“I’ll have you know, I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.”
I’d pay to watch Melissa McCarthy stare at a wall. She’d make that a performance. Her ability to create emotional momentum out of thin air is second to none.
In Marielle Heller‘s smooth Oscar contender Can You Ever Forgive Me? there is no staring at walls, although she is playing a human fortress, the writer Lee Israel, a celebrity biographer, and an emotionally air-tight container, in an adaptation of the said scribe’s book on her life in literary forgery. Namely, embellishing letters of famous dead writers of sharp wit (Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker, among her favourites). Lee wrote them perhaps better than the originals would write their own correspondences – her survival depended on the content being interesting enough for collectors to buy. Lee was talented, but could not cope with being open to criticism. So she turned that knife onto others. Her downfall was her insurmountable bile, stemming from a deep-seated cowardice and envy – a cornucopia of foul blocking every living cell of her own creativity.
Caustic, increasingly nasty, and incredibly isolated, with her unpleasant way with people, and a directness that was uncompromising, she burnt bridges like matches. After her girlfriend Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith) left, we get no inkling that she was ever again intimate with a human. This collective ill will, however, took some time to build, as she did her work well and diligently, achieving a modicum of success – even made a few fans (one of which falls into her counterfeiting web).
Lee’s agent Marjorie (a fab Jane Curtin), avoiding her aggressive advances, slips in an unfortunate yet true reminder to Ms Israel that she is simply not famous enough to be an asshole. And what McCarthy’s moving performance makes clear is that the sociopathic Lee longed to be respected without having to be respectful – a tragic tantrum that lasted a lifetime.
In this downward spiral, Lee meets a kindred spirit, a submissive Hansel to her dominant Gretel, the crafty New York drifter Jack, living the gay life extraordinaire, played with equal virtuosity by Richard E. Grant.
While Lee’s only true kindness was reserved for her cat (strangely, also her landlord’s elderly, caustic mother), Jack somehow manages to penetrate the thick prickly armor, becoming a partner in crime, a sidekick, a booze buddy – a fellow con, with a few secrets of his own. She treats him like dirt, but he brushes it off like confetti.
Their symbiotic bond, as well as their schemes, all crashed and burned in the end, as both their luck ran out – Lee winding up in house arrest, publicly shamed, Jack in a hospice, but finally surrounded by true affection. Yet, this ends up somehow a breeze of a tale about hardship and friendship, a perfect couplet, made beautiful by actors that can tell a human from a forgery.