Many times, as a struggling actress, I would take books to the Strand Book Store in NYC or CD’s and albums to Amoeba Music Store for a little quick cash to pay a bill, get some gas, or groceries. Every artist does it. It’s almost like a right of passage as a ‘starving artist.’ You kinda go into survival mode to get things done by any means necessary.
Known for writing biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder and game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen, Lee Israel was known as a New York Times Bestselling author. Like all artists, she hit a rough patch and began selling off her belongings to try to make ends meet. Only after selling her most prized possession, a letter written from Katherine Hepburn, does she realize compensation is handsomely rewarded for literary memorabilia. With greed and desperation leading her ego, Israel begins a downward spiral of forgery,theft and being investigated and ultimately prosecuted by the FBI. Lee Israel is said to have forged an estimated 400 letters of deceased actors and writers not limited to Noel Coward, Fanny Brice and Dorothy Parker.
Can You Ever Forgive Me is based on the book written by Israel chronicling her life of crime as a seemingly washed up author. It’s truly fascinating and one of my favorite lines comes from Israel’s editor in a meeting where Lee is bitching about why she can’t get a 10K advance, but Tom Clancy can get 3 million. The editor played by Jane Curtin says, “…you can be an asshole when you’re famous, but you don’t have to be such a bitch as an unknown.” Yet one of the saddest, yet telling lines comes during her sentencing when Israel tells the judge, “…I had the time of my life. Its the only time I remember being proud of my work.”
Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel transforms from comedy queen to dramatic actress. I, for one, never had any doubt that my girl couldn’t pull this off. McCarthy is gifted. Period. Richard E. Grant as Israel’s partner in crime (literally) Jack Hock is charming and never delivers a dull moment. Every scene these two share together as misfits who find each other and commit literary crimes keep you riveted to the screen. Dolly Wells (Anne) as the book proprietor who admires and has a crush on Israel says volumes often times with little to no dialogue at all making Anne a very memorable character you develop empathy for along this journey of deceit.
Lee Israel was sentenced to five years of federal probation and six months of house arrest. I find it interesting that she was never arrested or put in handcuffs and was simply served a summons to appear in court for a FEDERAL crime. Only in America. I seriously want to go read the book now because I still can’t seem to fathom how any of this was actually possible.
Marielle Heller’s direction is simple, yet tremendously effective and enhanced by a script punched up Nicole Holofcener and Avenue Q’s Jeff Whitty.
Produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures, Can You Ever Forgive Me hits theatres on October 19th.