“Can you ever forgive me?” writes Dorothy Parker in a letter. Except Dorothy Parker never wrote those words. Instead, Lee Israel, struggling author, forges those titular words. Lee is a character I highly admired and related to on a basic level. She didn’t like to socialize with other writers, and she refused to compromise her voice and preferred genre, namely autobiographies, for the material people want to read. As she is struggling to find money for rent and for a vet visit for her cat, Jersey, Lee comes across original manuscripts hidden in a book while doing research for the autobiography about Fanny Brice that she is determined to write. This begins her criminal lifestyle of forging literary letters, demonstrating the prestige of antique bookstores. As she increases the frequency of her sells, as well as her asking price, she adjusts to this life of comfort that money, and her companionship with lonely yet likable grifter Jack Hock, provide. As buyers and collectors grow more aware of these forgeries, Lee ups the ante by actually stealing original manuscripts to sell.
As you watch Lee and Jack’s endeavors, you get caught up in the intensity of it all, despite knowing they will eventually get caught, which is a testament to the directing of the movie and the captivating acting by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy delivers a performance perfect for Lee’s character, her biting wit and cranky passion exuding out of McCarthy. It is hard not to feel for Lee’s overflowing pride in the forgeries, which she makes clear after she is arrested and brought to court.
I thought the musical score for the movie was extremely pretty. There were a couple scenes where the orchestral music was all that was playing, intensifying in volume and in beauty as Lee was surrounded by manuscripts and books. One thing I particularly appreciated about the movie was that a big deal was never made about the characters’ sexuality. This took place in 1991, yet this was accepted with normal ease. However, I was left kind of frustrated that the storyline with Anna, a bookseller she had a connection with, was never resolved, but I think that’s also pretty realistic of real life. There is not always a happy ending, and some actions cause too much harm to be simply mended.
The connection between Lee and Jack was touching, as Jack understood Lee and provided her with the companionship she desperately needed. However, his character was bound to hurt Lee, and the pain from his act of carelessness was beyond incomprehensible. The saddest moment of the movie involved Jersey. In a way, that important scene was the most human, showing how lonely Lee truly was in the world.
The final scene between the Lee and Jack, and Lee’s parting comment about how she wanted to trip him as he was leaving, was bittersweet and perfect. While this duo lacks morals, they embrace that and their complimenting scathing conscience, and the film attempts to humanize their wrongs by pointing to all the nuances of their self-awareness. We don’t leave the theater feeling sorry for the characters; rather, we feel emboldened by the brash stubbornness they lived by every day, in sickness and in crime. Can You Ever Forgive Me? was a brilliant movie as Lee embraced her individuality and lived even as she perfected the voice of others and brought their legacy back alive.