The heroine of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a lot of things. She’s rude. She’s difficult. She’s a middle-aged cat lady. She is almost certainly an alcoholic. She definitely has a personality ill-suited to office life (the film opens with her being fired for telling her supervisor to “fuck off” while drinking whisky at her desk).
One thing she’s not is likeable – which is initially jarring, because likeability is a character trait shared by 99 per cent of female protagonists in movies. She is the real-life writer-turned-forger Lee Israel – played beautifully here by Melissa McCarthy, abetted by Richard E Grant in a glorious Withnail-y supporting role.
McCarthy is best known for comedies like The Heat and Bridesmaids. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a comedy, but it is a funny drama – and by miles McCarthy’s most demanding role yet. Set in early Nineties New York, Israel’s career as a respected journalist and celebrity biographer is at a standstill. Flat broke, she sells a letter Katharine Hepburn once wrote her.
The $50 she gets from a dealer gives Lee an idea, impersonating famous dead people – the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Noël Coward and Ernest Hemingway – in forged letters typed on old manual typewriters with faked signatures. It’s a lucrative business until the FBI starts sniffing about.
Along with Grant, McCarthy has been Oscar-nominated for her performance, and she deserves a prize for her grim transformation into Israel alone – drab beige trouser suits, huge unflattering glasses and a haircut like her head’s been dangled over a paper shredder. The film was originally written by Nicole Holofcener for Julianne Moore whose radiator warmth as an actor, I suspect, would have made the character a bit too sympathetic. What’s so sublime about McCarthy’s Israel is that she has no interest in being likeable. “I don’t think you’re a very nice person,” says her posh English gay pal Jack Hock (Grant). Lee shrugs. “I’d agree with that.” Asshole is a quality that doesn’t offend us in male characters, but we don’t expect it from women. Credit to the dream team of Holofcener, director Marielle Heller and McCarthy for holding their nerve and not making Israel nicer.