5 Queer Things in Melissa McCarthy Drama “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Much has been said about the fact that Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a sharp turn toward drama for comedy queen Melissa McCarthy, but you may be surprised to learn that this based-on-a-true-story about Lee Israel, a forger of letters by literary greats, is one of the queerest movies of the year. Here are some reasons why:

Lee and Jack at Julius courtesy Fox Searchlight

Classic NYC Gay Bar Julius

Often referred the oldest continuously operating gay bar in New York City (though there is some debate over when it actually became a gay bar), Julius is no stranger to big and small screens – with its corner location in the West Village, its classic look and its big windows making it a great stand-in for any New York City bar. But in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, not only is Julius appearing as itself, the bar is practically another character with Lee (McCarthy) doing some of her most important drinking and scheming here.

Dolly Wells as Anna (opposite McCarthy) courtesy Fox Searchlight

Melissa McCarthy as a Romantic Lead

Those who’ve seen the film might disagree with the idea of McCarthy’s Lee Israel – with her often-cringeworthy lack of social skills and cat-filth-ridden apartment – is a “romantic character” but consider this: Yes, McCarthy has played the girl with the love story before, notably on TV in Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly. But since her breakout role in Bridesmaids, she has tended toward more independent women in films such as Spy, The Heat and The Boss. In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, not only do we see McCarthy playing a woman navigating an adorably awkward flirtation with the alluring Anna (Dolly Wells), but we also get to meet her ex Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith pulling a one-scene wonder). One would never call Lee lucky in love, but the scenes in which her lesbian character reaches out to women for connection or reassurance are some of the film’s most tender and beautiful.

Christian Navarro as Kurt with Jack courtesy Fox Searchlight

Jack and Kurt

Richard E. Grant swans into the film as Jack Hock, embodying one of the enduring character types of the NYC LGBTQ community – the gay man of indeterminate age who always seems to always have just enough money to make a quasi-absurd fashion statement and offer to share his drugs – even if he might not have quite enough cash to afford his next drink (or possibly even a place to stay for the night). The film makes some attempts to play him not completely to type (when he doesn’t know who Fanny Bryce is, Lee asks if he’s sure he’s gay), but it’s a gloriously camp performance that’s exactly as over-the-top what it needs to be.

What’s hot?

Meanwhile, when Kurt (Christian Navarro) shows up, it seems like he’s mostly there to be an object of Jack’s flirtations. But it’s such a treat to see him play a gay character who is not as tortured or weighed down with hair product as he is on 13 Reasons Why. Navarro is delightful whenever he’s on screen, even though he isn’t given much to do. Meanwhile, Grant – at the heart of the story alongside McCarthy – delivers a performance that’s simply extraordinary.

Jack and Lee courtesy Fox Searchlight

Music for Brunching

I know better than to attempt to identify any one genre as “gay music.” For every friend who’d point to the pop classics of Madonna and Cher, there is one who’d point to electronic dance music or Indigo Girls folk. So, I’ll refer to most of the music of Can You Ever Forgive Me?” as “Music to Serve Brunch By” – the kind of songs you can heard being crooned in a jazz club or piano bar: “Manhattan” and “Charade” by Blossom Dearie, “Bad Luck” by Dinah Washington, “Street of Dreams” by Peggy Lee, “Trav’lin’ Light” by Chet Baker. This is all nicely complemented by a delightfully jazzy score from Nate Heller that would be at home among classics like Victor/Victoria. However, one decidedly LGBTQ twist shows up with a glittering flourish mid-movie: Mx Justin Vivian Bond singing a naughty little drinking song called “Goodnight Ladies” with all the experience of the performer’s years enthralling cabaret audiences, still looking eternally youthful and glamorous. Lee seems instantly awestruck; I imagine anyone experience the exquisite JVB for the first time would be.

Lee and Jack Examine a Literary Treasure courtesy Fox Searchlight

Gay Icons and LGBTQ Literary Stars

If one weren’t paying close attention, one might assume that the literary forgeries with which Lee becomes involved are chosen primarily because they offer opportunities for her to manufacture glittering bons mot. But most of them have quite the queer bent. When we meet Lee, she’s working on a biography about Fanny Bryce (the vaudevillian star famously worshipped by gay men ever since she was portrayed by Barbra Streisand on stage and screen). Lee also proves particularly adept at aping the style of Dorothy Parker, whose scathing wit has long made her the spirit animal of many of disenchanted queer person. Later in the film, Lee’s less-than-legal exploits lead her to the work of Noël Coward and Lillian Hellman. Indeed it is an assumption she makes about how ‘out’ one of these queer literary greats would have been in their own private correspondence – that turns out to be a pivotal plot point. For those who haven’t seen the film yet, I hope that isn’t giving too much away. And if it is – can you ever forgive me?

Interested in another work of art that’s surprisingly queer? Jenifer Lewis’ memoir Mother of Black Hollywood proves she is a staunch ally in addition to being an absolutely fabulous diva.

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Paul Hagen

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