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Dolly Wells as Anna and Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Photo by Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox

  • Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  • Directed by: Marielle Heller
  • Written by: Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
  • Starring: Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant
  • Classification: 14A
  • 106 minutes

rating

At some point in our lives, we all disappear. Women of a certain age know this perhaps more acutely than most: the shopkeeper no longer rushes to help pluck a package off a high shelf; the bartender’s gaze falls upon someone with a younger smile. For years, the New York writer Lee Israel took great pride in not being seen, penning biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen in which she disappeared behind her subject matter. But when she hit a rough patch in her late 40s, that invisibility proved a liability: With little published work showcasing her own voice, she was no longer bankable.

As depicted in this tart, melancholy screen adaptation of her 2008 memoir, Israel (Melissa McCarthy), is also physically unremarkable, a stout woman in tired tweeds and shapeless sweater-vests. This provides ideal cover when, in 1991, she begins peddling letters by long-dead writers to Manhattan’s rare books and autograph shops: No one gives her a second thought.

The first letter is an authentic Fanny Brice note, pilfered from a public library archive during research for a book about the vaudevillian that Israel’s agent tells her nobody wants. Its proceeds go toward a long overdue veterinarian bill for Israel’s ailing cat, evidently the only living being for whom she has any affection.

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Advised by a dealer that more interesting material fetches higher prices, Israel embellishes a couple of other ill-gotten letters with racy postscripts. Before long, she begins fabricating letters from whole cloth, spinning sparkly correspondence entirely from her imagination and hammering out the bon mots – supposedly by Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward and others – on a series of aged typewriters purchased from antique shops. She orders up special letterhead from clueless printers, and devises an ingenious method of forging signatures.

As her letters find hungry – and surprisingly unskeptical – buyers, Israel takes a perverse pride in finally being rewarded for her own caustic wit, even if it is wrapped in someone else’s persona. “I’ll have you know, I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she boasts to the one person in whom she confides her crimes, the fading gay hustler Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, flamboyantly dissolute). She laments that her talents are lost on him: He’s evidently never heard of either Brice or Dietrich – “Are you sure you’re [gay]?” she asks – though he does know a pleasantly downbeat drag club where he and Israel enjoy the fruits of her success, and a few Scotches and soda.

A familiar sort of early 1990s' misanthropic New Yorker – her agent, played by Jane Curtin, calls her a bitch, and who’s to argue? – Israel’s sharp edges begin to soften once she has some “jingle in her jeans.” She accepts a dinner invitation from Anna (Dolly Wells), a book dealer who has been buying some of her forgeries; you root for them to connect, despite the cancerous deception at the heart of their relationship.

Shooting for legitimacy as a dramatic actor, McCarthy tamps down her manic comic impulses, hiding behind a mop of mousy brown hair and eyebrows that haven’t seen a tweezer since the 1970s. Blowsy and boozy, Israel is as nubbly as her sweaters, but her longing for human attachment pierces through, up from beneath her own encrusted armour.

Coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival last month, critics were touting McCarthy as an Oscar nominee. Her work is nuanced and insightful, though it may not be showy enough for Academy voters. Four years after the death of the real Lee Israel, it’s nice to have a version of her up there on the screen, a woman of a certain age who is no longer being ignored. Let her be seen, and noticed.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens Oct. 26

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