“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018). Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Christian Navarro, Stephen Spinella, Gregory Korostishevsky, Anna Deavere Smith, Pun Bandu, Erik LaRay Harvey, Brandon Scott Jones, Marc Evan Jackson, Sandy Rosenberg, Towne the cat. Director: Marielle Heller. Screenplay: Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. Book: Lee Israel, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Web site. Trailer.
Creativity is a wonderful thing. It gives us great satisfaction, and it can lead to the production of marvelous conceptions made manifest. It offers boundless opportunities for exploration and expression, adding constantly to the richness of human experience. But is it always benevolent and uplifting, or can it be contorted into questionable forms that get out of hand? That’s a fine line to traverse, but sometimes we may step over it and find ourselves on the wrong side of the creative process. Such an experience befell a struggling author, as depicted in the intriguing new biopic, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
In 1991, writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) was going through hard times. The talented author and journalist, a biography specialist who managed to land one of her titles on The New York Times best seller list, had fallen out of favor with readers, publishers and her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin). Despite a small but loyal fan following, no one was buying her books, and she was having trouble making ends meet, let alone finding success in securing new publishing deals. In fact, in a tense meeting with Marjorie, the no-nonsense agent strongly encouraged her client to look for a new way to make a living.
Of course, Israel did little to help her own cause. While she was quick to point out the quality of her work and her past accomplishments, she nevertheless refused to engage in most of the activities, such as media appearances, that authors were increasingly being called upon to do in promoting their work. It also didn’t help that she was often known for being surly, sloppy and drunk much of the time. Those qualities affected not only her professional life, but her personal life as well. She had few friends, her best pal being her elderly cat, Jersey (Towne the cat). She lived a rather lonely life on her own, having separated from her partner, Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith), in a Manhattan apartment in dire need of a good cleaning.
Given these circumstances, Israel’s prospects for the future looked bleak. Her back was against the wall financially, conditions made worse by being months behind in her rent and having to figure out a way to cover vet bills for an aging and ailing feline. She was desperate to turn things around.
In spite of publishers turning their backs on her, Israel continued work on her latest writing project, a biography of Vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice (1891-1951), hoping that someone might eventually be interested in picking it up. While conducting research, she came upon a personal note written by the performer stuck inside a library book. Believing that it might have some value, she decided to swipe it in hopes that she could sell it for some quick cash.
Not long thereafter, Israel approached a book shop owner (Dolly Wells), who confirmed that the letter indeed had worth. In fact, Israel was surprised to learn that there was a sizable collectors’ market for the literary letters of famous authors and artists, especially for items with good content. That revelation gave the starving writer an idea: Why not embellish or even create forgeries of those letters and sell them to eager memorabilia brokers? Suddenly, Israel had a new way to make a living, doctoring the works of such luminaries as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker.
Needless to say, discretion is vital when perpetrating a fraud such as this, so Israel kept mum about her new venture, confiding only in her new drinking buddy – and occasional partner in crime – Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). The polished would-be man about town helped fence some of her wares when the heat began to get turned up, and he came up with some clever schemes of his own. But he also proved to be unreliable – and untrustworthy. And, as some collectors began to question the authenticity of their purchases, Israel came under increasing scrutiny from several brokers (Ben Falcone, Stephen Spinella), especially when they were questioned by federal agents. The noose was tightening, as investigators began closing in.
Lee’s odyssey is, to say the least, a colorful and creative one. Indeed, one can’t help but admire her ingenuity in attempting to get herself out of a gigantic pickle. One might even say that, as seen in another recently released biopic, “The Old Man & the Gun”, she’s sort of an endearing criminal folk hero. However, a life of crime is hardly laudable, no matter what the circumstances, and sanctioning it is anything but noble. So one can’t help but ask, why did she have to resort to it in the first place?
As becomes apparent from her circumstances, Israel was desperate for a solution. And desperate people, as we all know, often resort to desperate measures to seek resolution. All of which naturally begs the question, how did matters become so desperate to begin with?
Given where Lee stands at the start of the film, she has quite a full plate of issues to contend with, most of them of her own making. Her boorish attitude, lazy ways, impolite demeanor and constant imbibing don’t lend themselves to a successful career or a happy home life. Instead, they produce miserable outcomes, unrelenting despair and a persistent need to scramble to stay afloat personally, professionally and financially.
At the risk of sounding unduly judgmental, it would be easy to say that the author was her own worst enemy, that her plight was one of her own making. But such a critical assessment isn’t necessarily all that far off the mark when one looks at it through the lens of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, given how Lee’s life had turned out, she obviously adhered to some doozies.
Israel’s dour perspective on life materialized on multiple fronts – her vocational trouble, her lack of a fulfilling personal life and so forth. It’s no wonder that she turned to incessant alcohol use to deaden the pain. And it’s no surprise that these conditions left her with a spate of difficult challenges to sort out.
