LEE ISRAEL was a real person — a best-selling biographer of the '80s whose books on Estee Lauder, Tallulah Bankhead, and Katharine Hepburn brought her to the pinnacle of publishing success.
But it wasn’t enough. By the ‘90s, her star had waned, in part due to issues surrounding her unauthorized Lauder biography. Broke, alone, and something of a “cat lady,” Israel was desperate.
After successfully smuggling some letters by Fanny Brice from a library and selling them for $40 each, she settled on the implausible idea of actually forging letters from literary figures, and selling those.
Fiction sold better than fact for Israel, and she became so committed to the life of a forger that she eventually became subject to an FBI investigation and prosecution, resulting in house arrest and probation.
Ever resourceful until the end, Israel’s memoir of her crimes, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, ironically also made a good bit of money for the author, who passed away in 2014.
Now, Melissa McCarthy plays Israel in the film adaptation of the memoir, which has received acclaim on the festival circuit. Richard E. Grant plays Jack Hock, Israel’s erstwhile partner in crime.
Julianne Moore was set to play Israel, but exited last year, which is also when director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) joined the project.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? screens at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival. We spoke to producer Amy Nauiokas last week; she will hold a Q&A at the Oct. 30 screening.
This film has been big with critics and festival audiences even though it went through some real ups and downs to get here.
Amy: Sometimes it’s surprising how long it can take to get a movie project together. In 2008 the film version of the memoir began its journey. There was an amazing script. And as the life of these things sometimes occurs, the movie was put together only to fall apart.
When Marielle Heller became attached to the project it began coming together again. Melissa already knew about the script, and her husband Ben Falcone was already cast in the film. So she reached out to us.
It’s always something special when actors are looking to do something they’ve not really done before – sometimes that’s the best thing than can happen for a producing team.
Melissa McCarthy seems a better fit than Julianne Moore for the role anyway.
Lee Israel was a complete, authentic, and flawed woman. Melissa’s performance really brings her to life. She shows some significant acting chops in this film.
Tell us more about the central character McCarthy is playing.
Lee Israel was a New York Times best-selling biographer. The peak of her career was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Then the literary world began being more dominated by the personalities of the writers themselves. She felt less and less comfortable about that, and her work fell out of taste with the market. Of course, she wasn’t shy about what she thought about all this, and wasn’t shy about sharing her many caustic opinions.
So originally just to make ends meet, she turned to a form of deception. She befriends Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant. But she still retains an essential, if flawed, authenticity — she is called “one of the most honest liars you’ll ever meet.”
It’s fascinating to see how she is received through all the controversy. To the end she remained a writer first and foremost, who truly respects the written word and its true value.
But the heart of the film is really about human connectivity, about surviving loneliness, and about the friendships that help us to do so.
The time and place of this movie seems vital to the story. Tell us about that aspect of the film.
The film is set in New York City in 1991, when the actual events of the story occurred. Visually that takes you into an amazing place in the history of New York. Frankly there’s not much left of New York that looks like this anymore.
We especially noticed this in regards to bookstores, where a lot of scenes in the movie take place. We would scout bookstores for locations, and they would literally start closing as we were filming.
It became an intense realization for us – the rapidly changing world of publishing, and of New York itself. The modernization of the industry has made it very difficult to be a small shopowner.