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Movie Review

Movie Review: 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

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In the early 1990s, Lee Israel did something many of us probably wish we could do—she figured out how to be someone else. Or, I should say, she figured out how to be multiple someone elses.

Israel was a mildly successful biographer who, after a major commercial failure, was struggling to find money to pay rent, take care of her cat, and take care of herself. While working on a new book about the entertainer Fanny Brice, Israel came across a letter Brice wrote, which she then sold to a collector. This gave Israel the idea of writing and selling forged letters from prominent authors and actors. She’d always been told she had the ability to disappear into her subjects, why not take advantage of that?

The new movie Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on Israel’s memoir, and as played by Melissa McCarthy, this Lee Israel is peevish, standoffish, and caustic—she clearly doesn’t like much of anyone, and possibly likes herself even less. But she has a talent for impersonating at least the words of these well known people, and is good enough that she fools even the most discerning collectors. As she says at one point, “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!”

McCarthy is almost certain to get an Oscar nomination for this. And if there’s any justice in the world, so will her co-star, Richard E. Grant, who plays her partner-in-crime, Jack Hock. Grant has always been wonderful, but here he absolutely lights up the screen in every scene.

Both Hock and Israel are gay, and though the movie doesn’t make a big deal of it, but in some major ways, being gay in the early ‘90s was very different from being gay today, and this absolutely informs who they are and what they do. It’s also drastically important that this all occurs as the AIDS crisis is raging, though it’s subtly addressed—one seemingly throwaway line from Grant is devastating at its root.

Lee Israel didn’t get away with her crimes, but it’s not clear she ever really felt bad about them. After all, as a result her writing was celebrated and she finally got to feel like she was, well, somebody. And who among us doesn’t want that?