Fortunately, being the creative type that she was, Lee came up with a “solution” that reflected her temperament, character and sensibilities. Her scheme to forge and market phony literary letters was brilliant in its own way, and it drew heavily upon her existing talents. She was eminently detailed in her approach, too, right down to matching the typeface fonts in the typewriters she chose to write her subjects’ alleged correspondence. What’s more, her plan reflected the core conscious creation principle of using one’s beliefs to push through seemingly impenetrable limitations. Once she learned how to hone the particulars of her scheme, Israel ostensibly perfected it as an art form. She was so firm in her beliefs and confident in her abilities that, for a while, it seemed as though there was nothing she couldn’t get away with.
However, that eye for detail, that scrupulous intent to be “authentic,” is what ultimately got her in trouble. Despite her many personality flaws, in her early days as a successful writer and journalist, Israel believed strongly in being faithful to the quality of her work, including the integrity associated with it. And even though she believed in her later years that her needs justified whatever illicit actions she took, that longstanding notion about integrity couldn’t help but creep in. This had the effect of rendering her fallible, resulting in an unwitting form of self-sabotage, one aimed at giving expression to that strive for personal authenticity, the death knell for a perpetrator seeking to get away with her crimes.
One might wonder, how could she undercut herself when everything with her plan seemed to be going so well? In some ways, this self-sabotaging manifestation is akin to a “tell” that a bluffing poker player may unknowingly reveal when trying to con his or her fellow gamesters. The truth of the deception bubbles to the surface in some identifiable way, making the ruse vulnerable to exposure, no matter how well the deceiver may try to cover the underlying intent. In the end, one’s beliefs ultimately will out.
If nothing else, the foregoing helps to illustrate what powerful things beliefs truly are, even if we don’t recognize them as such or fully appreciate what they’re capable of accomplishing. Israel’s creative ventures may be commendable in terms of their ingenuity, but they also have inherent pitfalls, especially when driven by beliefs that aren’t fully recognized, reconciled or understood, particularly when operating in tandem with one another. Such circumstances can set us up for extreme difficulties, outcomes driven by the practice of un-conscious creation or creation by default. Lee’s misadventures clearly reflect that problem, as seen in the results she realizes, particularly where beliefs about integrity begin to make their presence felt in the middle of an otherwise-well-hatched fraud.
So how does one avoid such“belief interference” issues? The key is in becoming clear about the true nature of one’s beliefs and ruling out those that are unwanted, essentially to create a reality free of those influences that we don’t wish to include from the outset. By excluding such undesirable materialization mechanisms from our creative matrix, we can avoid having to come up with workarounds or stop-gap solutions. Mind you, eliminating integrity from the mix may not be the wisest choice (even though it would have made Lee’s plan run more smoothly), but ridding ourselves of whatever beliefs that get in the way of our goals is crucial to achieve the success we seek.
At the same time, we should also be clear that sometimes such unfortunate experiences are unavoidable if they involve beliefs designed to foster the circumstances necessary to learn certain life lessons, some of which we may be unaware of. Perhaps that was what was behind Israel’s experience, difficult though it may be to imagine. Such incidents may be hard to fathom and difficult for onlookers to witness, yet, if they’re necessary for our personal growth and development, they might be inescapable. Should that be the case, one can only hope that we get the message on the first try so that we don’t have to repeat them again later.
Ironically, despite the many troubles Israel underwent with her scheme, in her own way she found the experience enjoyable. Having had the opportunity to impersonate the writers she so admired – and to effectively convince others that her writing was on par with those literary icons – gave her great fulfillment. It was as if she had a chance to contribute to what she saw as a body of work built on the foundations of great writing, something that she truly appreciated and that, regrettably, was beginning to grow ever scarcer in light of emerging changes taking place in the publishing industry. It was so satisfying, in fact, that she described the experience as the best time of her life. No matter how strange or warped that may sound to some of us, there’s something to be said for it in its own unusual way. Such personal fulfillment is an aspiration to which we should all strive for in our creative endeavors, regardless of what they are (though larceny is probably not recommended).
As biopics go, director Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is about as good as they get. This engaging, smartly written tale serves up a banquet of laughs and tears with a dash of inspired criminality, all wrapped up in an intelligent cinematic package. McCarthy delivers a stellar performance as the literary scoundrel, demonstrating that there’s more to her range than what she’s shown in her many comic turns and taking a front and center position among leading contenders for awards season honors. Similar accolades are due to Grant as the protagonist’s flamboyant scallywag accomplice, potentially another honoree waiting to happen. But perhaps the film’s most praiseworthy attribute is the screenplay co-written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, the former having distinguished herself yet again here, just as she did in the recently released character study, “The Land of Steady Habits”. It’s heartening to see a picture that truly appreciates the value of great writing, both in its subject matter and in the vehicle that brings its story to the screen. To that end, it’s gratifying that a contemporary release refuses to dumb itself down to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This offering shines in so many respects and genuinely deserves whatever honors it receives.
As Lee Israel came to discover, creativity can be a dual-edged sword, one that can articulately dissect or blatantly dismember whatever it’s used for. It can cut with surgical precision or slash with reckless abandon. But whatever happens, the outcome depends on who is wielding the implement and how he or she does so. There’s a tremendously powerful tool at work here, and we should take care to handle it judiciously if we hope to keep control over it – and not lose any of our fingers in the process.
Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.