Film review of Can You Ever Forgive Me

January 10, 2019

(This film review of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 7 December 2018.)

Directed by Marielle Heller; written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on the memoir by Lee Israel; starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Marc Evan Jackson and Joanna Adler

*****

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is probably the best film you will ever see with an unlikeable and unattractive Jewish lead character.

Melissa McCarthy – American comic actress best-known for her vigorous and occasionally gross physical comedy (witness “Bridesmaids”) – plays Lee Israel, a failing Brooklyn-born non-fiction freelance writer whose career has run into trouble. Despite modestly successful biographies on Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead, her book on Estée Lauder has bombed and no publisher is interested in her next project – on Jewish actress and comedian Fanny Brice.

Lee’s agent gives blunt advice when Lee complains bitterly about Jack Clancy’s success at writing action thrillers: “You can be an asshole when you’re famous.”

Desperate for funds, Israel starts selling her possessions, including her prized Hepburn letter. When she accidentally finds a Fanny Brice original letter in a library book, she realises the value of celebrity correspondence in the ephemera and memorabilia market. With no more “real” letters to sell, she develops a career as a forger of letters from the likes of Noel Coward and others, using her literary and research skills to embellish the letters in ways designed to appeal to dealers and collectors.

Set in the 1990s, this melancholy film is given extra poignancy because the story is true: Lee Israel was a real person (she passed away in 2014) – a Jewish lesbian who resurrected her reputation (she is ultimately caught) through her autobiographical book telling of her short career as a literary forger, which ultimately became this film.

Lee Israel stumbles into a close friendship with Jack, a gay man played with wild abandon by Richard E. Grant. His occasional over-acting perfectly fits his character: flamboyant, intensely verbal, slavishly loyal (too loyal) to Lee, partaking in numerous sexual delights and easily distracted.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” acts as an ode to New York City: shots of the 59th Street Bridge from director Marielle Heller and Jewish co-writer Nicole Holofcener (read my review of Holofcener’s film Friends With Money) consciously evoke Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”. It’s also a film about books, writing, biography, creativity (or its absence), money (or its lack), fame (or its opposite, obscurity), professional ethics (or none), and frustrated or mis-directed love.

The film also hints at deeper questions: what, in fact, is real when forgers are so readily believed? (The film-makers slyly hint at the present moment of “fake news”.) A wordless scene near the end of the film is telling: a bookstore owner realises that a celebrity letter (written by Israel) in his shop’s window is a forgery, and removes it. After a moment’s hesitation, he puts the letter back in the window.

But the film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is Melissa McCarthy’s. Her character is unhygienic (look for the great comic scene with her cat), grumpy, ornery, irascible, unhappy and anti-social. But she’s also energetic and oh-so-real, serving to charm audiences with her story of decline, fall and ultimate resurrection.

Melissa McCarthy in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved


Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut and being Jewish

January 23, 2015

(I originally wrote this article back when Kubrick’s film “Eyes Wide Shut” opened in 1999.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film “Eyes Wide Shut” is how a film which is directed by a Jew (Stanley Kubrick), co-written by two Jews (Kubrick and Frederic Raphael), based on a story (“Traumnovelle”) written by a Jew (Arthur Schnitzler, a close friend of Theodore Herzl) where the original character (Fridolin) is a Viennese Jewish doctor – can turn into a film about a definitely non-Jewish New York doctor played by Tom Cruise. American-born (and British-educated) Raphael’s book about working with Stanley Kubrick – entitled “Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick” (1999) – gives us more than a few hints.

The original story had Fridolin suffering alienation “like every Middle European Jew”. Raphael reported that he was keen to keep the Jewish aspect of the story, particularly in its (new) New York setting. But Kubrick was firmly opposed to this: he specifically wanted the Fridolin character to be a “Harrison Fordish goy and forbade any reference to Jews”.

Raphael spends some pages in his book speculating on the effect which Kubrick’s Jewishness has had on him and his work, arguing that it was a fundamental aspect of his mentality. He notes that few of the obituaries mentioned that he was Jewish, and that Kubrick himself “was known to have said he was not really Jewish, he just happened to have two Jewish parents; he seemed to expose, or at least to dwell on, many ugly aspects of human behaviour, but he never confronted anti-Semitism.”

Despite Kubrick’s public distancing himself from his Jewish background, in conversation he reportedly brought it up with Raphael again and again, as when they were discussing how Tom Cruise’s character would talk, Raphael quoting Kubrick as saying “Coupla Jews, what do we know about what those people talk about when they’re by themselves?”

