I saw “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” at my local comfy theater; the one with old couches and bug cushy chairs instead of rows of hard seats. As soon as the previews started, I knew I had to be there. I love literary scandals and stories about people who are so obsessed with books that they’d buy Noël Coward’s shopping list if he signed his name to it. I have long believed Melissa McCarthy can really act, if someone gives her a script that does more than compel her to be funnily fat. The film “Can You Ever Forgive Me” proved I was right and got her an Oscar nod.
And why not? Lee Israel was a real person, but also a fascinating character. The story the film tells does not attempt to make Israel better or more likable. She was a biographer living in New York after her royalties had quit coming in who turned to forgery to pay her rent. Her gift for imitation, for subsuming herself in the voice of another writer, allowed her to passably write in the voices of some of the greats of the 20th century: Dorothy Parker, la Coward, Lillian Hellman, Louise Brooks, Edna Ferber, and others.
The film, of course, takes a few licenses with the story. It makes pathos of a sick and dying cat where there existed only concern in the original memoir. It turns a relationship of convenience with a hustler friend of hers into something more like a partnership, but this choice makes a lot of sense when one views the adaptation whole. There is little to love about Lee Israel. She’s a crass, snobby shut-in, and the lovely McCarthy was made-under to play her in shades of unexfoliated grey. The relationship between her and the imperiled gay man Jack Hock is made into an odd couple match up and a kind of mutual aid of the sort known between abandoned queers all over the world. It enacts the well-worn exchange between a man dying of HIV and the kind of gruff but caring lesbians who cared for many of them when the epidemic was on.
The film tells the kind of story we never really get to hear about a woman. Lee isn’t likable or pretty, and nobody tries to fix her. She’s a crank and a curmudgeon. She drinks constantly and is openly mean to nearly everyone in her life. She plays cruel pranks as revenge for indignities, pretends to be Nora Ephron to get her own agent on the phone, and cannot hold down a job due to her own unapologetic assholery. She’s a lesbian and we never see her so much as kiss another woman. Her exes hate her. Her apartment is a shut-in disaster of dead flies and cat shit. She’s a washed up writer in the lowest point of her life who turns to crime and really enjoys it. The audience enjoys it, too, despite all this. I’ve never seen anything like it in a theater before. The title is not a question Lee Israel ever asks. She doesn’t care.
Moreover, the adaptation is wonderfully faithful to the mechanical and technical aspects of Lee’s career as a forger. A few delicious scenes depict her collection of manual typewriters, each keyed to a specific writer. The director shows us her search for aged-looking paper of the period, constructing a rudimentary lightbox for the tracing of signatures out of her old black-and-white TV. The most tense moments in the film are built on the risks Israel took to steal from various libraries and archives so that she could copy, steal, or embroider upon real letters. These came straight out of the book, right down to the extra security at Yale and her technique of slipping letters into her socks to circumvent a bag search.
Even with such a faithful transition to screen, I just had to read the book. I got the audio version because I love to be able to read while doing something else, and also because it’s performed by the great Jane Curtin. The opening chapter consists of a series of letters. They’re chatty, witty, dry and wry. The voices come through as clear as if I were hearing them speak in an old radio interview. Their phrases are short, memorable, and immediately identifiable by the kind of license that well-known writers and celebrated actresses take in their personal correspondences.
They’re all forgeries.
Israel’s gift for imitation is staggering; it’s Rich Little on paper. I’ve tried my hand at a few literary impressions. It’s harder than it looks. It’s easy to do what I’ve done; it’s a parody intended to be perceived by the audience as an artful fake. Israel’s opening chapter is something much better than that, something uncanny. She admits in the conclusion of her memoir that these letters represent her best work. I was stunned that she doesn’t trouble herself to show remorse in her book about the crimes of her life. I thought, in fact, that she might not have been able to profit from her crimes even twenty years later. I know the truth is that white women don’t do time (she didn’t) and Simon and Schuster are not now and have never been terribly concerned with the idea of right and wrong when it affects their bottom line.
By the end of the book, I came to regard “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” as a memoir of queer survival. Israel talks openly about the diva lionization process that connects gay men to the larger-than-life enshrinement of certain famous women: think Judy Garland, Cher, Ariana Grande. The choices that she made to ensure her own privacy and cat companionship fall directly on to the stereotypical lesbian life path, but the letters she imitated were pure gay camp. The letters that likely brought the FBI to her door were missives from the closeted Noël Coward in which the playwright was not quite closeted enough. Gay irony is always the least funny kind.
I’m not going to debate the moral rectitude of ripping off autograph dealers by puppeteering the dead for rent money. I’ve done worse things to finance my own survival, frankly. But I am going to tell you: if you want to read a really great book about someone who was being gay and doing crimes, this is the one.