Film Journal October 2018

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with Melissa


Melissa McCarthy delivers a marvelously mordant performance

as a desperate celebrity biographer turned literary forger

Mary Cybulski © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.

by David Noh

In “Can You Ever Forgive

Me?,” Melissa McCarthy

drops her usual ingratiating

comic shtick

and transforms herself

into the toughest, meanest lesbian

who ever prowled and drank

her way through the streets of

Manhattan. Such a person was

Lee Israel (1939-2014), a noted

biographer of Tallulah Bankhead

and Dorothy Kilgallen, who

by the 1980s had fallen on hard

times as a result of her abrasive,

intractable personality, alcoholism

and unsuccessful book

pitches—Fanny Brice’s bio, for

one—that no one was interested

in. Desperate to pay her bills,

she not only stole but forged

celebrity letters—Noel Coward,

Dorothy Parker—from libraries

where she had researched

her subjects and sold them to

autograph dealers, until she was

caught in 1993 and made to serve

six months under house arrest

and five years of federal probation.

Israel poured her experience

into a book, “Can You Ever

Forgive Me?,” which, ironically,

received critical praise and

reinstated her literary name.

In a case of no bad deed goes unrewarded,

Marielle Heller has

directed an adaptation of the

book, giving her star a chance

to really stretch and its subject

more fame in death than she ever

had in life.

As a patron of the New York

gay bar Julius, I would often see

Israel there, throwing drinks

back and usually surrounded by

a coterie of admiring fellows.

One wag there once quipped, “I’ve

known her for so long, I remem-


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9/5/18 3:18 PM

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