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CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME (In Theaters) Review by Victoria Alexander

Updated: Nov 13, 2018

Melissa McCarthy’s brave performance, Charlize-Theron-like acting jewel, deserves an Academy Award nomination.

What I love: The scene at the end of CAN YOU FORGIVE ME? When Hollywood stars of Melissa McCarthy’s stature do a real person role, at the end, because the star wants you to leave the theater remembering her beauty, she appears better made-up. Her hair is not sticking straight out of her scalp like it was at the steel mill and she’s got good eye makeup. At the end of FORGIVE ME?, Lee Israel (McCarthy) is walking down a New York street wearing a sweater with piles on it. Let’s thank costume designer Arjun Bhasin for keeping the character real to the very end.

McCarthy’s performance is astonishing. The character she plays, failed writer Lee Israel, admits she is not a nice person. Her literary agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), bluntly tell her so. Her new friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), delights in telling her often. Lee knows her shortcomings and accepts them. She lives with her 12-year-old cat in a walk-up she is damn blessed to have on 82nd Street in Manhattan. No job, 3 months behind in her rent and her cat is sick. She has no money even though, long ago, she wrote a book that made it on The New York Times Bestseller List.

Playing an unattractive, nasty, virtue-less character is not every star’s ambition, unless it’s a superhero’s villain. Charlize Theron admitted that she had to take the risk to do MONSTER or she would be forever cast as in crying girlfriend parts.

One example: The big problem I had with the 1997 remake of Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA (published in 1955) was that Jeremy Irons refused to play the Humbert Humbert character as a pederast, a nasty man using deceit and cleverness to get his hands on 12-year-old Lolita Haze. Iron’s portrayal of Humbert is one of a mushy lovesick puppy-man. Instead of being bullied by the wise Lolita, he is henpecked. Certainly not like Nabokov and Stanley Kubrick saw him. Kubrick, who directed the original 1962 film, understood the sinister dynamics of lust, betrayal and guilt. And what a dazzling cast: James Mason as Humbert, Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze, Sue Lyon as Lolita and in one of the greatest parts of his long career, Peter Sellers’ small defining role as Clare Quilty.

I lay the blame of the remake, its commercial and artistic failure, on Irons and not the director, Adrian Lyne. Irons just would not play such a despicable character. His name was headlining the film. His forward-moving career could not be defined by the character of Humbert Humbert.

This is one of many films that could do with re-editing. Wouldn’t you love to see the rumored “European version” of CLEOPATRA with its nude scenes? Where are those films that had 2 versions made? One version was for the PG-rated sensitive American audiences and the other version for the worldly, sophisticated European audiences. Instead of bad remakes, why not just release the European versions?

McCarthy’s Israel is not any way in the same category as Humbert, but you get my meaning. Julia Roberts would have insisted on something likable about Lee Israel. Maybe she had a lousy childhood and was abandoned on a dirt road in Appalachia. Maybe she had her heart broken too many times to trust anyone.

Based on the book Can You Ever Forgive Me? by Lee Israel, screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty have given McCarthy and Grant dialogue of wit and their pleasure at saying it is evident. Director Marielle Heller should be acknowledged for insisting that her star wear no makeup, endure horrifying close-ups and allow the camera to show its star walking away. There are verboten camera angles for movie stars. Heller must be a very strong director. Bravo!

McCarthy is all in and gives a wonderful, emotionally raw performance. Thank God, McCarthy knows that there can only be so many movies like THE BOSS and LIFE OF THE PARTY. I will reaffirm that I really loved THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS.

Her co-star, Grant, has co-center-stage and his scenes with McCarthy are wonderful. What a team! Grant’s character’s joy, at his ability to live on his wits in New York City, show pride and a true love of life.

From the brief trailer, we know the story. Lee Israelis alcoholism and lack of communication skills have left her with a lot of bills and no hope of income from writing. Lee insists that the world needs a Fanny Brice biography. I know, everyone asks,“Who is Fanny Brice?”

While going through library books on Ms. Brice, Lee finds an authentic letter from Brice and sells it. She is told it is boring but there is a market for this type of correspondence. Getting an old typewriter, Lee begins creating letters from famous literary lions. Soon it’s a quasi-business with creating aged paper and perfect forged signatures. There is a huge market for this kind of paper and soon Lee has her bills paid and brags to her new friend, Jack. When rumors start to fly about forged letters, Jack suggests another way for Lee to profit.

Lee’s dogged research and her talent for witticism is appreciated by literary memorabilia brokers as she creates letters from great wits such as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. We still use some of their quotes.

Dorothy Parker

“Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”

“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

“I require three things in a man: he must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.”

“It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.”

Noel Coward

“Just say the lines and don't trip over the furniture.”

“The higher the building the lower the morals.”

“I'm not a heavy drinker, I can sometimes go for hours without touching a drop.”

While Lee’s output of forgeries is not exactly numbered in the movie, the end notes say that Lee Israel forged an impressive, gluttonous 400 letters in the brief year and a half she toiled in crime.

In January 7, 12015, the New York Times ran an article about Lee Israel’s passing at age 75. “She drank an awful lot — she was an alcoholic,” David Yarnell, a friend, said in an interview on Monday. “And she was very feisty, and people did not want to work with her.”

For more movie reviews and articles at Films In Review, see the list of most recent posts at

Victoria Alexander is a member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: Victoria lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at


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