For the love of Fanny Brice


FELONS under cover: Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) at a literary fair. Photograph courtesy

WHEN THE UNIVERSE presents a possibility in your life that is unequivocally wrong, but still, it’s there, what do you do? A chance encounter with a literary letter when she was down and out and had no where to turn, represented an important turning point for American writer, Lee Israel. Based on the true story, and the book which she wrote about it, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a beautiful film, focusing on people who do not fit in to commonplace definitions, the earnestness of the world of belles lettres and gay identity in 1990s New York.

Melissa McCarthy is fabulously cast, crafted and dressed as Lee Israel: a person with a distinctly Jewish body type, a sense of self which defies crude gender categories and an implicit understanding of her own skill as a writer. Only, in the latter case, it’s not always a writer’s skill which makes them sellable, and like many an uncompromising artist, she finds herself, albeit armed with New Yorker best seller credentials, garret-bound with a sick cat, rent to pay and a bit of a drinking problem, to say nothing of a fascination for the back story of women such as Estee Lauder and the burlesque icon, Fanny Brice.

Enter Jack Hock, gorgeously wily and played by Richard E Grant. The two know each other vaguely from a literary party, though he’s clearly a wallflower when it comes to the actual task of writing. Linked by misery and need, the two become good friends, feeding off each others’ grim thoughts about the society in which they exist.

Until the notion of felonry strikes.

In the Middle Ages, there was an important culture of Christian relics which fed the economy. It was about the thrill of being able to buy the toe, the eyelash or a scrap of fabric of one of the saints – if not Jesus himself – and of course, it was an industry which fed the business of faking with crude abandon. When you consider the astronomical value placed on historical letters, by experts and collectors, there’s something quite similar at play. How much is a letter written in the hand of a great dead novelist, senator, artist … worth to the aficionado? This is where Israel’s need, her pen, and her expertise come into the fray.

Of course, as all felons must, she eventually has to face the law, and in the lines of recent tales told on the silver screen, such as A Man and A Gun and The Mule, it’s a story of crime from the inside out perpetrated by an hilariously unlikely crook. But focusing on retro 1990s typewriter culture with a strong sense of authenticity, it’s a fabulous tale of mischief, unabated self hate and dream-following and of making uncompromised sense of who you are, as it is one of karma. In short, it’s a complete delight.

  • Can You Ever Forgive Me? is directed by Marielle Heller and features a cast headed by Moisés Acevedo, Joanna Adler, Pun Bandhu, Tina Benko, Mx Justin Vivian Bond, Havilah Brewster, Kevin Carolan, Marcus Choi, Rosal Colon, Michael Cyril Creighton, Tim Cummings, Jane Curtin, Shae D’lyn, Lucy DeVito, Josh Evans, Ben Falcone, Ethel Fisher, Ricky Garcia, Richard E Grant, Mark Evan Jackson, Brandon Scott Jones, Erik LaRay Harvey, Gregory Korostishevsky, Alice Kremelberg, Chris Lamberth, Michael Laurence, Marcella Lowery, Mary B McCann, Melissa McCarthy, Christian Navarro, Ben Rauch, Sandy Rosenberg, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella, Towne the Cat, Roberta Wallach,  Dolly Wells and Charlotte Mary Wen. It is written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty based on the eponymous book by Lee Israel. Produced by Anne Carey, Amy Nauiokas and David Yarnell, it features creative input by Nate Heller (music), Brandon Trost (cinematography), Annie McCabe (editing), Jennifer Euston (casting), Stephen H Carter  (production design) and Arjun Bhasin (costumes). Release date, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: February 8 2019.

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