BASED ON: Melissa McCarthy in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’

Melissa McCarthy/Can You Ever Forgive Me/Fox Searchlight

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Screenplay written by Nicole Holofcener, directed by Marielle Heller, based on a memoir of the same title by Lee Israel.

This film has gotten a lot of awards notice. Most recently, it just landed a Writers Guild of America nomination for best adapted screenplay, for Nicole Holofcener and Josh Whitty.

Thus far, it’s won two Satellite Awards, for best supporting actor for Richard Grant; and for best adapted screenplay; and a New York Film Critics Circle Award, for Grant.

In nominations, Grant received nods from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, Independent Spirit; National Society of Film Critics; and Critics’ Choice. McCarthy got best actress nods from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, National Society of Film Critics, Critics’ Choice and Satellite.

And now, Father Vince’s review …

The real-life Lee Israel enjoyed a bit of literary success in the 1980s, enough to pay New York rents, but not enough to cure her deluded thinking that her book advances should match those of a Tom Clancy. She wrote biographies of esoteric figures such as Estee Lauder, Kilgallen and Tallulah Bankhead.

When the 1990s arrive, life finds Lee Israel in much poorer circumstances. She lives alone in a decrepit apartment, having resorted to selling off her personal library of books after the legal firm where she once proofread let her go. Her penury remains her own doing, though as Israel pours her latest research into the long-forgotten actress, Fanny Brice. She finds a letter by the author in one of the books. A trip to one of New York’s famed bookstores reveal quite the market for such personalized memos. Israel falsely assumes the voice of various authors and begins her newfound “professional” life in forgery.

Reading Lee Israel’s memoir, one can see in hindsight how she soon found herself down on her luck. I would say that she writes in an “elevated” language, like a graduate student trying to impress some famous professor that they indeed, belong in that fancy MFA program. It’s not so much the words that a good writer uses, by how they arrange and use them that counts.

She employs “piratical” as a $64,000-dollar word, when a lesser adjective would better suffice. Her style somehow impressed the publishing world one decade, but come the next, they’ve shelved her for someone more marketable and digestible.

Melissa McCarthy brings some humanity to the role. The memoir in its current form would be almost unwatchable. The film centers around Israel and her gay friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). Although, Hock’s promiscuous choices lead to his eventual sad, demise, it is Israel who oddly enough ends up in a more pathetic circumstance.

She shuns human relationships to the point that the accidental death of her cat ruins her more than any botched relationship could. The memoir is even less kind. While the film shows a genuine friendship between the two, Israel records Jack as little more than a hired hand, only utilized because word is getting out about her.

Perhaps, the saddest note comes on Israel’s reflecting about her misdeeds. Her own words are telling. She appends the line “Can you ever forgive me?” to a Dorothy Parker letter. Parker writes apologetically comparing her current hangover “to a museum piece.” Israel comments she wrote the line presuming Parker, “apologizes with no intention whatsoever of mending her wayward ways.”

I read the letter without Israel’s doctoring, however, as a sincere apology from someone who like many of us say stupid things at dinner parties having had a bit much to drink. So the appended line, then says more about Israel than the writer she’s impersonating.

Israel’s description of later crimes, some 400 forgeries in all, are scribbled in a matter-of-fact tone. If she evokes any emotions, they’re ones of self-satisfaction for pulling off the ruse for the few years she did. McCarthy delivers a heartfelt apology to a near-empty courtroom prior to her sentencing. It’s touching. She’s a phenomenal actress who moves us to sympathize with the least sympathetic of persons.

Israel writes, though, that she believed in maybe half of what she stated to the judge. The film’s title, then more than a mere plot point, asks the viewer as to whether can they extend mercy to the forger? For the character in the movie, I would cautiously say “Yes.” For the real-life, Lee Israel, unrepentant to the bitter end, I must sadly say, “No.”

Image: Fox Searchlight

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