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Posts Tagged ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

The official photo of the nominees for the 2019 Academy Awards was published the other day, and I for one was quite pleased to see that not all the participants appeared to be taking it entirely seriously. But then again, I realised years ago that taking the Academy Awards seriously is a mug’s game – the whole circus is basically an articulation of pompous Hollywood self-regard, made somewhat risible by too many issues to be easily enumerated. Not that they necessarily do themselves many favours at AMPAS – the whole ‘Best Popular Movie’ debacle basically shone a spotlight on the awkwardly competing desires to be both populist and refined. It’s an impossible circle to square, demanding the Academy to make many tough choices year after year, most of which they arguably get wrong.

Still, winning an Oscar does provide a quantifiable boost in a film’s take – how many people only went to see Moonlight after it picked up a statuette? I was one of them- and also, one presumes, in the asking price of any actor lucky enough to acquire one. (It must be rather frustrating that so many acting Oscars are the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, given to people for their body of work rather than any particular role, and only acquired when the performer’s career is beginning to wind down anyway.) Am I suggesting that film stars are quite so acquisitive and venal as that makes them sound? Well – maybe, I don’t know. What I am sure of is that if you really do want an Oscar, there are a few tried-and-tested routes to picking one up. Famously, if you are a man, you should play someone with a medical condition, and if you are a woman, you should play the least glamorous role you can find.

Both these things are kind of true of Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which has picked up a raft of award nominations, not just at the Oscars. Most these have gone to its leads, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant.  This is yet another supposedly true story, concerning the activities of the New York-based writer Lee Israel (played by McCarthy). Israel was, briefly, a successful writer of biographies, but as the film opens her unpromising choice of subject matter and the fact that she is basically a horrible person to everyone around her means she is not so much a failed writer as one on the verge of failing – isolated, heavily in debt, and drinking too much. The closest thing she has to a friend is Jack Hock (Grant), a similarly dubious character.

To raise money to make ends meet, Israel resorts to selling some personal effects, including a letter from Katharine Hepburn, and discovers the high prices that such memorabilia can command. The price is even better, she realises, when she makes a few small amendments to the letters herself to make them more appealing to the collectors interested in such things. From here it is but a short step to Israel forging literary memorabilia as her main source of incoming, producing hitherto-unknown works from the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and Louise Brooks. After a while, it becomes necessary for her to recruit Jack as her representative when doing the actual selling, simply because the dealers are growing too suspicious of her. This inevitably places further strain on what was a somewhat fragile relationship anyway, and with the FBI closing in, how long can they keep on getting away with it?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (a phrase given to Dorothy Parker in one of Israel’s fake letters supposedly written by her) is a curious film, not necessarily because of the story but because of a slight unevenness of style. On one level, it deals with some fairly serious and even quite abstract concerns – loneliness, isolation, what it means to be a good or successful writer, and above all else the notion of ‘authenticity’ and what it really means. Israel’s forged letters when writing as Coward and the others are so successful because they are more entertaining and characterful than the genuine ones – the film is big on the notion of forgery as a creative act, in this case at least – and there is a suggestion that at least some of the people involved chose not to look too closely, at least to begin with. And the tone of the film is often appropriately understated and naturalistic, with the kind of score (contributed by the director’s brother) that suggests a serious drama.

On the other hand, this is still kind of a film about various criminal capers, where the victims were basically gullible rich people who didn’t really know they were being robbed, and the audience is to some extent invited to feel complicit in Lee and Jack’s success and share it with them. Melissa McCarthy is one of those innately funny performers who could probably raise a laugh playing Hedda Gabler, and her instincts allow her to zero in on every even marginally funny moment in the script and milk it for all it’s worth. (On the other hand, there are moments in the film which almost come across as unintentionally funny, but this may have more to do with a low-quality stuffed cat employed as a prop at one point.) On the whole this is a very strong performance, but it mostly consists of McCarthy being sharp, abrasive and witty, which is essentially what she does in most of her movies anyway. As I said, actresses wanting an Oscar are wise to de-glam themselves (see Halle Berre in Monster’s Ball, Charlize Theron in Monster, and so on), and McCarthy certainly does that here – is it too harsh to suggest that her nomination is due more to an unflattering wig than any revelation about her acting ability?

I must admit to being rather more surprised about Richard E Grant getting the Academy nod for this film. That said, I’ve never been particularly impressed by Grant’s range – it always seems to me that the abiding tragedy of his career was that he was born about ten years too late to be an original cast member on The Rocky Horror Show. All his performances seem to me to be essentially the same, including here. Various scenes of domestic squalour, overindulgence of alcohol, and strained friendship inevitably put one in mind of Withnail & I (still really Grant’s signature role). It’s a funny turn, with perhaps a smidgeon more depth to it than usual, but still hardly anything really new.

Still, it would take a bigger churl than me not to be somewhat disarmed, not to mention amused, by Grant’s obvious delight at getting his Oscar nomination; no doubt Marvel will soon be on the phone to him, as well. As far as Can You Ever Forgive Me? is concerned, this is an enjoyable and engaging film which (perhaps inevitably) works better in its lighter moments than its more dramatic ones. It is a curious tale, well told, with two strong if not exceptional performances at its heart. Probably worth watching if you like thoughtful, quality films in a minor key.

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