There are still people all over Manhattan like Lee Israel, the writer who died in 2014 and has been resurrected as the protagonist of a finely wrought movie set in the early 1990s called Can You Ever Forgive Me? I see them even now, pushing a cart with cat-food cans in a harshly lit basement supermarket late at night, or in midafternoon stops at the drug store arguing over the prescription card, or standing outside bars smoking one of those cigarettes whose brand names suggest a time long gone by—Kent, or Kool, or Benson & Hedges.
Only the generous rules of New York City apartment tenancy seem to keep them from having to take up residence elsewhere—certainly a fate worse than death for all confirmed Manhattanites. They are Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in the age of the Internet, city ghosts that walk among us.
Israel is ornery, solitary, descending into late middle age; her life was the story of an early climb and a vertiginous descent—as I imagine was the case with her present-day doppelgängers, likely people of some promise years back. Having been a reasonably successful freelancer with a couple of well-regarded biographies under her belt, Israel threw a third bio together, this one of Estée Lauder, and came a cropper. Her writing career followed that book into obscurity, helped along the way by her own difficult personality and rank alcoholism. At 52, Israel found herself all but unemployable and totally alone, having long since driven away her girlfriend.
The explosively brilliant comic actress Melissa McCarthy plays Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and it’s a miraculous performance—taut, controlled, unyielding. Under the direction of Marielle Heller and using the words of screenwriters Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener, McCarthy refuses ever to wink at the camera, to make Israel winsome or even remotely likable. What she does convey is Israel’s growing despair and desperation. Out of options, she comes across a few dull letters by a forgotten celebrity (Fanny Brice, the stage and radio comedienne played by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) and conceives of a scheme to forge correspondence and sell her forgeries to various memorabilia dealers around New York.
How she does it, how the dealers fall for it, and how she enlists another New York character named Jack Hock (the marvelous Richard E. Grant) to work with her are the meat and bones of Can You Ever Forgive Me? The movie is smart and literate and adult, and you should see it. But it’s missing something, and that something is revealed in Israel’s memoir of the same name, which was published in 2008.
I didn’t read the book until after I’d seen the movie, and it turns out to be a marvel—compact and jaunty, snappily observed, brimming with a cool-eyed wit you’d never know Israel possessed from the film version. Israel’s memoir is the story of a corrupt person who both revels in her corruption and understands why and how she was brought low because of it:
I dreamt that I was sitting in one of the chicken-wire buses on my way upstate to prison. Noël Coward was driving the bus, and I was surrounded by the celebrity subjects of my forgeries, who were not on this occasion such good company: all nattering about how bad my typing was, how inept my punctuation. Dorothy Parker sniffed at my use of serial commas, which she compared to serial killers. . . . Noël wore elegant evening wear, shifted the gears in anger.
That is just marvelous writing, and it indicates Israel was not simply a hack but something much more tragic—a genuine talent whose profound personal weaknesses laid her low. Israel waited 15 years to publish her story and what comes across is her quiet delight in her own cleverness. Her forged letters, reproduced in the book, were brilliant acts of mimicry both physically and spiritually. “I was a better writer as a forger than I had ever been as a writer,” she concludes—and her conclusion is wrong, because her Can You Ever Forgive Me? is better still.
The movie never allows us to share vicariously in Lee Israel’s pleasure in her two-year success as a con artist who pulled off 400 forgeries before she was caught. The filmmakers and Melissa McCarthy (who may win an Oscar for this performance) are too committed to their unvarnished portrait of her surpassing misanthropy to allow us a few complicit moments of joy as the forger’s sidekicks.