“Can you ever forgive me?” biographer-turned-fraudster Lee Israel asked, first as Dorothy Parker and then as herself in a tell-all autobiography detailing how she faked notable literary letters for profit.
Marielle Heller’s movie adaptation of Israel’s memoir asks the same question, a plaintive call for absolution in the face of wrongdoing. Down on her luck in 1990s New York, Israel set up an elaborate operation forging famous correspondence from the likes of Parker, Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich and more. On paper, the deed seems unforgivable. On the screen, however, it’s almost downright lovable, thanks in part to Melissa McCarthy’s refreshingly surly portrayal of Israel.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” showcases the actress as a fraudster we can root for.
When the film introduces Israel, an author once on the bestseller list, she’s on a downslide, having been unceremoniously dismissed from a desk job after drinking at work and cussing out her co-workers. She shows up to a book party to ask her agent (Jane Curtin) why she hasn’t returned her calls, only to leave early and swipe a coat on her way out. She brushes away fly carcasses from her pillow before getting in bed at night. Her beloved cat falls ill, but the vet won’t treat the pet until Israel pays her past due balance.
When she finally gets into her agent’s office — furious that Tom Clancy gets $300 million for another piece-of-crap book while she struggles in anonymity — Israel is told that she could stand to be nicer if she wants to reach the same heights.
“Give me a fucking break!” McCarthy-as-Israel responds in a hallmark pottymouth.
“You can be an asshole when you’re famous,” her agent retorts, reminding Israel that no one remembers a biographer’s name.
And so begins Israel’s life of crime. With no advance to lean on, Israel decides to sell a personal note from Katharine Hepburn she’s framed on her wall in order to get by. That, along with a serendipitous original letter from vaudeville comedian Fanny Brice found during a research session, sparks an idea: She could write these letters. She could fake the personal flourishes that make them worth so much money.
She tests the waters by adding a postscript on her real Fanny Brice letter, dipping in further with a forgery from Noel Coward. Soon, it becomes a full-fledged affair, complete with fabricated stationery and vintage typewriters to match ones used by each of her subjects. Along the way, she befriends Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) ― a debonair, coke-snorting scoundrel just as lonely as her ― and eventually ropes him into her scheme.
McCarthy transforms completely into Israel’s mop-topped, irascible persona, preserving the humanity of a person who could have easily become a caricature. The role still allows her to be physical and comedic, but in a subtler way than the generic “insert Melissa McCarthy here” blockbusters she’s often tasked with carrying. It’s unsurprising there’s Oscar talk for her already.
Israel shouldn’t be a likable hero, but she becomes one anyway. Compared to the huge-sum scams from the likes of Anna Delvey or John Meehan that captured public attention during the past year, Israel’s seems tame. All she wants, after all, is to pay her back rent and get her cat some meds. Even when Hock, delighted by their success, suggests they blow it on shopping or debauchery, she says she’s only planning to spend it on groceries and the roof over her head.
Israel’s whole scheme is a middle finger to the literary establishment, the circles of fur-coat-wearers and Tom Clancy suck-ups she finds herself distinctly apart from. Like a less scrupulous Robin Hood, she’s robbing the rich to pay herself.
In one scene, after being told over the phone that her agent is unavailable, Israel calls back pretending to be Nora Ephron and gets patched through immediately. She keeps up the charade for a moment longer, before shouting “Starfucker!” into the phone and slamming the receiver down. (This movie will make you miss the cathartic powers of a solid phone hang-up.) It’s pure joy to see her mess with the types who would reject her otherwise.
Even the fraud itself is born of a relatable problem: impostor syndrome. Israel’s never felt like a writer, she confesses. Despite her success as a biographer, she can’t tell her own story; it’s safer to inhabit others’ worlds than to confront her own. For anyone whose livelihood is akin to a self-identity, it’s easy to understand this plight, the fear that the one thing you can do is no longer tenable. It’s only after she’s caught by the FBI, her scam exposed, that she gives herself permission to take a leap and document her saga.
In the end, the film doesn’t let Israel entirely off the hook. Her frauds aren’t without emotional cost, never mind the financial. The hint of a relationship with a bookseller who purchased her first Fanny Brice letter is quashed as soon as Israel’s misdeeds are made public. She pays a dear price when she asks Hock to take care of her apartment while the forgery business takes her out of town — a betrayal from which her friendship with Hock never recovers.
At the end of the film, however, when Israel is sipping down a drink instead of attending her court-designated AA meeting, it’s hard not to laugh. She has to remain herself, after all — thumbing her nose at the literary establishment and her punishment still.
In real life, Israel published “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” in 2008 — which she hilariously brought to her publisher amid “Memoirgate,” as she called it, when the publishing industry was skittish about “true” stories after James Frey’s bestselling tell-all was revealed to be a fake.
But in her case, she said, everything she wrote was what actually happened. In the memoir, she mentions a letter of hers she peddled as having been written by Noël Coward that made it into a biography about the playwright a year prior — something Israel called “a big hoot and a terrific compliment.”
In many ways, so is the movie.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is in theaters on Friday.