lived, and you think of him in the same category as someone like Shakespeare who’s just impossible to imitate. But Lee not only successfully imitated him for years, but two of her letters made it into the official book of his collected letters—and this was years after she had been found out! They still thought two of her letters were his, and it wasn’t until they went into their second printing that they discovered the mistake. I think that’s just delightful. It shows what an incredible talent she is, and I think proves that in a different era or if she had learned how to harness her powers, she could have been seen as one of our great writers.
Was there ever a moment you just couldn’t believe someone was getting away with what she did?
Knowing about Lee didn’t make me think it was easy to get fakes past collectors. It made me realize how difficult it was and that she was just so extraordinarily talented.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors