Opinion: Can you ever forgive Lee Israel for plagiarism?

Charlie Higdon shares his thoughts on “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Looking back on my years in high school, I realize how much I learned from my teachers; but, one lesson stands out. This lesson came from all my teachers in English class. It stays with students who are about to embark on their college years: Never commit plagiarism. Plagiarism, to an English teacher, is a crime, because it is the act of using someone else’s published work and passing it on as one of your own. On every class syllabus, there is a paragraph or two warning students of the consequences of plagiarism. There are many examples such as using a quote without the source, using the information to form most of your work with or without any credit, even failure to referencing pictures, videos and other forms in media. Of course, there is a solution to every problem, and for a literary crime like this, it is to give proper citation to pieces of information from other sources. Nowadays, a teacher can indicate when the act of plagiarism occurred, using technology to scan a paper and check for any flaws in sourcing. This year, Fox Searchlight Pictures brings an insightful true story about a struggling writer and how her greatest work was also her biggest crime.

The Story

Struggling to make a living in New York City, Lee Israel, played by Academy Award Nominee Melissa McCarthy, has become a washed-up, old-fashioned writer. With bills piling up by the dozens, and her cat in need of medical attention, she needs to find another way to earn money, instead of writing yet another dead-end novel and pawning what she has. After doing some research on her latest novel, she comes across old letters from prominent figures. She decides to pawn them, not before making them more than they are worth. Eventually, she leaves the art of literature for deception by embellishing the letters, then selling them off to make a fortune. From Katherine Hepburn to Este Lauder, Israel and her friend and confidant Jack, played by Richard E. Grant, are rolling in the dough, forging letters left and right, but as they say, a person will always reap what they sow. When authorities suspect her little game, Israel will have to cover her tracks. She knows the punishment for forgery is more than just a slap on the wrist.

My Thoughts

The lessons I learned about plagiarism have been shoved into my mind, courtesy of the English professors I have had over the years. They were determined to prevent students from copying work that was not theirs and taking credit for it. However, it never occurred to me that someone would ever attempt to make a living off other people’s words. If my teachers decided to go see “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” they would have a field day, constantly rolling in the aisle thinking how much trouble Israel was getting herself into.  I was fascinated by the plot, leaving me to wonder if she was going to get away with it. Most of the time it is hard to make a living no matter what profession you are in. What Israel did was one of the many shortcuts a person would take to get to where they want to be. She forged over 400 letters for three years, selling them for on average $100 apiece. The plot of the film was fast in covering the three years she performed the forgeries; however, it was easy to keep up with and understand the context of the story. If it took a more chronological approach, the film would be longer than two hours and the audience would lose interest quickly.

McCarthy is a comedic actress; the one who always would crack a joke or two at any given moment. Some of her iconic roles come from television shows like Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly, where her humor is wholesome and filled with a lot of heart. In her films, the glove comes off and her style becomes raunchier, appealing to the adult demographic. This includes her Academy Award Nominated role as Megan in Bridesmaids. Her last comedy, The Happytime Murders, an alternate universe where humans and puppets live together, was an all time low in her career, but the good thing about hitting the bottom is there is only one way left to go: up. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is the first film I have seen McCarthy take on a dramatic role. It is a step out of her comfort zone and her portrayal of Israel is memorable. She adapted well into the character, giving audiences a representation of who Israel was. I loved her chemistry with Grant, and I hope to see her take on other dramatic roles in the future.  

If teachers want to educate their students on the consequences of plagiarism, they should look no further than “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” It is an insightful story how one person made a living for herself based on people’s work. It teaches audiences that everything comes full circle. If we do things against the values of living life, then we will suffer the consequences. The film had a well-developed plot. It gave a brief but clear illustration of Israel’s work. This film should be the formula for films about a historical figure and their work. I loved seeing Melissa McCarthy step out of comedy films and take on a dramatic role, even though there were some moments in the film that would make people laugh slightly. I am giving “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” a rating of 8.5 out of 10, and I would highly recommend this film to fans of literature, aspiring writers and English teachers everywhere.

 

Edited by Kaitlin Flippo

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