In 1967, the year of Spencer Tracy’s death, up-and-coming writer Lee Israel broke through with a devastatingly great profile on Katharine Hepburn, published in Esquire. Over the following two decades, Israel penned a trio of celebrity biographies, one of which, Kilgallen (a portrait of journalist and game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen), was lauded as among the finest bios of the 1980s.
By the 1990s, however, her past works proved long forgotten, as Israel found herself earning attention not for her biographies or countless magazine articles but rather her recent criminal activities.
Director Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, based on Israel’s eponymous memoirs, opens on Israel (Melissa McCarthy) who, in 1991, is struggling to make ends meet, months behind on her rent and devastated that she cannot afford medical treatment for her beloved cat. Israel is desperate for an advance on her latest project, a biography of Fanny Brice, but her agent (the formidable Jane Curtin) cannot make that happen, nor does she terribly want to. The irksome, surly Israel has burned bridge after bridge in recent years and has no industry allies to speak of.
At last, Israel finds a companion in Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a vivacious grifter who shares in her disdain for society and dependency on the bottle. Hock isn’t the least bit shaken when Israel presents her grand scheme to bring home that elusive dough - she is going to earn a living fabricating signed personal letters from deceased, high-profile writers, from Brice to Noel Coward to Dorothy Parker. Israel finds fleeting success but, when suspicions are raised around her documents, Hock steps in as a partner in crime to sell them on her behalf. With the FBI on their trail, however, is it inevitable that Judgment Day lurks on the horizon.
With a sparkling screenplay from Jeff Whitty and the reliably amazing Nicole Holofcener, and led by a pair of actors in career-best form, wholeheartedly committed to the material, Can You Ever Forgive Me? ultimately emerges one of the year’s very best pictures.
McCarthy and Grant have a dazzling rapport, with each going to town on the comic and dramatic opportunities presented to them. Not to be overlooked is the rest of this splendid ensemble cast, including Curtin (who slays in her two scenes), Anna Deavere Smith (superb as exasperated ex) and particularly Dolly Wells, warm and perceptive as Anna, a book shop owner who takes a liking to Israel. A dinner between Anna and Israel proves one of the film’s most absorbing and affecting scenes, in a film full of them.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? will be richly deserving of every accolade it inevitably earns for McCarthy and Grant - but I sure hope they aren’t the picture’s lone recognition this awards season.