A lot of people talk about wanting to become a writer, but most never do. There’s no trick to becoming a writer; it just takes discipline, focus, an ability to work on one’s own, and it doesn’t hurt to have a subject one cares about. Now, to become a good (or even great) writer takes a little more. Often it requires inborn talent, but more than that, it takes a burning desire to hone one’s craft. There are a lot of deeply talented writers out there who never become great at what they do because they let any number of distractions lead them astray. Those who veer from the path often find themselves unhappy for having done so, yet unable to fully let go of their dream, and that can bring them to even stranger places. And it is in one of those strange places where we find a magnificent movie about a failed biographer’ descent into professional forgery. It is a tale of crime, punishment and a relative lack of remorse that would be disturbing if it wasn’t so darkly humorous: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The story takes place in New York City, 1991. Lee Israel is an alcoholic writer whose own professional career is falling apart. Her most recent biography was a critical and commercial flop. She can’t hold a copy editing job because she works with a glass in hand and can’t resist unloading verbal venom on her colleagues. Her agent won’t help her from the far side of yet another professional bridge Lee burned without realizing it. Desperate for money, she sells some of her literary possessions, including a few personal letters from actress Fanny Brice that Lee acquired while researching a potential Brice biography. Lee is nonplussed by how her letters are worth, but learns that if they included a little more color from their author, they would be way more valuable. Sensing an opportunity, Lee puts her writing skills to use, expertly mimicking the voices of famous authors and playwrights to create fake personal correspondence, and then, selling them for a handsome profit. Before too long, Lee has quite a criminal enterprise going, with the help of her equally lawless accomplice, Jack Hock. But the problem with being a crook is never knowing when to stop, because if you did, you would never have started in the first place. And Lee is having far too much fun to even consider the fact that sooner or later, every crook gets caught. A lot of them ask for forgiveness. Not all of them get it. And some of them, like Lee, don’t even want it.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the real-life criminal escapades of Lee Israel, whose crimes prompted a federal investigation, a six-month house arrest, five years worth of probation, a couple of destroyed personal relationships and a seismic tumult within the strange niche market of rare personal letters. The movie takes its title from a line Lee uses to finish a fake letter from Dorothy Parker. The line, which is what really gives the fake letter its value, is the perfect title for the movie, since so much of it is about false gestures, fool’s gold and all kinds of deception, starting with the self.
Lee is not a particularly sympathetic protagonist. She is simply mean, even when she is not drinking. She claims to be socially phobic and may very well be, but her outright misanthropy is so near the surface that one has to wonder what really is the root cause of her lonely, unhappy, unfulfilled life. There are scenes where we see that Lee has the capacity for genuine compassion, and a need for lasting companionship, but we never get past the opening stages of those things before Lee finds a way to blow it all up. This is at the heart of her more pressing troubles, but her disdain for the rules of others makes her shifty slide from biographer to forger an easy one—especially once she realizes that she’s really good at faking out naive collectors whose enthusiasm for what she is forging is something Lee cannot understand.
There’s a great relationship story here between Lee and her partner in crime, the flamboyant, gay con man and drug addict Jack Hock. Watching Lee and Hock lock antlers when they aren’t toxically co-dependent is fun, but eventually, that blows up, too, in a way that anybody can see coming except for Lee and Jack. Everybody knows there is no honor among thieves, but perhaps more importantly, there is no dependency among thieves, and sometimes, you have to depend on your partner to look after your cat while you’re away. A crippling lack of trust is at the core of Lee’s problems, for not only does she rarely give it to others, she dares not give others any reason to place it in her. The same wellspring of self-sabotage that makes it to easy for her to justify ripping off total strangers with an act of serial dishonesty is the same that allows her to consider—if only for an instant—the possibility of a romantic relationship with one of her victims. When you’re that far around the bend, the fall is only a matter of when, not if.
The moment of truth comes at Lee’s legal reckoning, when she delivers a speech about whether or not she is actually sorry for the crimes she has committed. Her conclusion is the first honest thing she says all movie, and we sense that perhaps Lee Israel has finally discovered that when it comes to writing, truth is a far greater superpower than dishonesty. After all, just ask the guy who’s got the expensive Dorothy Parker letter in the window…and another one sent to him in the mail to chide him for being both dishonest and a sucker. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword…especially if you don’t bother to question what it writes.