Can you ever forgive me? (2018)

As the swivel chair spins #15  

In a dusty, not often visited corner of Disney+ Hotstar, far away from Marvel and Star Wars is the 2018 film about a down on luck and life writer forging her way through the New York literary elite, only to pay her rent and feed her cat. 

Shitting on Tom Clancy

Lee Israel, 51 year old former New York Times best selling author walks with trepidation into a party, only to be schooled by Tom Clancy holding court and talking about writer’s block. 

“It’s something invented by writers to cover up their laziness”, he says, something to that effect. 

This hits Lee hard, she has not been able to come up with anything of worth in the recent past. But hey, she is going through one of the worst times in her life- fired from her job (for drinking), broke up on a long term relationship, her agent is not interested in what she submits and even cat doesn’t respond to her. 

How would the words come?

And here is this multi million dollar writer with a winning smirk talking about ‘writer’s block’ being an imaginary thing. 

Umm, it hit me hard too, this was a saturday evening, here I was settling down to watch a movie after surprisingly finding it on hotstar, after a guest casually mentioned it on a podcast and so on. 

The premise drew me in. It was about a struggling writer. ‘I’m sure I could learn something about the writing life’, I told myself and that’s when Tom Clancy (or a fictionalized version of him) delivered a good warm slap on my face about his theory about writer’s block. 

I should have been writing. So should have been Lee Israel. 

But it’s not my movie. Later on when Lee gets to know that this red scare flaming, right wing jingo bullshit writer (psst she meant Tom Clancy) is getting paid millions while she cannot even afford treatment for her cat, she flips out. 

Naturally. 

But the lesson was lost. 

The words will come, only if you sit. 

Finding a voice

“Can you ever forgive me?” is not about this moment, it is not even about the debate between what’s popular and what’s literary. 

It’s a sweet film about Lee Israel who along with her friend indulges in some literary deception by faking the words of Lillian Hellman, Noel Coward and most importantly Dorothy Parker to basically get by.  

Over the course of the movie, I came to realize that Lee Israel forged over 400 ‘literary’ letters to a select clientele and some of these even made it to the official biographies of the said authors. Such was her ability to replicate authentic voices. 

While there is little to doubt about Lee Israel’s ability or writing talent, it is lost behind either the voice of others. If Wikipedia is to be believed her bibliography consists of four compact line items, three of which are biographies and the fourth is ‘Can you ever forgive me’, arguably her most famous work. 

Clancy on the other hand wrote a novel a year till his death and has his own mini media universe (Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell & ofc Jack Ryan), so maybe Tom knew what he was talking about when he did say those lines while at the party. 

But then again, the movie is not about quality vs quantity creative debate, I make it to be so and I keep saying this because that is what I derived from the film. Apart from the fact that Mellisa McCarthy and Richard E Grant are absolutely marvellous and it sort of feels like a sin that they didn’t win more awards for the film, two barflies circling around each other when it seems that most of the world has given up on them.

Other people’s projected lives are not to be stood on podiums and to be judged upon, but a movie about lost potential is always the harbinger of doom in the lives of the viewer. 

Viewers are not doers and those who are not doers, and not doers are doomed to be left in the state of lost potential. 

This is not an indictment of what Lee Israel did, a brave soul who faced prosecution and even braver one when she overcame her fears and finding her own voice (and the one she is memorialized in celluloid for) by penning this memoir, this is just another wake up call to face the uncomfortable unknowns of our lives.

‘Can you ever forgive me?’ is streaming on Disney+Hotstar 

Image credit: The New York Times