What is extraordinary about Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which my wife and I saw at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany recently, is how one manages to care about the protagonist, very much in spite of herself. This is based on a true story, generated from Lee Israel’s 2008 memoir.
Lee (Melissa McCarthy) was a biographer in the 1970s and 1980s of actress Tallulah Bankhead, journalist and game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen, and cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder. The Kilgallen book appeared on The New York Times Best Sellers List, but the Lauder book was a disaster.
By the early 1990s, her work had dried up, her agent (Jane Curtin) ducked her calls, and she was having difficulty making ends meet. The veterinarian wouldn’t even treat her cat. Moreover, her personality, fueled in part by alcohol consumption, tended to be abrasive.
Lee sold a couple genuine letters of famous people to Anna (Dolly Wells), a sweet young woman who inherited her bookstore owner and was interested in Israel’s talent and persona. For the money, Lee starts to forge letters of deceased writers and actors and selling them to Anna and other dealers. She also started to steal actual letters of famous persons from archives and libraries, replacing them with forgeries.
Israel coincidentally runs into an old acquaintance Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) at a local bar. To her surprise, they become not just drinking buddies but actual friends. It’s the core relationship in the movie. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a fast-paced story or overwrought drama but a too-believable tale of what one will do to survive.
Julianne Moore was initially attached to the role of Lee Israel, but Melissa McCarthy, mostly known for her comic portrayals, was excellent in the role. It is unsurprising that the film received 98% positive reviews from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but only about 83% from audiences.