By Joey Nolfi
January 25, 2019 at 06:54 PM EST

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

  • Movie

On Feb. 24, winners will be crowned at the 91st Academy Awards. But before the red carpet is rolled out and envelopes are opened, Entertainment Weekly has inside intel on the 2019 nominees. Keep checking back at this week for spotlights on contenders in all the major categories.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Total nominations: 3 (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay)
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant

Forgiveness isn’t a virtue in Marielle Heller’s biopic as much as it is a challenge: Is Lee Israel — bitter biographer-turned-forger who sold fake letters she crafted in the voice of dead celebrities — worthy of our compassion?

“She’s somebody whose story wouldn’t normally get told: a middle-aged woman you’d probably pass on the street and not really give a second thought,” Heller says of Israel, whose story she and Melissa McCarthy approached with affection alongside Oscar-nominated screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, finding poignant beauty in their protagonist’s unwillingness to compromise for the comfort of others.

And yet Holofcener, whose illustrious career spans television direction (she’s responsible for some of Enlightened‘s best episodes) and big-screen scripting (Enough Said, Lovely & Amazing), took an alternative route through Israel’s story: Instead of lambasting Israel, she sought the gooey center under Israel’s gritty veneer — one that’s partially exposed with a dash of biting wit in Israel’s self-penned memoir upon which the film is based. The result is an acid-tongued ode to a clever curmudgeon who found value (and a liberated creative voice) amid dark spaces as she conned the very industry that cast her aside.

Mary Cybulski/Fox Searchlight

“Lee was a very complex person. She could be very mean and judgmental. It seems she turned on and off at her will (or maybe not her at will),” Holofcener tells EW via email after receiving her debut Oscar nod. “She clearly had a heart, and that was expressed in her relationships with the few people she let in…and her cat. I never thought about whether she was likable or not. I didn’t care. Besides, I liked her and empathized with her.”

Despite McCarthy’s portrayal capturing Israel’s bitter soul with a twinkle in her eye, empathy and compassion largely elude the film’s version of Israel. Though she courts platonic bonds — particularly with queer drifter and criminal accomplice Jack Hock (played by Richard E. Grant, who also received his first Oscar nomination Tuesday morning) — Israel resists intimacy as adamantly as she refuses to curtail herself to appease her publishing peers. Still, Holofcener thinks the notoriously private (until the release of her memoir, that is) writer would’ve enjoyed the attention brought on by her take on Israel’s story.

“I think Lee would be thrilled that this is happening. She felt under-recognized as a writer, so how could she not enjoy this?” Holofcener continues of the film’s subject, who died in 2014 after pleading guilty to (and serving a house arrest sentence for) conspiracy to transport stolen property. “Yes, she was private, but she did write a memoir. And when she was alive, she was very happy that we were making it into a movie. She got a real kick out of it. I wish very much she could have enjoyed this success (although she probably wouldn’t have let it show).”

“She took a lot of pride in the forgeries that she did, and in many ways saw them as some of her greatest work,” adds Heller. “We have no problem with male characters that are a–holes, but seeing a woman who’s the smartest person in every room and also sort of an a–hole, I found that to be a little bit radical.”

Thanks to the women who brought Can You Ever Forgive Me? into the light, if we don’t forgive Lee, we at least see her with eyes wide open.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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