What can a movie do that a book can’t do?, kept going through my head, after I watched the 2018 movie Can You Ever Forgive Me?  based on the memoir of the same name by Lee Israel.

Many things.

For a movie, actors are cast and directed for viewers to watch and experience; in a book, the characters can only be imagined. (Here, I want to say that Anya Taylor-Joy made an especially expressive Emma with use of her large eyes.) In this movie, we get to see and experience a plain, coarse, bad-tempered Melissa McCarthy as biographer-turned-forger Lee Israel. a Melissa McCarthy that we wouldn’t know (if we didn’t know her) is an attractive comedian. McCarthy’s metamorphosis is complete. Likewise, Richard E. Grant thoroughly convinces as Lee Israel’s seamy sidekick, Jack Hock. Together, they pull us into another world. Although we’d rather not go there, we don’t especially want to stay in the pretentious publishing world represented by Israel’s agent, Marjorie, played with hard-assed humorlessness by Jane Curtin. In fact, there wasn’t one weak link in an excellent ensemble of actors bringing this memoir to cinematic life.

A movie can quickly provide atmosphere just with the look of a scene. Many scenes in Can You Ever Forgive Me? take place in dusk, when it’s no longer light but it isn’t yet dark. Many scenes take place in the dimness of a bar, where Israel does a lot of drinking, or the half-light of her apartment (not a homey place). All of this semi-darkness, which a movie can readily show, reminds us that Israel is desperately heading into crime; it adds to the overall feeling of this movie being hard, even painful, to watch.

A film’s dialogue can add to atmosphere. Near the beginning of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a snatch of conversation at a party, hosted by Marjorie, tells us that we, too, wouldn’t want to be part of the publishing world. The speaker is claiming that writer’s block doesn’t exist, that a writer only needs (his) daily writing discipline. Even if this were true, the statement is made in a pompous, self-aggrandizing way. In a few on-screen seconds, we feel more sympathy with a generally unsympathetic Lee Israel. Overall, dialogue can make an important moment, like Marjorie telling Israel to find another way to make a living, or like Israel telling an unresponsive Jack Hock that she’d rather have confessed to a rock; these important moments in the movie add up to one big sorry conclusion (actually, there are two sorry conclusions).

Music, costume, make-up—all of these are things a movie can provide. It can be easy to miss a movie’s use of music, because it is often in the background (unless it is, say, the theme to Star Wars). In this movie, old standards underline isolation or hope. It’s not possible to miss them. Here, costume isn’t a stand-out, with a couple exceptions. Marjorie’s clothes say: fashionable New York literary agent. Jack’s clothes say: sick, impoverished man trying to look stylish. Costume tells us right away about these characters. Particularly important in this movie is the use of make-up. Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel is made up to look plain; as she walks the New York City streets, there is no hint of attractiveness about her. She looks like Roseanne Barr in She-Devil. Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock is made up to look emaciated. He looks as if he is dying; in fact, Hock died young from AIDS in 1994. In either case, the make-up—or lack of it—adds to the grimness of the story, and make-up is an immediate visual.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an undeniably downbeat movie. The ending is ironic with an undertone of bleakness; what it isn’t is happy. Still, it does show, powerfully, what a movie can do.


Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.