Raphael recalls that Kubrick “did try, for some time, to develop a (Holocaust) novel by Louis Begley, “Wartime Lies”, into a movie, but he never ‘licked it'”. Kubrick also discussed his interest in Holocaust films with Raphael, commenting on “Schindler’s List”: “It was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ was about six hundred people who don’t.” Raphael’s analysis of Kubrick: he was “concealing – even as he displays – the sense of alienation which came of the Holocaust.”


Making life add up – the functions of biography

December 28, 2013

Does your life add up to something whole, something coherent, something that appears to make sense of the bits of pieces of wide-ranging experience?

That’s the wonder and value of reading well-written biographies and autobiographies:  it’s not just the “story” that counts, but the themes, the decision-points and how the pieces fit together so that the whole, literally, becomes greater than the “sum of its individual parts”.

My favourite biography still is Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own:  How the Jews Invented Hollywood (Crown, 1988).  It’s effectively a group autobiography about five early “Hollywood Jews”:  Carl Laemmle (founder of Universal Pictures), Adoph Zukor (Paramount Pictures), William Fox (Fox Film Corporation, and what we now know as 20th Century Fox), Louis B. Mayer (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and Benjamin Warner (Warner Brothers).  In his book, Gabler draws common themes from the stories of these five (and a bunch of other similar) men:  Eastern European Jewish origins; an “utter and absolute rejection of their pasts and their equally absolute devotion to their new country”, to assimilate and become “Americans”; a “patrimony of failure” (poor father figures, and in some cases virtually absent); and a freak coincidence of timing.  The timing was propitious:  the movie industry was a new one, and the old money, the Anglo money found it distasteful.  Thus, the Jewish entrepreneurs of the early 20th century had their way clear to enter it – unlike so many other industries and professions at the time.

The matter of timing and professional success has been explored at great length by Malcolm Gladwell (one of my favourite authors) in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (2009).  As I wrote in my review at the time, he “attempts to deconstruct the essential prerequisites for extreme success – people like Bill Gates and the Beatles.   According to Gladwell, Bill Gates benefitted greatly from the time and the place that he grew up:  those elements plus hard work and brilliance added up to his becoming one of the most successful (and richest) businessmen of all time.

So it is the same with the new generation of digital entrepreneurs, of which Mark Zuckerberg is only one of the most famous.  In the October 21st 2013 issue of The New Yorker, journalist D.T. Max (who also wrote the biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: The Life of David Foster Wallace) penned an insightful article about Jack Dorsey – one of the founders of Twitter (note that the full article is available on The New Yorker website from a link earlier in this sentence).  I had never heard of Dorsey, but Max’s article brings it all together; he interweaves the strands and the themes of Dorsey’s disparate life that somehow add up to explain not only how Dorsey figured out Twitter, but why.  (I recently wrote a blog post about Nathan Heller and San Francisco’s tech cultureThe New Yorker has a 22’ Soundcloud podcast discussion between Heller and Max about this very topic.)

Biography, however, can be dull and seriously boring, so be warned.  For the record, here are seven biographies that are currently on my “to read” list (in no particular order):

– Roger Ebert, Life Itself: A Memoir (2011) – More than a film reviewer’s autobiography.

– Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (2011) – About the great film critic who influences all of us critics in ways we cannot explain.

– David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Making of the Man (2012) – My fascination with Obama never flags.

– Scott Anderson, The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life & Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny (1999) – I met and be-friended Fred Cuny in Israel in the 1970s, and followed his career until his untimely disappearance (and likely death) in Chechnya in 1995.  (Read an except here.)

– James Salter, Burning the Days: Recollection (1997) – I discovered this amazing writer relatively late in my life and am still wondering why it took so long.

– Clare Cooper Marcus, Iona Dreaming: The Healing Power of Place – A Memoir (2010) – Clare Cooper Marcus was one of my life mentors; I studied a number of courses with her while doing my masters degree in planning at the University of California at Berkeley (where she taught landscape architecture).  In so many uncountable ways, meeting Clare has influenced my life.

– Michael Medved, Right Turns: From Liberal Activist to Conservative Champion in 35 Unconventional Lessons (2004) – Medved and I do not share the same political convictions, but when I read his comments on the film The Passion of the Christ (he was a fan of Mel Gibson) during the researching of my PhD thesis, his incongruities and depth of intellect fascinated me.

(Book cover of Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own below:)

Empire of Their Own book cover