October 12, 2018 at 6:00 am PDT | by David Ehrenstein
Forgive and never forget

Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ (Photo by Mary Cybulski for Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

A top comic suddenly changing course and taking on a serious dramatic role is no new thing — Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Rooney, Jerry Lewis and a host of others have done it before. But Melissa McCarthy’s turn at the “serious” bat in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is something quite special. It’s a dramatic role with some comic underpinnings, but it bears not a trace of the performer’s past — even when it raises a chuckle or two.

Ever since her breakout performance in “Bridesmaids” (2011), coupled with her sitcom “Mike and Molly” and her stinging parody of Trump spokesman Sean Spicer on “Saturday Night Live,” McCarthy has been the “go to” person for broad, almost cartoonish roles.

None of this is on view in her “Can You” portrayal of writer-turned forger Lee Israel. There’s plenty of humor here but it doesn’t proceed from McCarthy’s wheelhouse. She doesn’t exaggerate in any way. Moreover none of it can be called “Chaplinesque” either. She’s not “bittersweet,” like Giulietta Masina in “Nights of Cabiria” or Roberto Benigni in “Life is Beautiful.” If any comparison could be made it would be with Peter Lorre in a less intense version of “M.” For the character she plays can feel fate closing in on him just as Lorre’s child-killer does. And while the film’s anti-heroine is no murderer, she’s just as desperate and pathos-invoking.

Adapted by Nicole Holofcener (“Walking and Talking” and “Enough Said” ) and Jeff Whitty ( a leading player in “Shortbus”) from Israel’s memoir of the same name and directed with considerable sensitivity by Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”), “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is among other things one of the most refreshingly original LGBT films seen in years. What marks it is the exceptionally subtle way its LGBT aspect reveals itself, not just through McCarthy’s performance as a very low-keyed lesbian, but Richard E. Grant’s sparkling supporting turn as Israel’s gay pal Jack Hock. We truly haven’t seen their quirky, highly singular likes on the screen before, and they’re a major reason why this film is so special.

Lee Israel had been in the ’60s and ‘70s a successful writer of celebrity profiles for upscale magazines. A piece she wrote about Katherine Hepburn in 1967 for Esquire was the closeted lesbian actress’ first full-throated performance of the myth she proceeded to sell for the rest of her life of her grand love affair with her frequent co-star Spencer Tracy. Israel went on from articles to full-scale write biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estee Lauder. The last-mentioned a failure as the famous beautician decided to pen an autobiography — which scotched commercial prospects for Israel’s book. After that Israel’s career dimmed drastically — which is where the film begins.

“No one is interested in a Lee Israel book,” an editor tells her of her desire to write a new book about Fanny Brice. Desperate for money, Israel sells a note that Brice had written that came into her possession. The dealer who she first shows it to says it’s nice but would be more valuable had it included colorful details of one sort or another. So Israel forged new lines to supply such details and made a sale. That proving a success, she set about manufacturing forgeries from start to finish, using a dozen old typewriters and carefully “treated” paper (to create the appearance of age). Specialty booksellers were happy to buy them — believing their authenticity. By the time her criminal career came to an end it was estimated that Israel had forged some 400 letters supposedly penned by notables such as Dorothy Parker (that’s where the title of the film and the book it’s based on comes from) Noel Coward and other literary wits.

As shown in the film, this all came to an end with her unsuccessful attempt to steal documents from a specially housed collection in order to copy them. In June 1993, Israel pleaded guilty to conspiracy to transport stolen property, for which she served six months under house arrest and five years of federal probation

In the film our first view of McCarthy’s Lee Israel shows a desperately sad woman trying to care for her sick cat, seemingly her only companion. As we’re introduced to her pal Jack Hock the picture fills out considerably. Hock is taken to very forward flirting with the waiter at the coffee shop they go to. Israel’s sexuality doesn’t come into play until a bit later on when she takes to wooing a bookstore owner (nicely played by Dolly Wells) to whom she has sold a number of her forgeries. McCarthy is especially subtle here, portraying the loneliness of a woman who, while adventurous in her letter-forging, is exceptionally shy in her personal life. In this way Hock comes to embody the daring that Israel wishes she had.

Grant’s Hock is right in line with the performances he’s given in “Withnail and I,” “Hudson Hawk” and “The Player.” But McCarthy’s is quite new in every way. As a result we regard Lee Israel in full as a flawed but oddly sympathetic human being. There’s already Oscar buzz about McCarthy’s performance.

But what’s more important is the question of whether this hard-working actress will get a chance at playing a role this deep again. I, for one, sincerely hope so.

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