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 if a screenwriter made it up—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?.
Acclaimed filmmaker Marielle Heller (Diary Of A Teenage Girl), along with a large crew of female collaborators (including producers Anne Carey and Amy Nauiokas, screenwriter Nicole Holofcener, editor Anne McCabe and many other below the line talent), brings Israel’s unexpected and at times surprisingly moving story to the screen.
In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, the best-selling celebrity biographer (and cat lover) who made her living in the 1970’s and 80’s profiling the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. When Lee found herself unable to get published because she had fallen out of step with the marketplace, she turned her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack (Richard E. Grant).
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. But when her business grew too hot for her to handle alone, she brought an accomplice into her scheme, the larcenous street hustler Jack Hock. Ever the loner, Lee had to learn how to share her life with another person.
Heller loves that 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. “I feel like movies have all these complicated, wonderful male characters who can be very rough-edged and morally ambiguous and we don’t ever question that,” she says. “So to have a story featuring a woman who is complicated, who is a difficult person, who commits crimes, yet who is also feisty, smart, clever and ambitious, is exciting.”
Says McCarthy of portraying Israel: “I have become so attached to Lee that I just want people to see her for everything she was: for her talent, her intelligence, her caustic, remarkable wit and to also see her difficult circumstances, her flaws, her broken heart, her anger. I want people to love her as much as I do.”
Lee Israel: A Bookish Felon and Charming Forgeries
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 screen 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, George S. Kaufman and more. 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 authors’ 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.
The tension between the fiercely intelligent, talented writer and her life of hoodwinking and crime is part of what drew the filmmakers to this one-of-a-kind story. Says producer Amy Nauiokas of Archer Gray: “I found Lee to be 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. I read the book in a tent in the middle of Tanzania by lantern and I just couldn’t put it down.”
Nauiokas’ partner at Archer Gray, Anne Carey, who was sent the manuscript early on by an editor friend, says: “I originally fell in love with the book because it reminded me of women I met when I first moved to New York and was working in the book-to-movie world. I kept encountering these women who were super smart, all single, had cats, lived way beyond their means, and were kind of out-of-sorts with the rest of the world. So, I felt like I knew Lee, yet I’d never seen this kind of story on screen. I loved that it is also a story about the pleasures of wit, it’s a story about New York and it’s a story about a friendship between two people who supported one another in their own strange, mischievous ways.”
Producer David Yarnell was in fact a lifelong friend and confidante to Israel before her death in 2014 and convinced her to write her memoir. They met years before, when Yarnell optioned the movie rights to her first two books–and soon after, Israel reluctantly told him the story of her miscreant years.
“I was having lunch with her and she said, ‘you know, I did something in my life that I’m really not proud of. I don’t even want to talk about it,’” Yarnell recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, now you’ve got to talk about it.’ So, I gave her another scotch, which eased her into telling the story of both purloining and forging the letters of very famous people concentrating on members of the Algonquin Round Table [a group of leading literary lights who met at New York’s Algonquin Hotel for lunch each day in the 1920s]: Lillian Hellman, George S Kaufman, Louise Brooks and Dorothy Parker. It was an undertaking that was illegal and dangerous but she said it had also given her a deep sort of satisfaction – she was thrilled by being able to pass off her own writing as theirs.”
At the time, Yarnell encouraged Israel, against her protests, to write the story of the whole sordid episode, including the surreal notion of being a bookish recluse playing catch-me-if-you-can with the FBI, in her own candid, sharp-tongued voice. Ironically, when she finally wrote her story she gained the literary attention for which she had so long hungered. Yarnell also knew the story had an inherently cinematic quality to it, even if Israel upended any typical notion of an outlaw and con artist. Prior to Israel’s death, the two of them met with producer Carey, and Israel was all in.
“We always wanted to see Lee’s story become a film,” Yarnell says. “But it was Anne Carey who really brought this dream to fruition. When we met with Anne, Lee told her, ‘If you’re going to make a film, David has got to be part of this.’ But the major credit goes to Anne for really standing by it and making this movie possible.”
