(Release Info London schedule; January 24th, 2019, Curzon Soho, 8:30pm)
"Can You Ever Forgive Me"
Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), the best-selling celebrity biographer and cat lover, makes her living in the 1970’s and 80’s profiling the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder and Dorothy Kilgallen. When Lee finds herself unable to get published because she has fallen out of step with the marketplace, she turns her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant).
Lee Israel is such a difficult character, not always likable, and the honesty and courage she has brought to it's something special. She's a certain kind of woman who isn’t going to suffer fools, and that’s exactly what Lee is. Her approach is very exciting to us. You see dimensions in her that you don’t often see in female characters. She’s not all shined up and floating through life making everything wonderful. She kind of storms in and leaves a path of destruction. There's no temptation to soften Israel’s razor-sharp corners. It's somewhat of a pose where she actes as if she didn’t care at all about the outside world. There’s something about how she kind of barrels through her life, even if it’s a bit of a front. She has a way of guiding you ever so gently so that a whole scene takes on a different feel to it. Words and language are everything to her. So, she's proud of being able to imitate these great writers, proving she could be every bit as witty and singular as they're. It's fun for her to play at that and it's some of her best work. Lee really didn’t care so much if people like her, but if people like her work, that's meaningful. With Lee’s cat, you see that even this grumbly, stubborn, difficult person really does love something. It’s also that love which starts the whole ball rolling when she needs money for the vet. Lee didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘oh I think I’ll use my talents to commit crimes. To her, at first it's a matter of life and death.
It's also a story of two lost souls coming together, a rather unlikely friendship of a flamboyant rebel and a surly loner that's transformative in subtle yet emotionally profound ways. That friendship begins when Israel runs into Jack Hock, a large-hearted petty criminal who, sharing Israel’s insubordinate disposition, became her accomplice for a period of time. They're an odd couple because Jack is not literary at all. Yet they get along because both have a defiant, slightly criminal sensibility to them where they giggle at the many ways in which they can say ‘F you’ to society. It’s that attitude that makes you want to root for them. They’re both such misfits, they never really judge one another. Jack never takes offense at Lee’s crankiness. It just doesn’t ruffle his feathers. And Lee has spent so many years not letting anybody in, yet something about Jack’s personality works for her. Jack treats Lee in a very courtly way, with a respect and courtesy that's unusual in her experience. He’s also completely comfortable in his skin, happy to be flamboyant, while she’s so introverted and reticent, which can be a combination that works. Of course, he oversteps the mark with her, but that's also what she likes about him most.
He doesn’t have any boundaries or believe in any rules and he’s willing to live outside of acceptable society and take her into what becomes a kind of Boho, borderless country of their own. Hock is a free spirit. He may be non-judgmental but he’s also completely unreliable. He’s an absolute flake, always on the make, and very little in his life works out. But there's also enormous pathos and poignancy in how things end up for him and his story is quite moving. We all know people like that. They can be very attractive and magnetic, yet also always scamming for something, always with a plan to do something fantastic, yet it never quite happens for them. Jack has a wilder side to him and is more experimental with his clothing. He has capes and colors and he’s kind of a peacock. He wants people to like him, to be attracted to him, and he works very hard at it, even if he doesn’t fully have the resources for it. There's a mix of sweetness, sadness and sense of humor to see in his look. Even though it’s the 90s, Jack wears clothes from the early 80s, very much influenced by 'The New Romantic' look of 'Duran Duran' and all those bands at that time.
Jack seems to have the personality of a 'Labrador Retriever'. He just assumes that he might go up to anybody and they'll like him, but he's also sometimes kicked-about and he’s lonely. He's a coke dealer and probably kleptomaniac, banned from 'Duane Reade Drugstore' for shoplifting. But when he falls in with Lee Israel, they develop this very unusual love-hate relationship, which seemed to be the core of the story. Despite Lee’s curmudgeonly ways, they actually get on together, partly because he just insists on it. That both characters are gay is also unusual. This is an interesting time for two gay characters to come together in New York. Historically the lesbian community and the gay community in the city are pretty separate, but when 'AIDS' happened they kind of connected. A lot of gay women ended up becoming caretakers for a lot of gay men and the communities came together in a new kind of way. Lee is someone who often drank at a male gay bar and gay culture is part of their story in a lot of ways.
