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“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

16 Dec

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”—directed by Marielle Heller. BioPic. 106 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: How will the biographer of Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Tallulah Bankhead pay the rent now she has run out of fashionable subjects?
~
After committing some drunken atrocity, Dorothy Parker would write to her horrified hosts, “How can you ever forgive me?”

Since there is nothing worth holding onto blame for, those poor hosts probably did forgive Dorothy Parker and they probably invited her back— but not Lee Israel. Never to write for such forgiveness, Lee Israel evidently preferred to be unforgiven—to live as a hermit in spiked isolation.

Her agent, perfectly played by Jane Curtin, tells her so, and also wonders why Lee Israel wants to write a biography of Fanny Brice when no one is interested in Fanny Brice? Lee is a good writer who has written popular enough biographies, but she has run out of advances and ideas.

Poor Lee has no friends and none of her enemies enjoy her enough to spring for her, so how is she to pay the rent?

Her answer is to steal.

And she does this in two ways.

She lifts the styles of writers more famous than herself and writes letters they might have written. She then forges their names to them. Then she sells them for rent money. She is very good at this mimicry. And to this day, her forgeries are found in collections and quoted in biographies.

She also enters the special collections of universities and actually lifts literary treasures and replaces them with duplicates and sells the originals.

As I watch this thrilling imposture, I admire her skill, resourcefulness, and cunning. For she well understood the greed of collectors and the willingness of rare book store agents to be duped.

I also felt like a thief. For, as a writer, was I not a thief of every fine writer whose influence I had admitted into my being to breed me into a better one?

And I also wondered—doesn’t Lee Israel know that the jig will soon be up? For certainly she can’t go on like this. Rare book dealers are not as common as hockshops. Won’t she run out of fences?

What ameliorated my discomfort was when one turned up in the person of Richard E. Grant, a rogue and roué she befriends and who partners her. Grant is wonderful in this role, and the film lifts off when he appears. Indeed, one hopes he never goes away. Grant Grant an Oscar.

Melissa McCarthy is no more Jewish than my cat. So her casting as Israel is odd, but also a useful way around the issue of anti-Semitism, had the part been played by, say, Linda Lavin. I do not own a television, so I had never heard of Melissa McCarthy, but she is an acceptable receptacle for Lee Israel. Melissa McCarthy is never off-camera, and her plump pudding personality never grates, as it might had the role been played another way or by another actor. So I was glad to go through Lee Israel’s adventure with her.

Lee Israel’s woes and her past are not jammed down our throats, nor is her Lesbianism. In fact, I myself wished she could hook up with someone, and she almost does. At one point we even meet her former mate, beautifully played by Anna Deavere Smith, so we get a better inkling how Israel really cannot earn a living—is intolerable as a personality, infantile, and a drunk.

Yet, in the end, Lee Israel is so far from being impenitent about her forgeries that she confesses that writing those masterpiece letters was the greatest high she ever got in her writing life.

What this gives me is the validation for why I have been rooting for this impossible and foolish woman all along. For, I say, if the larceny was worth it to Lee Israel, it was worth it to me, too, and let the devil take the hindmost.

 
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