Wouldn’t it be ironic if, writing this essay about Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?—documenting the life and crimes of Lee Israel, noted forger of letters—I got writer’s block?
Ten minutes into the film, the aging, broke, world-weary Israel (Melissa McCarthy) walks by a room of a handful of women circled around a fastidiously dressed man decrying “Writer’s Block” as laziness, as a justification of the inability to do work or to be original. At a party held in her agent Marjorie’s (Jane Curtin) enormous apartment (there’s a coat check guy), Israel is an invisible outsider in the world of the literary elite. No one talks to her, and there’s the palpable friction of her contempt for the snobbery of such characters who ramble on about structure and reflexivity (oh, so, me then) and her yearning to be recognized and embraced as worthy and talented. The writer of a handful of well-received and panned biographies, Israel is told by Marjorie that she has not made a name for herself, that she has disappeared behind her writing. Or, as Israel retorts, she’s doing her job—but still, she has doubt. And what do so many queer people do when they want to toe the line between disappearing into someone else and flaunting their own persona? They do drag.
Certainly, one of the fundamental questions at the heart of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel’s autobiography, is a notion of authenticity within art, or, in this case, within writing. To make ends meet, Israel begins to forge and embellish the personal letters of literary and social figures like Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward, and as she becomes further invested in the con of selling them to collectors and bookstore owners, she realizes she has to negotiate the space between her persona as a writer and how much of that persona is predicated on imitation without a real grasp on her own sensibilities or idiosyncrasies as a writer.
How much real is there in this representation, how much authenticity is there in her artifice? As Walter Ong, philosopher and author of Orality and Literacy, would have it, they are two sides of the same coin. “To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it,” writes Ong. “Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.”
As Israel continues to study the personas and the affectations of different authors and social stars, she becomes increasingly adept at this kind of performance, both of herself and of these other people’s voices. When she writes about Noël Coward dissing Marlene Dietrich, or Dorothy Parker apologizing for a hangover, Israel, as Ong implies, finds the authenticity within the artifice. In effect, Lee Israel becomes a literary drag queen/king.
Explicitly or otherwise, drag has political connotations: in its rejection of normative gender presentation, in its remixing of cultural artifacts to create a persona, in its communal traditions borne out of marginalization, in its adoration and embrace of the artifice of performativity. But the exaggeration of gender or sexuality or persona doesn’t have to happen at a gay bar like Julius’ (located in Manhattan’s West Village, and known as the oldest gay bar in New York)—where much of the film takes place, and where Israel’s close and queerly caustic friendship with hustler Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) is fostered—with someone regaled in glitter or fake eyebrows (nice try, Gaga). As Heller’s film and Israel argue, drag can be on the page, too.
Lee Israel synthesizes personas—the one in the actual writing from her subjects, the one crafted by biographers and her own approach—in her drag. She uses the (presumably) correct period typewriters to achieve the needed effect for the type style, a nerdy writerly detail analogous to using a similar kind of foundation or lipliner that a drag queen impersonating Cher would use. She blurs the line between an exaggeration of their writerly persona and of her own, and in the process, though it sounds sentimental, she finds herself.
Israel’s class anxieties and her anxieties about her voice as a writer are not unrelated. Unwilling to play the game like other well-established authors, she’s poured her life into letting the writing speak for itself, even if at the sacrifice of that writing not necessarily having a discernible aesthetic or persona. And, though she’s resistant to admit it, it’s the persona that sells. To Majorie and the rest of the literary world, Israel has no product and no worth. Jack, on the other hand, has his old queen-y gesticulations and vocal affectations, an acerbic wit that nonetheless renders him approachable enough (he’s camp, as some would say) that he becomes good at selling the fake documents when Lee’s placed on a list of undesirables within the literary collecting community.
So if drag can abstractly be seen as a sort of riposte to the outside world, a world that rejects queers, lambasting and sending up the restrictions and constructs that became codified and understood as deviant and illegal, so too can Lee’s forgeries be seen as a revenge against an insular community and class set that effectively kept her out and demeaned her. What greater reprisal is there than to use the very stars and legends that they (and she) worship to dupe them out of money? On the outskirts of this film, in the implied context, is the New York ravaged by the AIDS crisis—Jack casually mentions all his friends have died, a pink ACT UP triangle sticker hangs in the window of Julius’—a community of people ignored. Drag has always been an act of defiance. Even for Lee Israel.
After her game is up, she expresses ambivalence about her hesitance to create her own literary persona in her career, that her writer’s block could be so stifling, and her ability to have finally done so, to have found her authorial voice, through the imitation of others’ work. In her uncanny ability to resurrect the spirits of Louise Brooks, Fanny Brice and Lilian Hellman, in her recreation and extensions of Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward, Israel’s found her own authenticity, her own voice, her own persona. Through the creation of artifice. All it took was a little drag.