As Lee Israel’s letter-forging career took off, she's suddenly given a chance at love and acceptance that she hadn’t had in years, if ever, albeit a chance she couldn’t take without exposing her ruse. Chief among those in the film is her link with a vintage bookstore owner who buys her first letters. Anna (Dolly Wells), who recognizes and admires Israel in a way that bolsters her flagging confidence. Sparks between them are visible, but Lee’s known deception of Anna stifles them. It's the most heartbreaking relationship in the story because this woman truly adores Lee and adores her most for her writing. She sees Lee in the way Lee has always wanted to be seen, but meanwhile Lee is in the middle of conning her. Anna is someone who has always lived vicariously through books. Anna inherited her father’s bookshop. She adores her father, so she runs it exactly as she believes he would want it to be. She hasn't the courage to step out and change any of it; she’s just very loyally continuing what he started. She’s very bright and very sweet, but very unconfident and she has never had any lasting relationships.
Her whole life has been spent in the world of her books. That’s why Anna is so impressed by Israel when she walks right off the book jacket and into the store to sell her seemingly quaint and charming celebrity letters. She admires Lee, she’s also attracted to her and Anna would love to just talk endlessly about Lee’s work and writing and literature, so she’s all the things Lee could ever want. But, because their relationship starts off based on a lie, any attention Lee gets from Anna just fills her with more secret self-loathing. They share not only a passion for the written word, but a belief that women writers have something significant to offer. They've similar feelings on how literature is becoming all about these big, outspoken, well-paid men and it’s all about celebrity and money rather than talent and insight. There’s a real sweetness to that part of their connection. Anna can make Lee’s life so much more comforting. But even if they've meet under other circumstances, Lee finds some other reason to not allow herself to be loved. If Lee just liked herself just a tiny bit more, they might have had something beautiful.
Lee Israel never envisioned a life of poverty and crime. In the heady days of 1970s Manhattan, she was a celebrated biographer with big aspirations. Her two best-selling books, well-received biographies of star Tallulah Bankhead and showbiz reporter Dorothy Kilgallen, won her entry into New York’s swanky literary scene. But when her third book, a biography of Estee Lauder, tanked, a writer’s block set in, and in the blink of an eye, Israel’s life flipped upside down. In a new era of mega-bestsellers and brand-name authors, Israel was persona non-grata. Her agent wouldn’t take her calls, the fancy party invites dried up, and she couldn’t get a job. Soon enough, she found herself living in squalor, surrounded only by musty books from a bygone era and her beloved cat 'Jersey'. As she skidded to rock bottom, Israel couldn’t comprehend how a writer of her talents could have fallen so far, but then things got worse. Unable to pay for an emergency visit to the vet for her cat, Israel knew something had to give. She sold everything she owned of value including a signed original letter from Kate Hepburn. The $200 she received for the sale of that letter, planted a see in Lee’s mind. Fate intervened while she was researching comic film and stage pioneer Fanny Brice for a new biography. After discovering and then stealing two letters written by Brice from 'The Public Library', which she then sold to a collector, Israel cooked up the sly idea.
