Melissa McCarthy in an Oscar-worthy performance set in Manhattan a decade before 9/11–a time when even a down-and-out writer could still afford to rent an apartment and eke out an existence– is just one of many reasons to see the film Can You Ever Forgive Me? Based on the writer’s memoir, this true crime story covers two years in the life of celebrity biographer Lee Israel and–wonder of wonders–the President isn’t mentioned once (at least not that I recall.) That’s reason #2 to see the film.
George H.W. Bush isn’t mentioned, but Tom Clancy is. Lee Israel has some choice words about the author of The Hunt for Red October and his $3 million book deal, particularly when she overhears him opining on the subject of writer’s block. (He doesn’t suffer from it and thinks writers who do are wimps.) They’re both at the same cocktail party thrown by Lee’s agent Marjorie in her swanky NYC apartment, and Marjorie doesn’t even want to hear about Lee’s idea for a book on Fanny Brice, even though she knows Lee is desperately in need of another paycheck. Can you blame Lee for telling the coat check guy on her way out that she lost her ticket stub and that the nice winter coat on the end is hers? Yes, I can blame her, but I most certainly can forgive her. For that and so much more!
When we first meet Lee Israel, it’s 3:30 in the morning and she’s hard at work in a company cubicle editing some copy while swilling a glass of whisky. Another cubicle worker tells her that she’s not supposed to be eating or drinking on the job. The woman’s tone is censorious and indignant, and Lee responds by telling her that she doesn’t give a ____ (fill in the blank.) Can you blame her? Yes, but certainly I can forgive her, particularly when Lee’s boss walks in, overhears the comment and fires her on the spot. For Lee, a once well-regarded freelance magazine writer and book author, this job loss is the beginning of total desperation. She’s already three months behind on her rent. Then agent Margorie tells her nobody wants to read a book about Fanny Brice (the woman who inspired the film Funny Girl starring Barbra Streisand). But the final blow is Lee’s very sick cat. The vet won’t treat her beloved feline until Lee settles the previous bill. What’s a 51-year-old loner/misfit to do?
Her crime doesn’t involve guns or drugs. It’s a white-collar crime, but very low tech. While researching Fanny Brice at the public library, she stumbles across a letter from Brice tucked into the pages of a book. She secrets it out of the library and sells it to a bookstore for cash. Soon she’s creating (forging) her own letters from deceased literary figures like Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward and Lillian Hellman and doing so with sparkling wit. But even a loner/misfit needs a confidant who will appreciate what she’s done. Jack Hock fits the bill perfectly. They’ve become drinking buddies after running into each other in a bar, having met previously when they were both writers living better lives. Unlike Lee, Jack is a dapper dresser, charming and perennially upbeat despite the fact he doesn’t seem to have a permanent address. He’s the perfect foil for Lee, and if Richard E. Grant doesn’t get a best supporting actor nod, I’d be surprised. Soon Jack is more than her confidant; he’s her partner in crime. Some dealers have become suspicious about the letters Lee’s been selling, and the FBI starts sniffing around. One of her customers demands $5,000 in return for him not testifying before a grand jury. This prompts Lee to starting stealing original letters from libraries and selling them, after replacing the libraries’ originals with her own forgeries. Jack is very good at selling them, getting more money than Lee ever did. But all too-good-to-be-true income streams must come to an end, and Lee must make a statement in Federal court before the judge passes sentence on her.
The morning after seeing the film, I opened the Dallas Morning News and read an opinion piece by a Catholic priest who’s a frequent contributor to the newspaper. The same thing that ruined religion is ruining comedy said the headline. “We’ve forgotten truth is key to humor,” wrote Joshua J. Whitfield. “We’ve forgotten humor is moral and that it makes moral judgments. Such is why comedy today is mostly mediocre and often obscene; . . .it’s become predictably partisan, predictably a tool, laughter that can only demean and divide.” He wasn’t writing about the humor in Can You Ever Forgive Me? but I immediately thought about the film and that the reason it was so good was because there was so much truth in all the humor. It wasn’t slapstick, nor was it mean-spirited. And when Lee addresses the court at the end, she stops reading from her prepared statement and speaks her personal truth.
What Father Whitfield was writing about was a Saturday Night Live sketch in which comedian Pete Davidson made fun of Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw (a Republican from Texas). It was pretty cringe-worthy. Pete made fun of the fact that Dan wears an eye patch–comparing the look to that of a hit man in a porno movie. “I’m sorry. I know he lost his eye in war or whatever,” Pete said. In fact, Dan did lose his eye from an IED in Afghanistan during his third combat duty. But the cringe-worthy comedy sketch has a happy ending, and that’s what Father Whitfield wanted to talk about. Dan didn’t go ballistic. He got even in a funny way by going on Saturday Night Live the following week, trading humorous quips with Pete (during which Pete apologized), but ending on an even more powerful note. “Americans can forgive one another,” he said, just two days before Veteran’s Day. “Tell a Vietnam vet ‘Never Forget.’ Tell them you’re grateful.” Then he went one step farther and mentioned heroes like Pete’s father, a firefighter “who died in 9/11.” I watched both sketches on YouTube yesterday. The first one had 3.8 million views, but the second one where Dan and Pete face off humorously against each other had 7.2 million views.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield thinks humor is powerful and important, but not when it’s socially useless. As a forger and a criminal, Lee Israel learned something very important about herself. She’d forged and sold over 400 letters. She was really good at it and considered the letters her best work, but she also accepted responsibility for her actions. In 2008, Simon & Schuster published her book Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger. The year before, a critically acclaimed book The Letters of Noel Coward was published and contained two letters that were written by Israel, not Coward. Here’s what Lee said about them:
“It was very good Coward; it was better Coward than Coward. Coward didn’t have to be Coward. I had to be Coward and a half.” Lee Israel to NPR, 2008
The two letters by Lee in the Noel Coward book were removed for the second printing. Lee died in 2014 at age 75, but if she’s listening, I most certainly want to say, “Lee, yes, I do forgive you, particularly since the title of your memoir is doubly clever.” Can you ever forgive me? is a line she wrote pretending to be Dorothy Parker, who was apologizing for her drunken behavior at a party.