Credit in the Straight World: I watch “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Credit in the Straight World: I watch “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” January 11, 2019

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a straightforward rise-and-fall tale. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a once-successful writer who has alienated everybody around her beyond the point where they’re willing to help her get paid, is behind on her rent and living in depressive squalor. When illness threatens her only friend (a cat… no judgment) Lee has to get cash into the vet’s hands fast. A coincidence sends her spiraling into the world of literary letter forgery, as she passes off her own missives as the work of Fanny Brice, Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker. She’s new to all this and makes mistakes from the very beginning, so I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say she does not get away with it.

What makes Forgive such a joy to watch is the attention and love given to Lee, her frenemy Jack Hock (RICHARD E. GRANT YESSSSSS), and her world. Lee’s an awful person, she makes all kinds of choices where even a mere audience member is like, “Girl… that’s not right” and she does it with glee, and the movie doesn’t cover for her, which is why I loved her. In maybe her second scene she steals a coat at a party, and sneaks off with this hilariously smug smile. Her doomed caper is fueled by desperation, but also by that gleeful omnivengeance: Take that, you bastards! I think maybe Victor Morton pointed out that from the beginning of the movie to the end, one thing about Lee does not change: She’s driven by the need to have her intelligence recognized. She may not have gotten away with crime, she may shed friends like her cat sheds fur, but you guys, she’s as clever as Dorothy Parker and now everybody has to admit it! That’s her tragic flaw, it’s a sad one, it’s a pathetic disorder in the hierarchy of loves; and it is something most people who’d watch this film in the first place have felt. It’s that line from Wag the Dog, “I want credit!” As who doesn’t?

Lee’s loneliness is drawn with compassion, though without pity–she earned it, she wouldn’t know how to live without it, but even antisocial misanthropes feel things, you know? She’s still a mammal. Her friendship with Jack is delightful. They’re so gleefully awful together, when their agendas mesh, and so painfully at odds when they don’t mesh.

Tim Markatos finally got me to watch this movie by saying it’s about a queer friendship, and yeah, that felt very real, they’re both quite gay and that’s a big, unspoken part of how their friendship works. McCarthy sells Lee and doesn’t prettify her personality or try to win us over; Grant is just pure pleasure. His fluttery camp hand to his temple when he says, “I’m losing my hair”! I swoon, I die. And their time period, that great drowned Atlantis of the 1990s, also feels very close and real. This is never played as a period piece, we don’t get lots of reminders that We Are In The Nineties Now, but the concerns of that time–specifically, the AIDS epidemic–shadow the film. I’m not sure anyone ever says the word. But it’s why Jack is so alone (“I’ve no one to tell. All my friends are dead,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone when Lee reveals her scheme, and nobody’s surprised anymore), so ready for his loneliness to intertwine with Lee’s. And it’s part of why their “queer friendship” feels so organic to its environment. The end titles tell us that Jack was cared for in his final illness–I’ll get the exact phrase wrong, I didn’t think to write it down, but something like, “cared for with love by members of Gay Men’s Health Crisis.” There are a lot of relationships here which the outside world tends to treat as last resorts–your sketchy friend, your community charity group, your cat for pity’s sake–and Can You Ever Forgive Me? honors the love which animates all those bonds. (And honors that love, let me say, simply by portraying it, not by preaching at us about it the way I just did.)

Are there any flaws? Ehhh the music composed for the film is fairly sentimental and generic. (The torch songs, by contrast, are well-chosen and haunting.) I loved Lee, I loved her friend, I loved her cat, I loved her movie.

Typewriter photo via Wikimedia Commons. Post title via the Young Marble Giants

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