The real Lee Israel, the celebrity profiler turned forger who died in 2014, was a more boastful figure than the sad-sack recluse Melissa McCarthy plays in Marielle Heller’s sympathetic biopic, especially when methodically detailing her brief, prolific criminal spree in the early 1990s. Israel explained in interviews that she wrote biographies of women with large personalities, such as Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen, because she considered herself equally interesting. She even quoted a letter she had faked and credited to Dorothy Parker for the title of her 2008 autobiography, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
In this adaptation, Can You Ever Forgive Me? screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty envision Israel as a serious writer who just wants to disappear into her work; McCarthy’s taciturn, seething Lee could never hold court at a literary soirée like master quipster Parker. Before Israel discovers her genuine skill for fakery, Holofcener and Whitty place her at precisely this kind of gathering, contrasting a bloviating, sherry-swilling Tom Clancy with the impoverished, resentful Israel, burrowing into herself and storing up anger for a career-assessment meeting with her brittle, poised agent (Jane Curtin).
Leaving the party, Israel casually steals another guest’s expensive overcoat, a character-defining setup for the forthcoming forgeries, which are presented as victimless crimes because the dealers and collectors of authors’ personal letters she hoaxes can well afford it. The more prickly and belligerent Israel becomes — and McCarthy never burdens her with likability — the more Holofcener and Whitty soften her choices with extenuating circumstances, imbuing their subject with a zeal for artistic purity at odds with her actions. She’s also presented as a vestige of a bygone literary era that’s viewed with veneration and longing, heightened by a foreboding sense that traditional publishing and print media soon will collapse.
Heller and cinematographer Brandon Trost (who also collaborated on The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the director’s first film) encase Israel in a Manhattan of faded grandeur. Their color palette is drawn from the deep gray of well-trodden sidewalks and rich browns of shellacked bars buffed by the sleeves of scotch on the rocks drinkers. Costume designer Arjun Bhasin dresses McCarthy in the wilted menswear of a literary lion, and everyone’s limp hair looks several days past washing.
In this city of lonely outsiders, Lee’s dubious friendship with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) is presented as a lifeline. No one does dissolute hubris with as much charm as Grant, and his ebullience is the perfect foil to the misanthropic McCarthy. This lesbian and gay man aren’t closeted or shunned for their orientation; they’ve become isolated because of their obstinacy and fecklessness, behavior that both regard with inordinate satisfaction.
The film’s only clear reference to her notorious fall from grace comes when a nasty used-book dealer points out a stack of Israel’s own Estée Lauder biography piled high as remainders. The real Israel claimed to have rebuffed the cosmetic queen’s offer to write a glossy official version, and Lauder responded by rushing a hagiography into bookstores two months before Israel’s unofficial Estée Lauder: Behind the Magic, effectively squelching sales. Eaten up by the fame machine that once fed her, Israel got her delicious revenge by rewriting personal histories, and composing a mea culpa that asks for everything but forgiveness.