A Movie That No Writer Should See Alone

Really. REALLY. Trust me on this. particularly since this film, ‘Can you ever forgive me?’,  is based on a ‘True story’ – and too many writers will see too many bits of themselves in the truth of the story being told.

In a nutshell (spoilers) the story concerns Lee Israel, a down-on-her-luck, almost-made-it writer. “My book made the New York Times bestseller list… that should count for something…” she says, watching a pile of her remaindered books on the 75% off sales table.

Her obnoxious agent will no longer take her calls unless she tells the secretary that she is “Nora Ephron” (the closing credits states that Ephron filed a cease and desist notice to stop Lee Israel “impersonating her on the phone”), and throws lah-di-dah parties at which it is painfully obvious that Israel does not belong – she is not thin enough, rich enough, blonde enough, or quite plainly FAMOUS enough to fit in.

Israel is living in a tiny apartment which she’s behind on the rent, with a single friend – a 12-year-old cat, who is ailing, and whom she takes to the vet for attention to be slapped with the final blow of having the cat refused because she is “carrying a
Balance.”

'Can you ever forgive me?' movie stillShe is started on a life of crime when she happens on a couple of letters written by Fanny Brice, who is the subject of a biography she is working on (and a book which, according to the agent, is of no interest to anyone – “I can’t get you an advance of TEN DOLLARS on that thing.”) Israel finds out that she can get a helping of cash for these letters as memorabilia – and then gets noodged into a slippery slope by the buyer commenting that they could be worth more if they were more “interesting”.

Soon Israel has a collection of antique typewriters, has created a number of letterheads and perfected a number of forged signatures, and is producing interesting “letters” by all and sundry – Marlena Dietrich, Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker. And selling them for hundreds of dollars.

Needless to say eventually she runs aground, and the movie’s most devastating scene (this is why no writer should watch this alone) she stands up in court and says that she really can’t bring herself to actually *regret* any of what she has done – that this has been the best part of her life – but that she realizes now that she is not “a real writer”.

Never mind that she was good enough to make buyers left right and center believe that what they had was the genuine article and the real thing, that she could get into the head and the voice of the people she was impersonating well enough for everybody to believe absolutely that she was in fact all these other famous people… but in the end, as she is savagely reminded  that “nobody is buying Lee Israel letters“.

The only way she could ‘make a living’ as a writer was to impersonate other writers more famous than herself. That’s crushing. And every one of us who’s ever wielded a pen is watching that scene with our fists clenched in our laps. There, but for the grace of God… or perhaps we’re headed into that territory, but just haven’t quite arrived yet. We might all end up recluses with elderly ill cats whom we can’t afford to take to the vet and with a world throwing the best that we can do – as OURSELVES – right back in our faces. Because we haven’t managed to be “famous” enough to be of interest to parties which hold the purse strings.

The publishing world has always been tough, and with the advent of the whole self-publishing thing it’s just gotten worse and more snarled and nobody knows anything about anyone these days unless somehow there are $$$ signs all over something – and that, as we have established, is hard if you aren’t already famous.

Watching a woman who is clearly GOOD ENOUGH to do this thing, failing miserably before our eyes and being punished for failing is, in the end, apocalyptic. Other people in the theater laugh at the tiny bits of humor, or get sucked in by the derring-do; you can tell who the writers are because we’re sitting there with tears in our eyes.

Walking out of this movie, for a writer, is akin to having swallowed one too many aspirin in quick succession. You have that bitter little aftertaste at the back of your throat.

The movie is well made, well acted, well directed, engrossing, and…murderous.

Anyone want me to write them a letter? I’ll even sign it. And then someday maybe someone will be selling forged missives with the proper letterhead, and saving their cats from oblivion on it.

Or should it be me who should be brushing off my best Dorothy Parker impressions and hand-waving my way through the writing universe wearing a more famous writer’s skin?

And if I did, could you ever forgive me….?

 

(this first appeared on my blog at www.AlmaAlexander.org)

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A Movie That No Writer Should See Alone — 5 Comments

  1. It’s really brilliant and heartbreaking. And Melissa McCarthy can, more or less, do no wrong in it. But it is hard to watch. Part of what’s so good is that Israel is so difficult as a person. She isn’t badly treated solely because the people she’s dealing with are monsters–it’s because she has used up every last scrap of goodwill she ever earned. And she’s desperate, which only makes her behave worse. Aside from the bloodcurdling impact on anyone who is a writer, it’s a cautionary tale about burning bridges. Possibly the most heartbreaking scene is when Israel meets briefly with her estranged ex (Anna Devere Smith, almost unrecognizably blowsy and informal) and you get a sense that her current behavior is part of a long, long arc.

    I was still in New York when this happened, and I remember reading about Israel with (I now think) a little less sympathy than I have now. She didn’t just capture the tone and voice of these writers; she did all the technical things that a good forger has to do: got the right paper, the typewriters, aged letterhead. She had great talent, and between her own character and the world, she just got ground down.

  2. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reread Israel’s bio of Tallulah Bankhead. It was good. I was shocked when I read early commentary about this film because I’d never heard of the scandal.