Creating more letters to maintain the cash flow. Thus, beginning her new career in sophisticated literary forgery. Israel began to create faux correspondence from such literary and entertainment greats as Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward, Edna Ferber, Lillian Hellman, Louise Brooks and George S. Kaufman. She took her craft seriously, going to meticulous lengths to study her subjects, to match their writing styles to a T, even collecting vintage typewriters from all the right eras. Even to the trained eye, her forgeries were undetectable. At times, it was as if she was channeling the illustrious author's spirits, infusing her own life and soul with theirs. She convinced herself she was doing no harm, merely shining light on celebrity legends renowned for the wit and sophistication. She reveled in their cleverness, creating letters highlighting the sparkling, quotable adages, which had made them immortal in the first place. Meanwhile, life with a steady income grew more fun, filled with mischief, action and even admirers. But there was one major problem with it all; Israel was committing felonies left and right. It's about the tension between the fiercely intelligent, talented writer and her life of hoodwinking and crime. Lee is fascinating in her boldness and her abrasiveness, especially at that time since professional women were not encouraged to have any of those particular traits. She had a truth to her that was unrelenting.
Ironically, when she finally wrote her story, including the surreal notion of being a bookish recluse playing catch-me-if-you-can with 'The FBI', she gained the literary attention for which she had so long hungered. Lee was feisty, witty, acerbic and tough. When she lost her dignity and had to eke out a living, she fought back. We all have those moments in life when we feel rejected or that our efforts are fruitless. We all can identify with someone who was on a downward cycle, who looked like she was absolutely defeated, but instead carved out her own way to have a taste of success. Whether or not you agree with what she did, because there’s no doubt what she did was criminal, she used her brains and her gifts to achieve something when all looked lost. She figured out a way to survive and to keep going, and most of all, she had some real fun while doing it. Lee upended any typical notion of an outlaw and con artist. Movies have all these complicated, wonderful male characters who can be very rough-edged and morally ambiguous and we don't ever question that. So to have a story featuring a woman who's complicated, who's a difficult person, who commits crimes, yet who's also feisty, smart, clever and ambitious, is exciting. Lee Israel is not your typical female protagonist, that she’s an anti-hero who breaks the long-standing mold of gritty male anti-heroes.
In the rogue’s gallery of great American forgers, one woman stands apart, Lee Israel, a dead-broke, once-acclaimed writer who in desperate times conjured something extraordinary out of her imagination and her tiny Manhattan flat, the phony but ingeniously believable words and witticisms of the legendary figures she admired. Suddenly able to make a living by selling counterfeit celebrity letters to collectors, Israel plunged into a life of crime, theft and deception. The story of Lee Israel’s rise and fall as a literary forger is one that might seemed far-fetched, but it all really happened. Israel herself recounted it in the self-deprecating, humor-spiked 2008 memoir of her misadventures, 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'. She passed away from complications of myeloma in 2014. Beneath Israel’s felonious capers lies a more personal story, that of a lonely, cat-loving, hard-boozing outcast whose life grew more exciting with every person she tricked. Israel, inspired with a reverence for the literary rascals she was imitating, played the forgery game with a sense of style. By finding success in the marketplace with her flawless forgeries, Israel finally gained validation for her own eccentric passions, even if the most rapt attention she garnered was from 'The FBI'.
"Can You Ever Forgive Me" is a window into a very specific New York, a dusty, musty, literary New York that the excesses of the 1980s never touched. It’s a world of libraries, bookshops, studio apartments and dive bars. The film creates a unifying palette and ambience for a New York of both high literature and gritty street life. A part of New York that has almost disappeared, both the New York of the bookstore culture but also that gritty 90s New York, when 'AIDS' was at it's terrifying height and the gay community was under so much pressure. The film explores the specific feeling of 'The Upper West Side' and 'Greenwich Village' in that era. The film captures a point in time just before bookstores started going away. It's a homage to these stores that used to be so much more frequent all over New York City and to use several of the real places where Lee sold her letters.
A lot of Lee’s collected objects reflect styles of the 30s and 40s because of her interests in writers of that period. The film focuses on a classic American elegance for the stuff she would have bought during the time when she had money from her first big book success. But then layered over that's a time of having no money for upkeep. There are so many people in the world who just want to be recognized, to be seen for who they're and for their work to matter. They want to know their time on this planet meant something and they meant something to someone. This story is a reminder that people we pass every day, maybe without really seeing or acknowledging, have all these amazing things going on in their lives.