Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of the real-life document forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? could not be further from the foul-mouthed Megan from Bridesmaids, the hilarious performance that earned McCarthy her first Oscar nomination. Megan is a rowdy and loud odd-woman-out, a quotable supporting role rife with opportunities to commandeer the spotlight. Lee, on the other hand, is a curmudgeonly antihero, a highly complex lead role that showcases McCarthy’s dynamic range.
We’re not supposed to like a person like Lee—she’s rude, she belittles her friends and colleagues, and she actively breaks the law—yet McCarthy brings so much humanity to the character that you can’t help but empathize with her. Because Lee is in a bit of a tight spot.
She’s a writer whose books don’t sell; no one wants to buy her biographies of early-twentieth century women from pop culture. Her latest book bombed so badly—and Lee has rubbed so many people the wrong way—that her agent (Jane Curtain) cannot secure an advance for her Fanny Brice project.
Nevertheless, Lee’s passion compels her to persist with her research unpaid, managing to cover her bills by hawking her prized possessions, including a handwritten note she received from Katharine Hepburn after profiling her for Esquire. When the dealer asks Lee why she would ever want to part with something so special, she simply says, “Clutter… I’m not a very sentimental gal.”
Lee may not be sentimental, but this means something to her; it’s a personal reminder that she matters, something the rest of the world seems to have forgotten. McCarthy brings a palatability to Lee’s pain—we feel how far she’s fallen. The dealer offers her $175, and Lee takes the money, although to her that tear-splotched letter is priceless.
While combing through Fanny Brice material in a library, Lee discovers two authentic letters Brice penned left in an old book, and she takes them. McCarthy lets the ethical acrobatics play out in Lee’s mind for a few seconds before she hastily stuffs the documents in her bag, even though she knows it’s wrong. The dealer who procured her Hepburn letter buys one of Brice’s, too. But not for very much, since the content is fairly humdrum.
Lee keeps the second above her desk at home, perhaps as a trophy. Amid a spell of writer’s block, her eyes drift to that second Brice letter, and she decides to amend it with a sensational postscript with her typewriter. And the same dealer—who has taken a romantic liking to Lee, which Lee takes advantage of—buys the second for three times more. So begins Lee’s life of crime.
Lee wrestles with the moral complexities of her actions throughout the film, as she gets deeper and deeper into the business of mass-producing false correspondences. At times, it crosses her mind to stop before she’s caught—take the money and run—but her hubris repeatedly gets the best of her. She may have started doing this for the money, but now it’s about pride. Because Lee is damn good. She’s a talented wordsmith, and she’s finally being appreciated for it—and making serious cash—even if her readers don’t know that she’s to praise. But she knows. And that’s all that matters.
For a while, Lee rides high. Her fortes are finally being treasured. Because not only is Lee a gifted storyteller, but bygone pop culture icons are her bread and butter. She’s able to shed light on their real personalities in her work. But when a collector questions the foul language in one, Lee gets defensive. They’re her words after all. Instead of taking the note, however, and dialing back, she flies even closer to the sun. And a subsequent sexually explicit correspondence, divulging personal details the would-be original author never would have shared, outs her.
Lee experiences a brutal reversal of fortune. She’s blacklisted within the community. The FBI wants to speak with her. Someone tries to extort her… Her wings have melted, and she has somehow fallen even further than she was at the opening of the movie. And McCarthy conveys her terror so clearly…
Melissa McCarthy also shows us the playful side of Lee, as evidenced by the catty prank call that she and her drinking buddy/accomplice Jack (Richard E. Grant) make from a phone booth across the street from a bookseller who insulted her. This moment—largely due to McCarthy’s unabashed cockiness as the mean proprietor gets a comeuppance we know Lee will eventually receive—gave us my favorite gif from this awards season.
Thanks to McCarthy, Lee Israel is one of the best examples of a tragic antihero in modern film. She took a real-life crook and masterfully crafted a fully realized character fueled by her flaws, who allowed her unmistakable talent and ego to get the best of her in the end. If Melissa McCarthy wins the Oscar for Can You Ever Forgive Me? this year, it will be well deserved.