Movies With My Mom: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In their second attempt at finding a movie they both like, Melissa and her mother go see another awards season biopic that's not Green Book.

For the second movie in this “my mom and I watch a movie and talk about it” series, we chose Can You Ever Forgive Me? If I’m going to be honest, I chose it. I chose it because I wanted to see it and I knew two things to be true. One, my mom, Nancy, had never heard of it, and two, if she had, she wouldn’t go see it. So I forced her.

Once I told her the title, I asked her not to do any research about the film, so she could really go into it pure without any preconceived notions.

After grumbling about me being in the film industry and her being at a disadvantage, she agreed to go in blind.

I actually think she was at an advantage, in many ways. She was in a position to allow writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and director Marielle Heller to tell her the story the way they had engineered it to be told.

There’s value to that.

I’ll probably never be able to go into anything blind – I like doing the research. I like the backstory.

But when I sit down in the theater and the lights go dark, I still get excited about the beginning of a film and I can’t wait to find out how a filmmaker is going to disseminate story points to me, and how they are going to hide or not hide exposition.

While I may have known more about the film going into it, I’d like to think we both went in with an open mind and let Melissa McCarthy’s saltiness wash over us like a boozy, joyful ocean.


Melissa: Before I suggested this film to you, had you ever heard of it?

Mom: Never heard anything about it.

Melissa: So you didn’t know what it was about or who Lee Israel was?

Mom: Nothing. Nothing.

Melissa: I had not heard of her either. Before we get started, any quick opening statements you’d like to make?

Mom: I thought the acting was superb. I’ve always known Melissa McCarthy as a comic and seeing her in a serious role was quite different, but she did a phenomenal job.

Melissa: It’s something about comedians. I watched Beautiful Boy last night. Steve Carell’s done an amazing job with dramatic roles, and then there’s people like Robin Williams. I really do think it’s tears of a clown. A lot of comedians have a very dark side to them, and I think sometimes they are able to bring it out easier than someone who’s known more as a dramatic actor.

Mom: I think that if you’re a really a good actor or actress, you can portray anything.

Melissa: There’s something about comedians doing drama that really works for me. We can go through the whole movie, but I just remember watching the beginning and thinking, are people really that mean? They needed us to get into her mindset early on to understand why she would do what she did.

Mom: But she wasn’t the nicest person either. She didn’t like people. I mean, she was antisocial.

Melissa: Right, and I think that that had a lot to do with it, too. But before we see her being a jerk, we just saw her being sad.

Mom: And drinking. And drinking.

Melissa: Yeah.

Mom: With the luck she was having, you kind of thought, well, she’s kind of frumpy, she’s kind of odd, and she’s drinking and not doing much … I wouldn’t call it funny, but almost then the lighter side is when she goes to the party with Jane Curtin.

Melissa: It was good to see Jane Curtin.

Mom: Exactly. I thought she looked fabulous. When Melissa McCarthy drinks and takes the glass and takes the toilet paper and then comes out with a new coat – that was, to me, the only light side.

Melissa: It wouldn’t have hurt to add a little bit more comedy into the story. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant’s characters themselves brought some of it, but it was just so dark and gloomy all the time. I wanted a little bit more lightness, but that’s just not who she was. … The filmmakers were really brave to commit to the misery.

Mom: That’s a good slogan, “Commit to the Misery.”

Melissa: When I’m writing, I’m going to write that on a sticky note and post it on my computer screen. … Do you think they set up Lee Israel so we knew she wasn’t going to be a barrel of laughs?

Mom: I think they didn’t portray it in a good way. She was almost pathetic.

Melissa: I agree. She was pathetic, but it’s interesting because this movie is based on a book that Lee Israel wrote.

Mom: Yeah, that was in the credits.

Melissa: I really loved that, actually. … What was my point about that? I don’t remember. The reason why I don’t remember is because I’m thinking too much about cats. I don’t know why I keep picking these movies with cats. The first one was Bohemian Rhapsody, where they actually got reaction shots of the cats.

Mom: Yeah, but this cat has much more appeal, because it was the only animal or person that she could relate to.

Melissa: I just thought it was funny that here we have a cat as a character. But yes, it was much more a part of the movie than it was in Bohemian Rhapsody. Did you know that Julianne Moore was set to play Lee Israel first?

Mom: No. Again, I knew nothing about the movie, so I didn’t know that.

Melissa: Well, it’s really interesting. The woman who wrote it – I always mispronounce her last name – is Nicole Holofcener. … She did Enough Said and a bunch of other great movies. She wrote it and was going to direct it, and Julianne Moore was set to play the Lee Israel character. How do you think that would have been?

Mom: I couldn’t see that. I think that Julianne Moore is too pretty and looks too good, no matter what you do to her.

Melissa: I wonder if she would have garnered undeserved sympathy from us. … What I missed, but I think is important to the character, was there were no ups and downs. She was just …

Mom: Miserable.

Melissa: And there were no high points in her life at all.

Mom: Except with the cat. She loved the cat.

Melissa: She loved the cat.

Mom: And it brought her such pleasure, and at times with Richard E. Grant’s character, Jack, she almost thought she had a friend.

Melissa: Hey, have you ever seen the movie Withnail & I?

Mom: No.

Melissa: It’s from the ’80s, Richard E. Grant is in it, and there’s actually a similar apartment-cleaning scene. I wonder if he was having deja vu?

Mom: He was amazing. I’d never heard of him, and he did a terrific job.

Melissa: He is a really great character actor. You should look back at all the stuff he’s done. Jack is the type of character that you watch and you’re just like, “I can’t picture anybody else playing this role.”

Mom: Exactly. The two of them relating – I could watch it forever.

Melissa: I was watching an interview with the director, Marielle Heller, and she said Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy became really good friends making the movie.

Mom: I could see that.

Melissa: It’s a tough movie to watch, but a great character study.

Mom: I think she got joy out of making the forgeries of these people’s letters come alive. That helped her, her psyche.

Melissa: It sounds to me like you got something out of watching this movie.

Mom: Yeah. I thought it was depressing, but …

Melissa: It’s not the type of movie that you gravitate toward, but it sounds like maybe you’re broadening your horizon?

Mom: You’re making me.

Melissa: But I think that we might need to up the ante. Are you ready for that?

Mom: Sure, just throw anything at me.

Melissa: I don’t know if they’re showing this movie in Aventura, Florida, but for the next movie the log line is, “A dance troupe takes LSD and has a wild orgy.”

Mom: You didn’t tell me that before.

Melissa: It’s either that or a movie with Matthew McConaughey acting crazy.

Mom: I like him.

Melissa: We’ll figure it out, but I don’t want to play it too safe. People want to hear your thoughts on movies you definitely wouldn’t see otherwise.

Mom: Why? You think I’m prudish?

Melissa: I don’t know if you are. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten into that.

Mom: I guess we’ll find out.

Melissa B. Miller Costanzo‘s new feature, the romantic comedy The List, starring Halston Sage and Christian Navarro, is out now on VOD through Universal Pictures. Her first feature as a writer-director, All These Small Moments, starring Molly Ringwald, Brian d’Arcy James and Jemima Kirke, came out theatrically in 2019. Working in the art department on such award winning films as Indignation, The Fighter, and Precious, she developed an eye for detail and a perspective defined by experience. Her first feature as a producer was The Tested, starring Aunjanue Ellis, which was accepted to the prestigious IFP Independent Filmmaker Lab and Emerging Narratives at IFP Film Week and took home the top prize at the American Black Film Festival.