Literary figures often live a life of unheralded loneliness. They exist within the pages of print, rather than out amongst the living, experiencing a version of life among their characters, moved only by plots and letters. Typically, we only get biopics for the authors who are larger than life – the great American novelist who lived hard and fast and had to write – our heroes are well documented. The life of a biographer is rarely given its own biography. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is thoroughly occupied by the loneliness of its subject. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is alone in New York City, spending her days documenting stars like Katharine Hepburn and then retreating to bed with only the company of her cat, a remnant of a relationship that never worked. In a city so massive and crowded, someone can feel so completely alone and isolated.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? may be our first significant period piece of the 1990s. It takes on the culture of the inner-city. The feeling of being lost among the crowd. Not once does it ever live inside nostalgia, outside the occasional warmth of books and typewriters, devices used to isolate its characters. Lee Israel is the kind of writer that lives in the margins, given little leeway from her editor. Her editor rewards handsome contracts to right-wing figures like Tom Clancy, but cannot support an out-of-style biographer who’s lost herself in her subjects. Israel, while once moderately successful, lives in squalor and can no longer afford her rent to her decrepit apartment, nor the vet bills for her cat.
She is an incredibly difficult character; the kind women rarely get the opportunity to play. We know that Melissa McCarthy is a talented and bankable star who has set a fine precedent that women are formidable stars for comedy. Turning her sights towards drama, she gives a staggering performance as a woman who cannot stop digging herself into a hole. Disgraced within her literary circle, Israel begins forging documents for the stars she had become an expert on. Instead of being their biographer, she took on the persona of her subjects, treading dangerously close to living a life without any core of truth or credibility.
This is Melissa McCarthy’s great opportunity for an Oscar. There was a building sense all year that she found something unique within the role. This is paid off in full in the film, with one of the best central performances in any recent biopic. What wasn’t so clearly forecasted was the level of her support. Richard E. Grant plays Jack Hock, turning in quite easily the best supporting role of the year. The two combine in a fusion of Lesbian and Gay understanding – finally a film where the relationship is never about sex and nobody finds love – but is rooted in the grim reality of their own isolation. Jack Hock’s also been disgraced within their literary circle and has taken to selling cocaine to support his debauched habits. The two make a motley pair, coarse and unavailable for anything except the company of their own misery.
This is a truly special pairing, certainly the best and most unlikely of the year. Can You Ever Forgive Me? coasts on the high-powered strength of these leads, as they partner in making a career of literary forgery. They may never arrive anywhere particularly pleasant or having gained anything except one another’s temporary companionship, but it creates a compelling façade of connection, and character growth unfolds between the lines. What is most compelling is that the film does not adjust for our expectations. It will never make Lee anything less than miserable, the supreme grouch that she is, and will revel in the filth of her undisciplined lifestyle. This is pure character acting done at the highest caliber.
Marielle Heller directs without ornamentation. She creates true spaces full of dirt and despair and does not advocate for any meaning that is not there. This creates one of the more honest biopics without any wasted space. The emotions are tightly pitched, provoking some sense that this is truer than the true story. This does the job that ever biography sets out to do: creating a surreal connection to its characters and achieving compassion without invention.
It’s a great victory of the biopic to create feeling without manipulation. Lee Israel has now become one of the great literary characters of film. Melissa McCarthy does not put a foot wrong and neither does Richard E. Grant. Let’s please give them both all their deserved awards. Together, they are a novelist’s dream, the finest characters that are stranger than fiction. There will never be any reason to forgive McCarthy here, this is the role of her career and among the finest biopics available.