Can You Ever Forgive Me? | dir. Marielle Heller | USA
It’s 3:30 AM in Manhattan. A somewhat dowdy, middle-aged woman is sipping scotch to get through the late shift at her shitty cubicle job. After an unknowing (yet vehement) “fuck off” that makes its way to her boss, she is promptly fired. She lives in an equally shitty one bedroom apartment, as evidenced by the dried cat droppings under her bed and the fleas that have taken up residence on her pillow. Not only are Lee Israel’s circumstances shitty, but we soon learn that she, too, is kind of shitty. Shitty might not be the right word… she’s curmudgeonly, without a doubt. Not even her cat can stand her company. The first time we meet Jersey, Lee’s sole friend (feline or otherwise), she refuses to come when Lee calls, choosing instead to judge silently from her decrepit cat tree. Soon enough, however, we learn that Jersey doesn’t actually hate Lee; she behaves the way she does because she is sick and doesn’t know an alternative. We could say the same for Lee Israel.
Lee Israel is a bygone biography writer. She is also an alcoholic. She lives alone with her cat. She steals toilet paper from her estranged publicist’s party, along with a purseful of shrimp and, most likely, someone else’s coat. But Lee isn’t just a misanthropic klepto-alcoholic with an aversion to cleanliness. She is a person with a problem, perhaps even a sickness. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the late Lee Israel’s very own autobiography but doubles as a love letter to problematic protagonists.
Quite early on in the film, we learn the gravity of Lee’s situation. She can’t even scrounge together the cash to pay half the $82 vet bill for her cat. She tries to make some extra cash at the local secondhand bookstore but is met with a measly $2 offer for her books. What’s more, she is met with derision: her latest book, an Estee Lauder biography, has been relegated to the 75% off table. We then find out Lee’s rent is three months overdue, a fact that her landlord has agreed to overlook due to Lee’s inexplicable kindness towards his mother. Unsurprisingly, we follow Lee to the local pub where she runs into Jack Hawk, a man she had apparently met at a book party years ago. He wears a citron-yellow silk blouse, a black leather vest, and a bolo tie. The two of them, fast friends, it appears, drink the night away and stumble home while munching on Zabar’s baguettes.
Even though Lee is without a job, we learn that she has not completely ceased her writing career— she has been working for a while on a Fanny Brice biography. Unfortunately, no one seems to know who Fanny Brice is. Even Lee’s publicist refuses to advance her anything for the Fanny Brice book, which in turn causes Lee to resort to alternative income methods, namely forging letters from famous authors and selling them to collectors for cash. Soon, Lee has a typewriter for each wall of her tiny Manhattan apartment, and each typewriter is designated by post-it note: one for Fanny Brice, one for Dorothy Parker, et cetera.
And so Lee and Jack spend much of the film just making ends meet and drinking and scheming and playing tricks on people they despise—and it truly is a joy to watch. But then, things become a little harder for Lee. One collector starts to show suspicion. Then more collectors show suspicion. Then the FBI gets involved. To divulge any more of the plot would be as detrimental as Lee’s own exploits—or would it? Can You Ever Forgive Me? not only encourages us to question what it means to tell someone else’s story, but what it means to live someone else’s story, to privilege one person’s story over another’s, to privilege another person’s story over your own. For now, we can only hope more stories like Lee Israel’s get told— and, frankly, by whoever is willing to tell them.