Who exactly was Lee Israel? Leonore Carol “Lee” Israel, born in New York in December 1939, died in New York in December 2014. In the 1970s she began writing biographies, her first being about Tallulah Bankhead, in 1972. Her third and last biography was published in 1985 and concerned Estee Lauder. Unfortunately for Lee it came out at the same time as Lauder’s own autobiography and simply could not compete.
The film Can You Ever Forgive Me? narrates an episode in the life of Lee Israel. In 1991 she lives alone with just an elderly, ailing cat called Jersey for company. She loses her job as a proofreader, for inappropriate language, and for drinking whisky in the office. She suffers from “writer’s block” as she attempts yet another biography, this time about Fanny Brice, a comedienne, singer and actress who died in 1951. She is three months behind in the rent. She turns up at a party given by her agent, Marjorie, who could not be less interested in what Lee describes as her “fascinating new projects”. To get her own back, Lee steals toilet rolls from the bathroom, and an overcoat from the coat-check. The outlook is depressing, to say the least. We next find her in a bar at four o’clock in the afternoon, alone, drinking whisky. And she meets Jack Hock, who is all that Lee is not. She is short and dumpy. He is tall and elegant. She dresses just to cover herself. He dresses to impress. She is unsociable, sullen, staves off any social contact. He exudes charm, will talk to anyone, makes instant contact. Neither of them has any income to speak of.
One day, Lee Israel’s life takes a turn for the better. Doing a bit of research for her Fanny Brice biography, she comes across some letters signed by Brice herself. In a moment of inspiration she quickly hides them and manages to sell them in one of those New York bookshops dealing in rare books and unusual finds. Lee has discovered a new source of income: the market for letters written by celebrities.
She starts on her new letter-writing career using a collection of old typewriters, one for each writer. These are not copies, fakes perhaps, but original letters Lee composes imbuing them with the very essence of the person she personifies. She researches her characters to reproduce each one’s writing style and manner of speech. Her favorite character seems to have been the writer and scriptwriter Dorothy Parker. The film’s title -- Can You Ever Forgive Me? -- alludes to Dorothy apologizing for her alcoholic behavior at some party. There is a moment in the film where we see Lee enjoying and reciting lines from The Little Foxes on TV (Parker wrote additional dialogues for this film). Dorothy and Lee had in common a huge capacity for alcoholic intake, a caustic sense of humor and a talent for scathing comments.
Lee devotes the next year and a half to her letter writing business. She writes some 400 or more, from the most diverse celebrities, Edna Ferber, Noel Coward, and Dorothy Parker being only a few. To Lee this is the most creative, gratifying time of her life. For once she is happy, and manages to pay off her debts.
Of course, rumours and suspicions eventually catch up with her. Her friend Jack makes use of his considerable talents of persuasion to sell the letters for her. As a last resort she takes to stealing and selling genuine letters, replacing them with fakes. The FBI is implacable. Lee receives a suspended sentence of five years, the first six months to be spent under house arrest. Jack, that good friend of hers who denounced her and collaborated with the FBI, is given a suspended sentence of three years.
The film Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the book Lee Israel wrote concerning this episode in her life. Published in 2008 it was more successful than any of her biographies
This is by no means a glittering super production. It is a loving reconstruction of New York in the last decade of the 20th century, reproducing some of Lee Israel’s favourite haunts: the bars she used to drink in, the renowned Bar Julius, the second hand bookshops she knew so well. It includes a lot of music and songs of the time, including one sung by a transgender singer (Justin Vivian Bond) In the Bar Julius, that well-known venue among the gay community of New York. The script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty is agile, sparse, concise, with no unnecessary explanations and with not a dialogue too many. The two main actors, Melissa McCarthy (Lee Israel) and Richard E. Grant (Jack Hock), are extraordinary, portraying two solitary people who live precariously and survive miraculously. Melissa McCarthy started her professional life as a stand-up comedian, before beginning her film career, appearing basically in comedies. This time she has put together a character so complex, so intrinsically unpleasant as to be moving, tender, even likable. McCarthy’s version of Lee Israel is grumpy, thorny, bad-tempered, hopeless at personal relationships (she only gets on well with her cat, Jersey). In Jack Hock she finds a friend, she trusts him with her privacy, her secrets, and even lets him into her home – with mixed results. Richard E. Grant is a perfect Jack Hock: that happy conman dripping charm and charisma, oozing raffish elegance and juggling uncertain finances of a dubious origin. What a shame that though both actors were nominated, neither ended up winning an Oscar.
This is Marielle Heller’s second full length film, her first being The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), dealing with a teenager’s first, and most enjoyable sexual experiences. However, she seems to have several projects in hand so hopefully we will soon hear more from her.