Saturday, August 3, 2019

Thomas Wise's Natural Child

Film: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Anyone who has done any sort of acting will tell you that comedy is harder than drama. There’s a reason that a lot of dramatic actors fail terribly as comedian on film and why so many comedians are capable of turning in powerful and profound performances in dramas. The history of film is replete with comedic actors who have wowed audiences with a dramatic turn. Recently, Steve Carrell getting Oscar nominated for Foxcatcher was surprising. It’s more surprising that he genuinely earned that nomination, and just as surprising that everyone was so surprised by it. Well, it’s Melissa McCarthy’s turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and the same things apply. It’s surprising she was nominated, surprising just how good she is, and surprising at how much that shocks me.

Before I dive into Can You Ever Forgive Me? there is something I want to talk about. Around the middle of my MA, I took a class in literary research and bibliography. One of the projects we had to undertake was a bibliography of a bibliographer. My pick was a guy named Thomas Wise. It turns out that Wise was one of the most famous literary forgers in history, which explains the title of this review. If you’ve got a few minutes, look him up on Wikipedia (which is fine for this sort of casual research). His biography seems like it could have easily inspired this movie, had this movie not already been based on a real story.

Lee Israel (McCarthy) has a problem. Once a known and respected biographer, someone who had a book on the New York Times Bestseller List, her life has changed for the worse. Styles and tastes have changed, and what worked for her in the 1970s no longer does. As the film opens, she loses her job as an editor. She’s months behind in her rent and has a sick cat who can’t get seen by the vet until Lee pays the past-due bill. Her agent (Jane Curtin) no longer takes her calls and tells her that no one is interested in her upcoming biography of Fanny Brice. Her drinking is out of control as well.

Desperate, Lee sells one of her most cherished possessions: a framed, personal letter from Katherine Hepburn. This nets her a little cash. Determined to continue working on her biography, Lee discovers a pair of personal letters from Brice inside one of the books she is using for research. She pockets them and sells one, but for very little money thanks to the bland nature of the letter. Needing the money, she inserts the second letter into her typewriter and adds a saucy postscript, which increases the value of the letter substantially.

Around this same time, she reacquaints herself with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a gay drug dealer who hung around the literary society for years. Also down on his luck, he insinuates himself into Lee’s life, becoming the closest thing she has to a friend. Seeing her recent success with Brice’s letters, Lee takes to forging letters from whole cloth, copying the writing styles of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, and others and then selling the letters to collectors. When one of her letters is called out for being suspicious (it overtly discusses Coward’s homosexuality), she becomes flagged and can no longer sell her letters. Thus, Jack is the new salesperson, acting as a sort of intermediary between Lee’s typewriter and the letter-collecting public.

It’s surprising how much Lee Israel’s career matches that of Thomas Wise. In fact, one of Wise’s specialties was, thanks to his tremendous reputation, stealing folios from the British Museum and incorporating them into his own forgeries. Eventually, desperate for money, Israel does the same thing, accessing library collections, creating her own fakes, and stealing the originals for sale.

Admittedly, Can You Ever Forgive Me? sounds like dry and dusty fare, but it’s not. It’s interesting and engaging, not the least because of the prickly and aggressive personality of Lee Israel. McCarthy plays her beautifully. She is unrepentant, brassy, rude, and nasty. She is friendless and proud of that fact, even smug about it. McCarthy is almost unrecognizable in a dramatic role aside from the fact that she is who she is. That this is the same person from Bridesmaids or the Ghostbusters remake is amazing. The same could be said for Richard E. Grant, who has always been better than a lot of his movies and better than most people give him credit for being.

This was very entertaining, and I liked it a great deal. While all the performances are good, the central ones from McCarthy and Grant are truly noteworthy and excellent. What makes it work in both cases is that these are terrible people who are pitiable. I don’t like Lee Israel and I don’t like Jack Hock, but I feel badly for them, and that makes the whole thing go.

Why to watch Can You Ever Forgive Me?: This is one hell of a story.
Why not to watch: The characters are clearly and undeniably unpleasant.


  1. I wanna see this. I've heard lots of great things about his and I'm a fan of Richard E. Grant.

    1. It's absolutely worth tracking down. I loved it.