Based on a true story, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” follows the exploits of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a Jewish lesbian writer who bolsters her failing writing career by forging and selling rare literary letters with the help of a foppish drifter named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). Incidentally, but not insignificantly, it’s also the story of a friendship between an acerbic lesbian and a witty gay man — a unique synergy and the unsung bedrock of the queer community that is rarely, if ever, portrayed onscreen, and certainly not with this authenticity.
It’s the kind of non-sexual relationship between a man and a woman Hollywood just doesn’t do, and it wouldn’t have happened if “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was pure fiction. The people these characters are based on were queer in real life, so no executive could (or was less likely to) say, “Why do they both have to be gay?” But it’s also a testament to director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, himself a gay man, for centering Lee and Jack’s queerness without writing the narrative equivalent of a giant neon “GAY” sign.
“We’re never trying to hit anyone over the head with any of it,” Heller said in an interview for IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “Their sexuality is not what defines these characters. The fact that she’s a lesbian and he’s a gay man are not what define who they are there. There’s so much else that is important to them at this moment in their lives, but it is the truth of their circumstances.”
If “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” were a different kind of movie, this sentiment might mask a sinister excuse to not make the movie queer at all. But the movie is steeped in queerness; from the awkward charge between Lee and bookstore owner Anna (Dolly Wells), to using New York’s oldest surviving gay bar, Julius, as Lee and Jack’s watering hole.
“We tried to do it in other subtle ways,” Heller said. “Our production designer Steven Carter, we had an ACT UP little poster in the background at Julius. Little things that reference where we were in that moment of time.”
Set in 1991, Heller was adamant that the film display a political awareness, which she did with subtle references to the AIDS crisis. Early on in the film, Jack deadpans: “I have no one to tell, all my friends are dead.”
“That was the first thing I added to the script,” said Heller. “He says it in this very off-handed dark humor. There’s no feeling sorry for himself in that moment. It’s just kind of, it’s not even a thing, he just says it and moves on. But hopefully we as an audience go, ‘Oh right, this is New York City, a gay man, 1991.”
More than positioning the film politically, the line also outs the character without making him overly flamboyant or shoehorning in an unnecessary romance. In fact, aside from Lee’s flirtation with Anna (which is over before it begins), Lee and Jack are the movie’s central romance. In one wrenching scene, she bars his entry to her apartment, embarrassed by the filthiness and what it reveals about her own state of mind. “Lee, I don’t mind, really,” Jack implores gently, before sweeping cat poop from under her bed.
Queer people have long learned to take care of each other. Reserving judgment, except for everybody else.
“The AIDS crisis was the moment that the lesbian and gay community really united, especially in New York City. For a lot of men, lesbians were people who ended up taking care of them as they died,” said Heller. “Lee and Jack represent that in some small way.”