It’s no insult to Melissa McCarthy’s incredible comic performances to say that Lee Israel is one of the roles that she has been waiting for her entire career. Starting her life as a biographer – she wrote studies of Estee Lauder, Dorothy Kilgallen and Tallulah Bankhead – Israel turned to literary forgery in the early 1990s when she was unable to secure time and funding to complete a study of Fanny Brice. Over the next year, and with the aid of her friend Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant, she forged letters from a variety of writers, most of them from the early to mid twentieth-century, not only refining the physical particulars of her fake letters, but – perhaps more importantly – growing more adept at adapting the particular cadences and registers of the writers in question. Only when a friend of Noel Coward’s questioned the events described in one of her forged letters was she exposed, in an investigation that reached all the way up to the FBI, and would put her at odds with the New York bookselling community for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, it also produced her most well-known book, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which describes her motivations and processes for forging these letters, here uses as the basis for Marielle Heller’s direction, along with Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s wry, melancholy script.
As the film presents it, Israel’s turn to forgery arose first and foremost from writer’s block, as well as from her broader inability to live up to the demands required of her as a writer within New York’s literary economy. In an early scene, Israel’s agent observes that she is too good a biographer, since she disappears so absolutely into her subjects that she doesn’t leave enough of her own voice. In effect, Israel’s ability to fuse herself with the women that she studies is what constitutes her voice, although this produces problems when it comes to marketing her work, since she largely eschews the kinds of publicity and sociability demanded of a writer in her position. Unable to inhabit her “own” voice in a conventional way, but too plosive, abrasive and antisocial to fit into literary gatherings either, Israel is alternatively invisible and too visible – never quite visible in the right or regulated way – which is also the bind that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick associated with the experience of being closeted at this moment in LGBT history. Like a closeted individual, Israel can never quite naturalise her own voice, meaning that she either has to withdraw it from circulation or insist upon in ever more extreme measures, making her agent’s recommendation – that she finally write something in her own voice – more complex than it might initially appear to be.
For the first act of the film, that produces a one-actor performance, as Heller focuses most of her attention on Israel’s relationship with New York City. Unlike recent period pieces that have focused on or fetishised the texture of the Big Apple in this moment in time, Can You Forgive Me? is suffused with a cloistered quietness that seems to shun any specific period trappings, instead reaching back to an older, jazzier lexicon that seeks to recover some essential capacity of the city to contour and texture loneliness. Much of the time, the film feels set in the 1960s, thanks in part to its cool jazz score, and thanks in part to its bedsitter atmosphere, both of which emphasise Israel’s observation that “I was born thirty years too late.” It’s apt that the only piece of pop music that (initially) intrudes into this musical landscape is Roxy Music’s “Same Old Scene,” since the stylised atmosphere of the film – like that of Roxy Music – feels like a testament to classical jazz and classical Hollywood structures of feeling that might now be outdated, but which for that very reason resonate even more eloquently as a way of articulating melancholy, isolation and profound yearning.
That New York brand of loneliness – the sounds of silence – is both intensified and then relieved by the bar where Israel goes to drink her sorrows away. To the outsider, this initially appears to be a regular watering-hole, but as the film proceeds it becomes gradually clear that this is a gay bar, and that both Israel and her friend Jack are gay as well. In fact, the bar is Julius’, the oldest gay bar in the city, so old that it predates the Stonewall Riots and the other liberatory gestures that led to the plethora of gay bars as a public institution from the 1970s onwards. Instead, this is a gay bar that is steeped in a deeper substrate of the city, bound up with an aesthetic vocabulary that has more in common with Israel’s own interests in classical Hollywood and mid-century celebrity than with more recent markings of queer liberation. In other words, this is a homosexual bar, rather than a gay bar, let alone a queer bar or an LGBT bar, making for a vision of homosexual life, in turn, that is never quite defined in oppositional or overtly political terms, but as subsisting on and amongst the broader loneliness of New York that suffuses every mise-en-scene and moment in the film.
