Monday, December 10, 2018

Bio-Downer: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Lee Israel was a freelance journalist who enjoyed some success writing celebrity bios (her 1980 book on the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen was a bestseller) before running dry and turning, in a particularly imaginative response to desperation, to forging letters by famous people and selling them to book shops with a sideline in memorabilia. Eventually the FBI tracked her down but she managed to escape prison – a sympathetic judge gave her probation – and the last thing she wrote, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, is an account of her odd and abbreviated life of crime. The title is from one of the letters she invents and ascribes to Dorothy Parker, in which Parker quips that her drunken escapades have offended so many of her friends that she ought to have little cards printed that beg their forgiveness. The misanthropic Israel was drawn to brittle, acerbic wits like Parker and Noël Coward and she had enough of a gift for epigrams to emulate their styles; her book, which takes about an hour and a half to read, is enjoyably nasty-minded. She juxtaposes samples of her handiwork with sketches about how she plied her illicit craft. But Marielle Heller’s movie version, from a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, is somber and cautionary. It portrays Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy) as a tragic heroine, a reclusive dipsomaniac who is so terrified of rejection that she can’t sustain a romantic relationship – she’s still haunted by the failure of her last one – or even a friendship, and lavishes all her affection on her aging cat. (The movie begins with her losing an editing job because she imbibes at work and tells her supervisor to fuck off.) Moreover, as her editor (Jane Curtin, in a sharp-eyed cameo) points out, she doesn’t have the nerve to forget about projects no one in 1991 could care less about – her latest, if she can recover from a bad case of writer’s block, is a book on Fanny Brice – and write something that reflects her own voice. The idea that biography is somehow a dodge for a real writer should be news to, say, Gary Giddins, who just came out with the second volume of his study of Bing Crosby, which I can’t wait to sit down with. Toward the end of the movie, in a heartfelt statement before the judge sentences her, Lee owns up to the reason she has never taken her agent’s counsel: that she’s always been afraid of rejection on the literary front, too.

The movie is a crock, but McCarthy, in her first dramatic performance, is splendid as Lee. (Julianne Moore was originally attached but dropped out.) She’s particularly fine in two scenes where the character’s longing to express emotion gets shut down, buried behind her armor: when she goes out for dinner with the manager of a small bookstore (Dolly Wells) who seems interested in friendship or perhaps more, and when, after she finds her cat dead in her apartment, she brings its corpse in a covered box to the vet and lingers at the desk, not able to part with it but not comfortable conveying how she feels. But it’s more fun to watch her with Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock, a fellow drunk with considerable experience on the wrong side of the law who becomes her confederate. Jack’s outrageousness – his flirtation with a waiter (Christian Navaro), which leads eventually to a druggy one-night stand, cracks you up – liberates Lee’s raunchy humor and gives McCarthy some lowdown funny scenes to play as well as the ones in which she has to be damaged and self-destructive. Grant displays the sheer kinetic joy of acting here; even his final scene, where he’s stricken with AIDS, isn’t solemn, though it does bring out a streak of unsuspected gallantry in the character.

Stephen Spinella, sporting an elegant mustache, turns a few scenes as the earnest manager of a high-end rare book mart into a real character sketch, and Ben Falcone is good as his opposite number, an unsavory type in the same profession who warns Lee that the FBI has been asking questions about her, professes that he’s too good a guy to turn her in, and then attempts to blackmail her. These tiny supporting performances (including the ones by Curtin and Wells) fill in the corners of the movie nicely. On the other hand, Anna Deavere Smith shows up as Lee’s old girlfriend, Elaine, who comes out to meet her on a park bench after the cat – a gift from her – dies and Lee is feeling especially shaky. It’s the perfect role for Smith: she gets to condescend to McCarthy’s Lee, complain about how inaccessible she was as a partner and tell her to get her life together. Smith has a gift, for lack of a better word, for always sounding like she’s delivering a lecture to someone who doesn’t come up to her moral standards. When her agent sent her the script, Elaine’s one scene (thank God it’s just one) must have made her salivate.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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