A writer sits alone in a drab New York City apartment, staring at a blank page and an inert typewriter. After a few minutes (which might as well be hours), keys clack and a sentence appears: This is me sitting down to fucking type.
It should be funny, the writer thinks, if it wasn’t so pathetic. If there were someone else with whom to share the joke. If the writer happened to like people more than cats. But there’s no one. Just the writer, the keys, the page and the unpaid bills hanging like an albatross around the neck. None of which mixes well with the sense of resentful, unfulfilled entitlement the writer cannot bring herself to shed.
Ah. That got you, didn’t it? “Herself.”
Stories about caustic, alcoholic writers who can’t seem to catch a break are a dime a dozen, but when you picture them in your head, that particular breed of writer is always a man, isn’t it? The Lost Weekend. In a Lonely Place. The Shining. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Sideways. I could go on. In each of those films, the writer is both the protagonist and an asshole. Often labeled a “genius,” he can afford to be both. Men always can.
Meanwhile, stories about female writers tend to fall into two categories: plucky proto-feminists proving themselves in a male-dominated world (My Brilliant Career, Miss Potter, Becoming Jane), or women whose fiery creativity is restricted by forces both internal and external, often with tragic results (Sylvia, The Hours, Mary Shelley). These female writers generally have two paths between which to choose. They can fight society’s dismissal of them with a smile on their face, or die trying. Unpleasantness is not an option. Their genius must, in some way, be pliable.
The problem with this dichotomy is that most women simply don’t fit into it, which makes their stories a harder sell. So, when you really think about it, it’s kind of incredible that Can You Ever Forgive Me? exists at all. Lee Israel (played at a desperate simmer by Melissa McCarthy) is an asshole first and a writer second, a 51-year-old lesbian with a cat and no friends and a drinking problem, and a scheme that simultaneously allows her to express her blistering talent and get one over on an unforgiving world that has dismissed her utterly.
But if all I told you about her was her name and occupation — if you’d never heard the true story about the failed biographer who forged over 400 letters from literary legends like Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward and very nearly got away with it — well. You’d probably still assume Lee Israel, asshole first and writer second, was a man.
The irony there is that, if Lee had been a man, she’d probably be remembered as a counterculture hero — morally questionable, sure, but man, how cool is it that (s)he had the balls to pull off one of the greatest literary scams of the 20th century? Instead, she’s been forgotten. Her Wikipedia page is shorter than Stephen Glass’s. But you know what? Her movie is way better than his.
In fact, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of those movies that’s so good that you almost miss it the first time. Director Marielle Heller (criminally ignored this awards season), writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, cinematographer Brandon Trost and editor Anne McCabe have crafted a film together that feels like a life — a sad one, an often ugly one, but one that is recognizable and true. The world and characters they create never feel created; from beginning to end, it feels like they just happened upon them, fully formed and ready for battle, a collection of vintage typewriters the ’90s penniless forger’s version of Athena’s aegis.
True brilliance in film often goes unnoticed, and under Heller’s even gaze, it’s the unnoticed that comes back to hit you in the face when you think about it later. Not often does a film capture a cold winter’s day in a single establishing shot and make it feel like a personal affront, thus capturing Lee’s personality just as the audience is getting to know her. Why else would she impulsively steal someone else’s coat at the launch party her agent is hosting for Tom Clancy’s latest book? After all, it’s not just the people at the party, all of whom are visibly more successful than Lee is if only because they are comfortable in their surroundings, that Lee wants to spite. It’s the world that had the audacity to dip below freezing when it knows quite well that, despite her genius and the “exciting” potential of her next book about a vaudeville star no one remembers, she’s months behind on the rent and can’t afford a coat of her own.
I’ll say again that it’s criminal Heller isn’t getting the awards attention she deserves; she, Debra Granik (Leave No Trace), and Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here) are all in that same, sad boat this year. It’s a small consolation that the central performances of Can You Ever Forgive Me? both garnered Academy Award nominations that they probably won’t win. Stars McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, playing Israel’s lone confidant-turned-accomplice, are both at the top of their game playing misfits we probably shouldn’t be rooting for, but how can we help it? Their faults are common, as are their failures.
Grant in particular is wonderful, with his excessively white teeth and age-inappropriate impishness. My favorite running joke of the film is his complete ignorance of literary and theatrical history, to the point where Lee incredulously asks him, “Are you sure you’re a fag?” Mahershala Ali is the front-runner for Supporting Actor this year for a film that never deserved him; if there were any justice in the world, Grant would take the statue simply for being in a film that knows exactly how blessed it is to have him in it. He doesn’t elevate Can You Ever Forgive Me? so much as make it whole. Without Grant, it would likely all fall apart.
For me, though, the most Oscar-worthy moment, the moment that I hope stands the test of time, is a single line in the middle of Lee’s sentencing hearing, when she addresses the court: “I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions.” It’s such a boneheaded thing to say right before a judge is about to sentence Lee for her crimes (and the look of panic on her lawyer’s face is pure gold), but it’s so true. If I were Lee, if I’d lived her life and did what she did, I wouldn’t regret my actions either, but I’m also not sure I’d be brave enough to say it out loud. Then again, while I may be grumpy more often than not, I’m not much of an asshole. Lee Israel, though? Asshole first, writer second, right until the bitter end.
I kind of love Lee Israel — or, at least, the Lee Israel presented here by McCarthy, Heller, Holofcener and Whitty. I even like her a little. Male asshole writers in movies tend to just make me tired, and if I met someone like Lee in real life, she’d probably make me tired, too. But it’s nice for once to see a woman who doesn’t actually apologize for the thing she’s done wrong (let alone for doing nothing at all, for simply existing), and to take pride in her work moments before she might be sent to prison for it.
Lee Israel isn’t a role model by any means, but not every woman has to be. The fiction we tell ourselves that women have to be admirable and perfect in order to lift them up and recognize them as human and worthy of the same attention men receive in history books and Hollywood movies causes more harm than good. All your faves are problematic, from Susan B. Anthony to Taylor Swift, and the women who wear their imperfections on their sleeves instead of just tossing a coat over them deserve a place in our cultural memory, too.
Lee Israel is one of thousands. This is me sitting down to fucking type, she once wrote to no one rather than writing about herself. I can forgive her for that.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is now in re-release and playing at the Landmark Keystone Art Cinema.