While the film is entirely devoid of heterosexual male characters, and largely devoid of heterosexual female characters, this is only something that dawns upon you gradually, since heterosexuality itself is never really envisaged as a point of direct conflict, or as a point of direct self-definition, for either Israel or Jack, but is instead displaced in favour of a melancholy New York atmosphere that initially presents as somewhat classicist, but is quickly unthinkable without the homosexual substrate of the city as a whole. In other words, this is a vision of homosexual New York, and the history of homosexual New York, from the inside – a city inextricable from its homosexual heritage, in which heterosexuality isn’t ever quite presented as a lifestyle choice or as an object choice, but simply absorbed into everything that makes the city so imposing to the largely gay individuals that we see here. Yet that also turns homosexuality into a kind of play, a cruisiness that the film suggests – somewhat paradoxically – became impossible in the wake of gay liberation, as these two decidedly unliberated characters – defiantly homosexual, rather than gay – make the most of their sequestration from the city, and even from the broader gay community, to make over the city, and the denizens of the city, in their own queer images.
From the very outset, that makes for an inherently furtive and provisional relation with language itself, with Israel and Jack bonding over one fraud, prank and pratfall after another. Not permitted to regulate their own existence in any sustained or structured way, they take what they can where they can, responding to the growing unification of queer politics with an economy of thrift in which they manage to hide in plain sight by continually shifting their voices from one mouthpiece to the next, only staying with one for just long enough to prepare to deflect, in turn, to the next. As the film proceeds, it becomes clear that Israel’s biographies have been a part of this broader pattern, a way of brokering a connection to paragons of feminine charm that never quite affirms, and never quite represses, her sexual attraction to the forms of womanhood they denote. Moreover, it becomes clear that forging letters is the logical and aesthetic conclusion of this process – the only way that Israel can actually write “as” herself – explaining why it is only through and around these forgeries that the full beauty of New York’s homosexual community really starts to blossom, providing both Israel and Jack with their first fleeting semblance of home.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the first letters that Israel forges belong to Noel Coward, nor that Coward’s are the last letters she forges. Between those two bookends, she adopts the voice of a variety of homosexual icons – some of them for being homosexual, some of them for the fandom they promulgated amongst homosexual subcultures – that encompasses Dorothy Parker, Judy Holliday, Marlene Dietrich and, finally, Lillian Hellman. While her forgeries start off as acts of mimesis, efforts to copy the author’s words and handwriting, she gradually starts to improve on the originals, which are typically drab, striving to “give a taste of the author’s personality” and to permit her subjects to make disclosures about their sexual proclivities, and their societal shortcomings, that would never have been possible or permissible within their own times. The title of the film comes from one of these disclosures, which gradually broker the possibility of a relationship between Israel and a young bookshop owner, played by Dolly Wells, part of a broader connection between New York’s homosexual and bookselling communities in which the cruising is relocating from gay bars, saunas and bathhouses – and the whole vocabulary of post-Stonewall liberation – to the dustier and more antiquarian shelves of the city’s second-hand bookshops and dealers.
Rather than frame 1991 as a moment of transformation in the homosexual, gay and queer communities, then, Can You Ever Forgive Me? affirms the deep continuities throughout the city’s historical homosexual communities, however they might have been constituted at any point in time – a continuity that requires Israel’s prosopoeic invocation of the past to make itself truly felt. Not only do these forgeries form her life’s work, but they feel like her way of making peace with herself and understanding her past, with the result that the few characters who reproach her of deception and cowardice seem to have missed the point. Having her letters scrutinized by dealers and investigated by the FBI therefore becomes a kind of outing, one she deflects by making her letters ever more authentic, until she is assured that some will always remain in circulation, even after the FBI are certain of having discovered them all. Using these figures of homosexual devotion to finally live in the present – or at least capture her sense of displacement from the present’s claim to have decisively broken with the repressive homosexual past – she gradually realises that her forgeries are her vocation, “the only time I can remember being proud of my work,” and that her book about the forgeries, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is her masterpiece and her mission.
By the end of the film, Israel is confident enough to assert that her letters form “a portal into a better time and a better place where people still respected the written word,” as if in a riposte to the tendency of queer theory, at this time, to present the written word, and the history of literature, as a sustained act of repression, that was only approachable through paranoid reading. Instead, Israel proposes a version of what Sedgwick described as reparative reading – being able to be liberated by voices even when those voices seem to lie outside an explicit rhetoric and ethic of liberation – and uses that to carve out a communal space that feels at once intensely personal and commingled with a homosexual heritage that will sustain her for the rest of her life. And, as it turns out, her memoir of forgery was the last book that she needed to write, a memoir from somewhere beyond her public self, just as her last gesture here is a playful letter from Dorothy Parker from beyond the grave to a bookseller carrying one of her forged letters – an insistence that even, or especially, those voices that seem most dead to us can be the ones that revive us when seen in the right way.