A little-known movie flew mostly under the radar this fall — Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the true story of writer Lee Israel.
It also just so happens to contain not one, but two of the best LGBTI performances of the year. Melissa McCarthy, known primarily for her comedy roles, and Richard E. Grant are at the heart of these performances.
Directed by Marielle Heller, the movie is an adaption of Israel’s memoir of the same name.
During the 1970s and 80s, Israel gained prominence primarily as a biography writer. She wrote biographies of the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Estée Lauder. Her book about Kilgallen landed on the New York Times bestseller list.
By the 1990s, however, her career petered out.
In order to make money, she turned to forging letters from famous authors before the FBI discovered her criminal enterprises.
Grant plays Jack Hock, a friend of Israel’s and co-conspirator in her criminal activity.
Avoiding the sins of representing gay people
Both Lee and Jack were gay, and the movie depicts them with complexity and nuance.
There are two blanket criticisms often lobbied at media representations of LGBTI characters. The first is making a character’s sexuality or gender identity their entire personality and arc.
The second criticism is the opposite — having an LGBTI character in name or label only.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? does neither with its leads. Instead, it shows the full range both of these people, including but not limited to their sexuality.
Over the course of the movie, and the development of Lee and Jack’s friendship, their layers are unveiled bit by bit.
Audiences learn of Lee’s previous relationship and watch her flirting with a woman in a bookshop. Jack, meanwhile, struggles with homelessness and AIDS as a gay man in New York City.
Their sexuality makes impacts on their lives — who they connect with, and battling discrimination and struggles unknown to heterosexual and cisgender people in the city.
No, sexuality is not everything for a person, but failing to acknowledge it at all as a way of appearing as a ‘profound’ ally who sees beyond a person’s sexuality is a poor excuse for a lack of honest representation. Just take the example of Dumbledore.
Human connections are above all
It’s important the audiences know Lee and Israel as a lesbian and a gay man, but also who they were overall.
Heller’s movie captures this beautifully.
During the movie, Heller shows Lee’s struggles as a writer, as well as her motivations and dreams. It becomes clear to understand Lee’s passion for writing and why she turns to forgery when the world turns its back on her own words.
We learn of her love for her cat, which she got in her last relationship.
Jack and Lee first bond over their mutual dislike of societal norms and prejudiced attitudes.
This friendship becomes the heart of the film — two outsiders coming together, leaning on each other, and finding the will to keep going in a city that works to oppress them.
Lee is, for all intents and a purposes, not the most likable character. She is crude and mostly unkind to those around her. McCarthy walks a fine line, never downplaying these negative traits in Lee, but never making her entirely unsympathetic as well.
She shows that Lee is not uncaring, it shows in her affection for her cat, and the words of writers who came before her. As the movies goes on, it is also shown in her friendship with Jack, as she struggles with letting someone else into her life in such an intimate way and genuinely growing to care for him.
Thanks to the deft directing of Heller, the clever screenplay from Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, and the nuanced performance McCarthy gives, this movie presents an LGBTI character who is fully realized as a human being. It’s refreshing, not seen nearly enough, and shines brilliantly.
The movie is currently out in the US and hits theaters in the UK in February.