'can you ever forgive me?' is a touching portrayal of queer loneliness

The low-key biopic of literary fraudster Lee Israel has become an LGBT cinema sleeper hit.

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15 February 2019, 12:36pm

First, Can You Ever Forgive Me? was touted as the film where Melissa McCarthy “finally gets the dramatic role she deserves”. Then it was the film that allowed Richard E. Grant to blossom into the “designated darling” of awards season. (Really, who wasn’t charmed when he took a selfie outside Barbra Streisand’s house and got a belated response to fan mail he’d written nearly 50 years earlier?) But thanks to the power of Twitter and Instagram, this low-key biopic about a sad but talented literary forger and her sketchy yet likeable sidekick is now becoming a queer sleeper hit. One fan tweeted that it’s “a perfect representation of the track [popular queer cinema] should be on”. Another wrote that the film “really solidified how lacking films centred on LGBT friendships are (and how much we need them)”. McCarthy’s character has even been called a “queer cinema icon”.

When I went to see Can You Ever Forgive Me? a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t expecting an “LGBT film” – not even a reasonably mainstream LGBT film like Call Me by Your Name or The Favourite. I knew it had been nominated for a GLAAD Media Award, but so, until fresh accusations of sexual assault and misconduct were levelled at its director, had Bohemian Rhapsody, the needlessly straightwashed Queen movie that refuses to acknowledge how much Freddie Mercury liked dick. So Can You Ever Forgive Me?, adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Lee Israel’s confessional memoir of the same name, affected me in an unexpected way. Like many LGBT people who’ve seen it, I was supremely moved by its stingingly poignant portrayal of queer loneliness and an imperfect queer friendship.

McCarthy’s Lee Israel is a talented writer whose career has collapsed. She has a few acclaimed biographies to her name, but her latest project -- a book about Fanny Brice, the actress and comedian who inspired Funny Girl -- is dismissed by her agent as unsexy and unsellable. Because Israel is also publicity-averse and socially abrasive to the point of being a “bitch”, her agent tells her, bluntly, to find another way of making money. So, resourcefully but fraudulently, Israel sets about crafting fake letters purporting to be written by 20th century icons like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. In early 90s New York, where the film is set, upscale collectors will pay more for letters in which these esteemed literary figures show a flash of wit or personality, but that’s not a problem, because Israel turns out to be a brilliant imitator. "I do a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker herself!" she boasts shamelessly. She’s a fraudster, but a gifted one.

"Can You Ever Forgive Me? shows us a logical family that's different from the ones discussed onRuPaul’s Drag Race: it’s salty, unsentimental, a bit sad."

This increasingly risky scam gives Can You Ever Forgive Me? its plot and dramatic tension, but it's Israel's friendship with Grant's character, Jack Hock, that provides its heart. They first meet at Julius', a famous old New York gay bar which features prominently in the film -- one of many authentic flourishes; New York queer icon Mx Justin Vivian Bond has a sleek cameo as a cabaret singer. When they begin hanging out, Israel is dejected and desperate; Hock is crumpled but charismatic, a seemingly homeless scrounger who slides through life on charm and a bit of petty drug-dealing. These days, we're used to the idea that queer people can create what Armistead Maupin calls a "logical family" as an alternative to their possibly disappointing biological one. But Can You Ever Forgive Me? shows us a logical family that's different from the ones discussed on RuPaul’s Drag Race: it’s salty, unsentimental, a bit sad. Israel and Hock become friends because they both need someone to binge-drink in the afternoon with. They become friends because they’re incredibly lonely. And they become friends because they don’t know anyone else willing to put up with them.

Directed by Marielle Heller, who also brought nuance to her film about adolescent female sexuality, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and co-written by a gay man, Whitty -- who says he knew Julius’ “incredibly well” -- Can You Ever Forgive Me? avoids some of the most tired gay movie tropes. There’s no against-the-odds love story here. Israel is so emotionally closed off she can’t understand why her ex left her years ago, or bring herself to accept potential affection from a woman (played by Dolly Wells) who clearly respects and likes her. There’s also no neatly concluded tragedy; Hock may be HIV positive, but this isn’t his defining characteristic and we don’t see him die. Instead, we get pitch-black quips from Israel about his failing health.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? isn't a "perfect queer film". Whether such a thing can exist is uncertain. It gives gay lead roles to two straight actors; both McCarthy and Grant are devastatingly great here, but until more LGBT performers are landing major parts in Hollywood movies, the "playing it straight" debate isn't going away. And it definitely doesn't represent the diverse and inclusive LGBT community that we need to see on screen -- how could it? Israel and Hock are outsiders from that world, too. What the film does offer though, is a heartbreaking encapsulation of an often ignored but very real part of the queer experience. As one fan wrote on Twitter, “[I’m] teary eyed because Can You Ever Forgive Me? was about lonely queer people -- and maybe I relate to that.”