The greatest love story never told: We need more movies about friendships between gays and lesbians
Can You Ever Forgive Me? celebrates the power of the bond between queer women and queer men
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
There's a scene in the film Can You Ever Forgive Me? where Melissa McCarthy (as late author and convicted forger Lee Israel) and Richard E. Grant (as her questionable right hand man, Jack Hock) are sitting at a bar. Actually, there are many scenes in which they're sitting at a bar, but I'm referencing one in particular that basically goes like this:
Lee: I'm months behind in my rent and my cat is sick.
Jack: It's four in the afternoon and you're drunk!
Lee: I'm hardly drunk.
Jack [to the bartender]: Craigy, top her up.
When I saw the film last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, I found myself unusually charmed by this seemingly unremarkable exchange, and I couldn't figure out why. At first I thought it was simply because I have on many occasions sat next to a friend and commiserated on the exact bar stools where McCarthy and Grant are sitting (literally: a solid third of Can You Ever Forgive Me? takes place at Julius, a gay bar in New York City's West Village that I frequented for the first half of this decade). But then it hit me. When was the last time I watched two queer adults in a movie just sit and talk about their miserable lives with each other? And when have I ever seen two queer adults of different genders doing that?
There's been a variety of deserved praise thrown the way of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which is based on Israel's autobiography of the same name and details how she forged hundreds of letters by deceased authors and playwrights — with a little help from Hock — to get by during tough times. Critics have repeatedly singled out McCarthy and Grant's award-worthy performances, director Marielle Heller's graceful handling of tone and nuance and writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty's delicate script, which shines an all-too-rare light on what can happen to "difficult" women who refuse to play the game. And all of it's true. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is essentially a flawless film, as far as I'm concerned — and one you should make just as much an effort to race to a theatre to see as you did A Star Is Born (if not much, much more — sorry, stans).
That all said, there's something very special about the film that very few people seem to be talking about, and it's not just that it features two queer leads, though that is notable too. In a year where LGBTQ films have been exhaustingly — and largely uninspiringly — about topics like conversion therapy and coming out, Can You Ever Forgive Me? made me realize how starved I was to see a story on screen I could actually relate to as a mildly functioning and stable queer adult (it just turns out that story happened to be about committing literary forgery). But that's really just the icing, because there's also a legitimately monumental element to Can You Ever Forgive Me? in that, at its core, it is very much about the complexities of the relationships between lesbians and gay men.
It's a relationship that has pretty much never been at the centre of an even remotely mainstream film, let alone one as thoughtfully observed as this one. What are the other examples? The third of The Hours where Meryl Streep takes care of a dying Ed Harris? When Alison Pill's character occasionally pops up in the otherwise gay male-dominated Milk? I guess newly finalized gay conversion therapy trilogy of But I'm a Cheerleader, The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased all feature queer women and men co-existing, but only because they are, you know, being forced to go through gay conversion therapy together.
Compare this to the long and largely problematic list of narratives devoted to the friendships between gay men and straight women. There's The Object of My Affection, The Next Best Thing, My Best Friend's Wedding and, of course, television shows like Sex and the City and Will & Grace. Though some of those examples have their merits (I'll never not annually rewatch the "I Say a Little Prayer" scene in My Best Friend's Wedding), in terms of representation, they mostly prioritize gay men as a single straight woman's most prized accessory — one mostly deemed unnecessary when a straight male love interest is in the picture. Why keep telling that story when there is such an untapped resource in stories about gay men and lesbians?
There's something of a myth in Western society that lesbians and gay men are socially segregated because they tend to not get along. A quick and admittedly reductive lesson on LGBTQ history shows that's just not true. If anything, gay men and lesbians have been forced to be socially integrated as a means of survival — and in some cases became friends along the way. When the "gay liberation" movement started in the late 1960s and 1970s, lesbians and gay men joined forces in countless organizations to fight for their mutual rights. It wasn't always conflict-free (not-so-fun fact: gay men can be just as misogynistic as straight men), but they mostly found a way to make it work (we can get married today, can't we?). And in the 1980s, despite over a decade of dealing with our bullshit in said organizations, lesbians stepped up in massive numbers to help gay men during the onset of the AIDS epidemic — something they still don't get nearly enough credit for.
I also have to say that, on a personal and obviously subjective level, I prefer the platonic company of queer women to my fellow queer men any day — even if that company comes with a complex dynamic often born out of how systematic patriarchy doesn't go away just because you're gay. My closest friend since I was literally one year old grew up to become a proud queer woman, and as our sexuality and what that meant for our lives evolved concurrently, it's clear I mostly had the easier path because of my gender (except for a crippling fear of AIDS and severe body image issues — that's where lesbians tend to have a bit of an advantage). This caused friction between us because I wasn't always self-aware enough to keep my privilege in check, but our shared understanding of what it feels like to be queer pushed us through, just like it has so many queer sisters and brothers throughout history. We're legitimately best friends to this day, and frankly I think stories like ours — and certainly Lee Israel and Jack Hock's — are a hell of a lot more interesting than Will and Grace's or Carrie and Stanford's.
For Lee and Jack, they might have a friendship that's born out of desperation and fed through mutual alcoholism (hey, it was New York City in the early '90s), but it's one that is ultimately quite profound. Over the course of the film, it overcomes an impressive array of trauma to culminate in a heartbreaking final scene that represents the love between gay men and lesbians so perfectly (as does their entire relationship, if you really think about it). I won't spoil the end, but I do have a suggestion for optimal viewing (at least if you're queer): find your favourite queer person of the opposite gender, and ask them on a date to the movies.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens in Toronto on October 26th and in Vancouver on November 2nd, with planned expansion across the country through the rest of the year.