Movie Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

I just finished watching the film Can You Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy as the late writer Lee Israel, who, in real life, forged around 400 letters that several famous individuals had written during their lifetimes. She sold these letters and made serious bank from them (the title comes from a line in one of the Dorothy Parker letters Lee forged, asking the person being addressed, “Can you ever forgive me?”). Lee was a struggling writer who could pay neither the vet bills for her cat, Jersey, nor her rent, and her writing kept getting rejected. Her agent didn’t support her because Lee was always cooped up in her house and never went out to meet people, but instead of finding a day job like being a bartender or working a 9 to 5, Lee gets money by forging letters by famous writers such as Dorothy Parker and selling them to booksellers that would take them. She was able to pay her landlord, her vet bills and trips to the bar with her friend Jack, who himself is struggling to be successful. Lee has Jack help her sell the forged letters. Of course, the FBI ends up finding out that Lee lied all this time and she incurs serious punishment for it.

If I got anything out of this movie (and believe me, I got a ton out of it. Is it any wonder that the film got 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes?) it’s this:

It’s much better to let yourself write a bad first draft than not start at all. It’s better to put your work out there even if you think it’s far from perfect, because that’s sure as heck better than taking other people’s writing and claiming it for your own. Writing your own stuff is not just fun, it’s also common sense if you want to stick with copyright laws and not land in court for it. I have heard countless cases in the music industry where families of musicians sue new musicians for using a hook or phrase in their songs without crediting the original songwriter or performer.

It reminded me so much of the film Big Eyes, which is about the true story of Margaret Keane, whose husband, Walter, sold her paintings of sad-eyed children and took all the credit for them. In Big Eyes, Margaret gets to do what she wants, which is painting, so she doesn’t have to have a non-art-related day job. However, staying cooped up in her studio painting takes a tremendous toll on her mental, physical and emotional health, and while her husband is doing the marketing part and not the actual painting, she is the one who deserves the credit because she actually put her heart and soul into those paintings, and they came from her heart. Lee’s agent tells her that instead of trying to hide who she is, the only way she can become a real writer is by writing her own stuff. Impostor syndrome is real for a lot of people, but especially for creatives it can be a huge pain in the butt to deal with. Impostor syndrome means that no matter how much money or recognition you get from selling your art, performing beautiful music, or speaking publicly before a large audience, you feel like someday someone is actually going to take away your trophy or tell you you aren’t as good as you seem and that your next work will be a total flop. Can You Ever Forgive Me? takes a totally new spin on impostor syndrome because instead of being this writer who writes in her own voice, Lee actually was an impostor because she pretended to be the writer of these letters when, in fact, she wasn’t.

I have lately been reading about the music business because I was still debating whether to put my music out there since I’ve been reading about how streaming is hurting musicians’ income because companies like Spotify and YouTube are offering up their music for free. I watched a talk that former CEO of music publishing company TuneCore Jeff Price did one time, and he talked about copyright in the music industry and how it relates to songwriters, and lately I have been thinking about composing my own pieces. I thought at first, I don’t have a music degree, how can I possibly compose my own pieces? But somehow I took a scale and just mixed up the notes and played it, and to me it sounded fine. Art is a subjective thing; not everyone’s going to love, see or appreciate what you bring to the table, but it’s a job like every other job out there. You just have to show up and do the work even if it is garbage at first. I remember all the librarians and English teachers who would tell us to cite our sources, warning about the dangers of plagiarism. I’m glad they did, because forgetting these rules can ruin you as an adult.

Lee’s forgery doesn’t just impact her ability to pay her rent and keep her life together; it affects her friendships because she cannot tell anyone what she does for a living. If she tells people, she knows they will find out, so she keeps her distance, even with the bookseller who goes out to have dinner with her. The bookseller, Anna, writes her own stories even though she doesn’t think they are good enough to publish, but at least she actually wrote her own stuff. Lee got so caught up in this idea that her writing needed to be this incredible thing, while Tom Clancy was out there publishing several books and making bank. When Lee got caught up in what people thought about her writing, she stopped writing for herself and became this person she wasn’t. When she goes to the party she overhears a published author say how people with writer’s block are ‘”lazy”, and of course this ticks her off. But I definitely do think that when we come out of ourselves, recognize we have this writer’s block and then resolve to write anything just to combat it, we see what we’re actually capable of. It’s like, if you don’t try, you won’t know what you can do, and it seems the more I publish my own writing (aka through this blog) I have come to understand that while I am an introvert, I have things to be said that need saying. I think that as I write more, I find more quality writing out of my bad drafts, and I stop worrying about what others are thinking of me. Rejection is just a fact of life, and like orchestra auditions, getting turned down by magazines and publishers hurts like hell, but you just need to keep writing your own stuff.

When I write my own music, my own blog posts, my own stories, I feel a sense of catharsis. I’m not doing this for the money or the fame; I’m writing original stuff because I love it. I don’t want to be an imitation of anyone, even though it’s hard to not be influenced by all kinds of writers because you are always reading. But I know I will never be Roger Epert or Peter Travers or cellist Jacqueline Du Pre. I know I won’t have the same journey to success as other people, but everyone has their own story to tell. The film taught me that if you want to make a name for yourself, you of course can still be introverted, but you need to show people the hard work and passion you put in your writing. I have a day job that isn’t related to writing or music because I want to be able to pay for all these movies I watch to write these blog posts, and I want to be able to keep seeing my writing and music as things I love. Now of course, like I said, we shouldn’t always give our work for free because art is a job like anything else. But great writers typically don’t write just so they can get paid. New York City rent is pricey, but that’s why a lot of creatives in the city have day jobs so that they can spend their evenings creating art and creating community in the process.

Melissa McCarthy once said in a New York Times piece I read on her that a lot of people like to pigeonhole her as the funny lady who is always doing slapstick stuff, like The Boss and Bridesmaids. These of course were awesome movies, but I really liked seeing McCarthy perform in a drama because I typically don’t see her in serious films. In the interview, she said that Can You Ever Forgive Me? gave her a chance to show people that people who normally star in goofy comedies have the diverse range of talent to be able to shift like a chameleon to a drama. Her performance as Israel locked me in and didn’t let me out of its sight until the end of the film.

Here is an excellent article I read in Writer’s Digest a couple of months ago when I was struggling with writer’s block and thinking of seeing the film.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? 2018. Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use.

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