Hollywood loves a good romance, and we love to romanticize writers. There’s plenty of cultural myth built up around the notion of ‘the author’ – particularly the white male author – as someone who, even as they relate powerful truths about our world, paradoxically exists outside of the society they so brilliantly capture. It’s easy to see how dangerous a view of authorship this is, but it’s also one with an immediate allure that’s only furthered by the glamour of cinema. Recent features like mother!, Listen Up Philip and Can You Ever Forgive Me? have all contended with the issue of the author as authority to critical acclaim, but to what effect?
Alex Ross Perry had already played a snarkier-than-thou author in prior feature Colour Wheel, but in Listen Up Philip he doubles down on the idea of a conceited writer by rendering both protagonist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), and Philip’s pseudo-mentor, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), as pastiches of Philip Roth at very different stages in his career. Taken together, however, this version of Roth is largely that of ex-wife Claire Bloom’s memoir Leaving the Doll’s House, which contains a fairly damning final word on their marriage: “perhaps too much harmony had become an obstacle to his creativity.” Both Philip and Ike seem determined to live up to that appraisal as one that must define any good author, and much of their antagonism toward the world at large is crystallised in a shared misogyny that leaves the women in their lives emotionally hollowed out.
For Philip, being an author is a defined identity that carries with it a distinct image; during a photoshoot for his latest book, he refuses to take off his woolen jacket (the statement piece for any serious writer) despite it causing him to sweat profusely. The book in his hand, meanwhile, becomes nothing more than an accessory to this image of the vaunted literary figure, a prop rather than the end goal. It’s this intense awareness of his public persona, and the seeming role he must play in maintaining this image, that propels Philip on; to the extent that views Ike as an author who has successfully played this role for decades, rather than as an emotionally unavailable father. Indeed, Ike’s failings become legitimized as character traits that Philip must adhere to – easy enough for a man who is already intensely obnoxious.
The effect is clearly shown to be damaging, with the film’s heart coming through Philip’s ex Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) slowly rebuilding herself after leaving him. It’s made clear that to be in Philip’s company is to destroy yourself at the cost of his own ego – but by the end of the film, we’re unclear whether or not this is simply ‘the price that must be paid’ for lasting literary fame. Philip never learns the errors of his ways; his adherence to a particular role of ‘the author’ means that his character doesn’t develop over the course of the film. Instead, he exists in a kind of stasis. Similarly, his relationship with Ike never evolves beyond sexist diatribes and lightweight navel-gazing; they cannot connect because neither is ultimately willing to reveal themselves as anything other than a snapshot on a dust jacket. The author here is wholly self-contained, projecting conflict out into the world instead of engaging with it.
But if Listen Up Philip suggests that a successful author must engage in sustained solipsism to generate anything of value, mother! almost celebrates this idea, showing its violent power as something that lifts the author into a God-like state. Here, the creative endeavor is refigured as a literal creation myth, with the poet Him (Javier Bardem) functioning as a deity who cannot help but bleed his Gaia-like muse (Jennifer Lawrence) for all her worth. Like Philip, the artist here repeats the same cycle of abuse in the creation of each new piece of work, but for the women affected by Him there is no escape – they must die so the work might live. In contrast, the poet’s role in the cycle is to wring his hands as he waits for inspiration to strike, before ultimately being celebrated as a figure of such immense authority and power that he’s able to inspire cult-like devotion from his fans.
And whilst the film wears its metaphorical leanings on its sleeve, it’s hard not to see this patriarchal approach to the artist/muse dynamic as something steeped in misogyny – particularly when confronted with the image of Lawrence’s bloody, half-naked body on the floor. What matters to Him isn’t the relationships of those around him, it’s the crystal he pulls from each successive muse’s dead body; a crystal that represents creativity in its purest form, becoming muddied once pen is put to paper, over and over again. If this is the ultimate message of the film – that the author is an authority who exists not only separately to, but above society, and must tragically strive for perfection – it’s hard to sympathize with. Rather, a case could be made that both Listen Up Philip and mother! instead represent how women have to suffer for white male exceptionalism – by the film’s end it’s clear that the poet continues his creative journey unpunished and unmoved; again the author exists only as a figure in stasis.
How refreshing, then, that Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? revels in the idea of a communal literary tradition, rather than in creativity existing in a vacuum: it presents the author as someone who has to exist within society. Whilst it’s hard to argue that Melissa McCarthy’s Lee Israel is anything other than cantankerous and defensive (at least in the first half of the film), she’s also wholly human; she hasn’t built, nor is presented as having, a mythical stature around herself. She is secure enough in herself to reveal her insecurities, and stumbles rather than ‘valiantly’ struggles through the world. By the end of the film, Lee’s self-isolation is shown as a shield, rather than as a heroic requirement.
Moreover, Lee’s role as an author is explicitly tied to money; she isn’t writing for some artistic ideal, she’s writing to get a cheque. Good work gets good money, and throughout the film the written word is presented as an item with a transactional value in the market; at one point, Lee shows friend and raconteur Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) one of her faked letters with the line, “you’re looking at one month’s rent,” whilst her whole forging scheme is kickstarted by a few harsh words from her agent: “nobody is going to pay for the writer Lee Israel right now.”
They will, however, pay for a peek into the glamorous world of the writer; something that Heller and McCarthy continually challenge both in their wholly grounded presentation of Lee (who is clearly a writer of exceptional talent), and in the fact that the letters continued (and perhaps continue) to provide the public with welcome theatre – something made clear in the final scene, when an antique dealer chooses to carry on selling the lie rather than remove one of Lee’s letters from sale once she calls him out on displaying it in his store.
“In many ways, this has been the best time of my life,” Lee says at her court hearing. And it’s easy to see why; by writing in character, Lee is engaging in a dialogue with literature. Whether she realizes it or not (“it’s my writing!”) her best work occurs when she embraces writing as a symbiotic process, informed by and fulfilled through engaging with others. Whilst Lee’s world of stuffy bookshops and clacking typewriters is still one indebted to a romantic view of New York’s literary scene, it nevertheless feels far truer – and far less destructive – than the notable portrayals mentioned above. Hollywood will continue to idolize the author, but it would do well not to idolize an increasingly outdated myth.