Lee Israel is a phenomenal writer. This point is emphasized again and again throughout Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the 2018 film based on the memoir of the same title, which chronicles the late author’s ingenious forays into literary forgery. Commendation for Israel’s counterfeit letters—produced under the names of deceased celebrities such as Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward—pours from the lips of every unwitting book and antique dealer who reads them. These brokers, who buy the letters from a near-destitute Israel and sell them to well-heeled clients, heap praise on the prose she has crafted in the voices of others. The dealers call out the brilliance of specific sentences, or simply marvel at the “caustic wit” on display.
All these compliments suggest that, while Israel may lack the stature of the writers she’s imitating, her editorial chops are second to none. At one point, Israel—played with mordant bravura by Melissa McCarthy, who is up for a Golden Globe for her lead performance on Sunday—claims she’s “a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!” And the audience, having already witnessed multiple characters affirm the excellence of her writing, finds itself in no position to argue otherwise. Can You Ever Forgive Me? invests significant narrative energy into the idea that a pure talent for words is what truly makes someone a writer—only to completely subvert that notion in the finale.
One of the questions prompted by the film, which is wonderfully directed by Marielle Heller, is how a writer as gifted as Israel could be forced to resort to illicit activity just to pay the rent. In an early scene, Israel’s agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), refuses to give Israel an advance for her next book and lectures her about the reasons her career is floundering. Marjorie criticizes Israel’s inveterate unwillingness to play the publicity game, do interviews, and schmooze with the who’s who of the publishing world. She also blames Israel’s fondness for writing about historical figures that readers have little interest in. But Marjorie’s main point is that, to attain literary success and celebrity, an author must turn both herself and her work into a marketable commodity. And Israel, a depressive loner who prefers whiskey and the company of her cat to conversations with other humans, just doesn’t have the right stuff in that department. “No one is going to pay for the writer Lee Israel right now,” Marjorie spits.
It’s fitting, then, that Israel decides to pull herself out of financial insolvency by trading off the reputation of figures such as Parker and Coward—individuals whose fame and fortune hinged not only on their abilities as writers but also on their roles as socialites. Parker was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, while Coward was celebrated for a personal style that Time magazine once described as “a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise.” These are qualities that Israel knows she will never possess, however clever her prose. When discussing what work she’s produced under her own byline, Israel grouses that readers value the voice of the author more than the quality of the story. Israel sees herself as a substance-over-style type of writer, even as her faculty for delightful rhetorical flourishes becomes apparent once she begins mimicking other authors.
As far as literary hoaxes go, Israel’s forgeries rank fairly low in terms of ethical queasiness. They weren’t victimless crimes—actual people paid actual money for fraudulent items. But the skill and aplomb with which Israel pulled off her plan, coupled with the joy that her letters gave so many collectors, make the whole affair seem in retrospect like a wonderfully conceived prank, like an adult version of spray-painting something witty on your high-school track.
This is certainly how the film portrays it. Heller and the screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty make no effort to elicit much sympathy for the final buyers of Israel’s forgeries. And even before getting caught, Israel seems like the biggest victim of her unlawful designs. While trying to evade detection by the FBI, she damages her relationship with Jack Hock—played by Richard E. Grant, also up for a Golden Globe, for his supporting performance—a gay, impish denizen of the Village who initially gloms onto Israel out of a mix of affection and desperation but proves to be her only true friend. (Grant’s performance, a mix of raffish charisma and melancholy, charms without attempting to mask the sort of sadness felt by people who are marginalized for their unconventional lifestyles.)
Israel was eventually caught, prosecuted, and sentenced to six months of house arrest and five years of federal probation; the leniency of her punishment indicates the American justice system took a similarly lighthearted view of her misdeeds. But it is during the climactic scene near the end of the film, when Israel receives her sentence, that Can You Ever Forgive Me? finally undoes the argument it had been making about the primacy of talent in making someone a writer. When the judge gives Israel the opportunity to explain herself, Israel is at first candidly defiant. “I can’t say that I regret any of my actions—in many ways, this has been the best time of my life,” she professes.
But then she goes on to acknowledge something darker and more unexpected. She says she’s come to realize that ever since her work as a forger began, she hasn’t been a real artist. Israel implies, in oh so many words, that her decision to partake in outright deception rather than draw from her own experiences and ideas has in fact rendered her something less than a writer. This admission stands in stark contrast to her previous efforts to defend her forgeries as “literary treasures, one of a kind.”
In the courtroom, Israel argues that being a writer—a distinction she has spent her whole life striving to achieve and maintain—is more about having the courage to say something original than possessing the skill to put witticisms on paper. McCarthy’s performance is most masterly in these moments: She spends the entire film playing Israel as a no-nonsense sourpuss with a gift for seeing through celebrity-obsessed phonies such as her agent and the wealthy letter-buyers. So when she finally decries her own attempt to equate a knack for editorial fakery with literary genius, it registers as a sledgehammer to the gut. McCarthy delivers her mini-sermon with steely frankness, her eyes stuck in that state between the initial welling of tears and full-on crying, her lips caught between a detectable quiver and poised stillness.
The last moments of Can You Ever Forgive Me? are filled with a cathartic afterglow. We see Israel in her apartment, typing on a new computer—as opposed to an old-fashioned typewriter, like the ones she used to create her forgeries—in her own voice, under her own byline. She’s smiling. Her home looks cleaner and filled with light. A sense of contentment pervades, a feeling that registers as less dramatic but more fulfilling than the fleeting thrill her earlier crimes gave her. Writing is still her vocation and her defining ability. Now that Israel is again producing prose that belongs to her, the film suggests, she can get back to the business of being a real writer.