If this marks your career transition from gross-out/slapstick queen to Serious Actress, I, for one, couldn’t be happier. It’s about damn time. Your characters are always some variation of the tough-exterior-marshmallow-centre archetype, and Lee Israel is no different, but this time you took things to a new level.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is part of a curious sub-genre of caper films: true-ish stories about white people committing crimes and getting away with little or no consequence. In fact, they often subsequently become famous and celebrated because they got off lightly, rather than in spite of it. Examples include Catch Me If You Can, Wolf of Wall Street and American Animals, where, ostensibly, the audience is supposed to empathize with and become fond of the protagonists, who are set up as likeable anti-heroes, rather than the (arguably sociopathic) straight-up crooks they are. There is a strong argument to be made about the staggering white privilege on display in these films, because black and brown characters involved in similar ‘capers’ never fare as well, but this is not that review (I know, I am likewise shocked at myself).
What I really want to talk about is how your Lee, a character that would normally make me grind my teeth in frustration, is portrayed with such sensitivity and nuance that I developed a real soft spot for her. Lee is a mess of contradictions that clash throughout the film. You juggle her ego versus insecurity, and abrasiveness versus warmth so effectively that I wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled but also make her tea and just let her unspool about Dorothy Parker. In many ways, Lee is irredeemable. She is no less self-absorbed at the end of the film than she is at the beginning, and while she does raise some good points about the hypocrisy and pretentiousness of the literary world, she is, herself, an insufferable snob. We do see a softer, more vulnerable side to her, but she ultimately seems pretty unrepentant for her actions, dismissive of the consequences imposed on her, and even excited and rejuvenated at the prospect of profiting from the story of her crime. But damn it, I liked her in spite of all that. I will admit I was even a little glad when she managed to evade what I would consider proper consequences for her actions.
Normally, I want to be best friends with your characters (it still devastates me that Megan from Bridesmaids is not a real person and she and I therefore cannot have coffee and become close like sisters). I wouldn’t go that far with Lee, but I love that you portrayed such an objectively unlikeable woman with such grace and care; my issues with the real-life caper film aside, I see too many bio-pics that are alarmingly cruel and careless with their subjects. Although part of me may have wanted to yell, “Lock her ass up!” the rest of me was happy to let Lee off easy.