Brow Beat

Melissa McCarthy Has One-of-a-Kind Literary Treasures to Sell in the Trailer for Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Dorothy Parker
8983 Norma Place
Hollywood, California

Dear Slate Readers,

Alan told me to write and tell you about this trailer. So I am doing that now, while he dresses for our turkey dinner with the boys across the road. (To refresh your memory, “Alan” is Alan Campbell, my husband, and the fact that he’s still alive in this letter definitively dates it as having been written prior to his death on June 14, 1963, not that I would know anything about the events of June 14, 1963, which is, to me, Dorothy Parker, still in the future.) The trailer Is for Can You Ever Forgive Me, an adaptation of Lee Israel’s memoir about her career as a literary forger, from Diary of a Teenage Girl director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. I have a hangover that is a real museum piece, and I am hopeful that the first half of this sentence sounds enough like Dorothy Parker—like myself, I mean—that you will overlook the ahistorical presence of hyperlinks in the preceding sentence. Melissa McCarthy stars as Israel, who resorted to selling fake letters from literary giants like Dorothy Parker when her career as a celebrity biographer hit the skids.

There’s a truism in the film industry, which I am going to credit here to Charlie, by which I mean my friend Charles Brackett, and it goes like this: If you can cast Richard E. Grant as an untrustworthy drunk, your movie’s in good shape. (Charlie and I call it the “Withnail Principle,” for reasons that are obscure now but we assume will make sense in about a quarter century.) It’s also nice to see Melissa McCarthy in a dramatic role again, and it’s exciting to think that, after a decade of playing comic hucksters of various sorts in movies like Identity Thief and Spy, she’ll get to dig deeper into the motivations of a real-life dissembler.

In cases of literary forgery, those motivations are a particularly rich vein to mine, and it looks like McCarthy is taking full advantage: witness the strange mixture of pride (“I can write as well as Dorothy Parker!”) and contempt (“None of you can tell the difference between Dorothy Parker’s writing and mine!”) she flashes across her face in the trailer’s mini-montage of literati praising her fake letters. But the more interesting question isn’t whether a Lee Israel or a William Henry Ireland succeeds because of their own literary talent or the stupidity of others; it’s why their marks wanted so badly for the forgeries to be real. We want to live in a world where an unpublished letter from Dorothy Parker or a never-produced play from Shakespeare could still appear, and we’re willing to overlook a lot of red flags to get there. And you can quote me, Dorothy Parker, on that, because I wrote it in this authentic letter, which can be yours for a very reasonable price.

Your Pal,

Dorothy Parker

Matthew Dessem is Brow Beat’s nights and weekends editor and the author of a biography of screenwriter and director Clyde Bruckman.