Carey enlisted two acclaimed screenwriters known for their keen sense of offbeat humor to adapt Israel’s memoir: Avenue Q’s Tony Award-winning book writer Jeff Whitty, and acclaimed filmmaker Nicole Holofcener (who each turned in drafts to fully realize the larger–than-life qualities of Israel while remaining grounded in the unfortunate circumstances surrounding her misadventures. Whitty, whose stage work also includes The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler and the Go-Go’s musical Head Over Heels, knows the resonance of strong female characters, having dedicated much of his career to such iconic female roles.
Holofcener – known for writing and directing a series of deeply emotional films featuring unapologetically complex women, aimed to adapt the memoir with fast-paced drama, laced with suspense and humanity. “The script totally captured Lee’s fighting spirit,” says Yarnell.
Nicole Holofcener (Screenplay by) has written and directed six feature films including Enough Said and Friends With Money. Her newest movie, The Land Of Steady Habits, will debut on Netflix Sept 14th. She has directed numerous television shows including “Togetherness,” “Orange is The New Black,” “Enlightened,” and most recently the HBO pilot based on Tom Perotta’s novel, “Mrs. Fletcher.” She is writing a new feature film as well as looking forward to directing an episode of “High Maintenance.”
Jeff Whitty (Screenplay By) is a best known for his book for the Tony Award winning musical Avenue Q, which has continued to entertain audiences across the globe with touring and national productions.
Whitty recently penned the original book for Head Over Heels; other credits include Bring It On: The Musical, Tales of the City: A New Musical (American Conservatory Theater); The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler (South Coast Repertory, OSF, 2008); The Hiding Place; The Plank Project; Suicide Weather.
Whitty’s screen acting credits include Garmento, Lisa Picard Is Famous and Short Bus.
Both Whitty and Holofcener had the honor of meeting Israel before her death.
“I knew she was very sick at the time, and wish so much she could have seen the finished film. I got to go into her apartment and it was smaller than I imagined and had a sad view of another building. She deserved better. She had a million wonderful books and many cat motifs on mugs and pictures… (not a surprise),” says Holofcener.
When Israel passed away from complications of myeloma in 2014, Yarnell remained at her side, even finding a home for the two cats she left behind. He feels she would be pleased to see her story come to life in the way it has, celebrating not only her knack for wisecracks, but also her spirit of survival and defiance of a world in which she was nearly invisible.
“Lee was feisty, witty, acerbic and tough,” he describes. “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. So, I think 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.”
Ultimately, Nauiokas and Carey would entrust that script with rising director Marielle Heller. Impressed with her early work, the Archer Gray team helped nurture Heller’s career, encouraging her to attend the Sundance Writer’s and Director’s Labs, and producing her debut feature, DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. Both felt Heller was a distinctive match with the material.
“Mari is relentless and it shows in everything she does,” says Nauiokas. “She has a personal vision and a talent for moving people that really bonded everyone on this project together. Her directorial style is very understated, but at the same time she brings a big presence because she’s got so much depth and passion. I find her to be incredibly brave and honest, which this movie absolutely needed. Because she so respects and appreciates women and really understands what it means to be a woman in a certain time and space on this journey, she brings something very, very authentic to it.”
Adds Carey: “When we first met Mari, she had a certain quality that I think all first-time directors need to have: she just radiated ‘I’m going to make my movie, no matter what it takes.’ You have to have that, and she had it. Now with her second movie, it’s been wonderful to see her confidence growing even stronger but also to see her becoming more grounded. “
Heller recalls that the script hit something inside of her. “As soon as I read it I was enthralled,” she recalls. “I just felt so connected to Lee. I’m very much a cat person so that was something that grabbed me really quickly and also, I love old bookstores, I love that whole New York literary world Lee lived within. But I also just got really excited about a female character who can sometimes be a bit of well, an asshole. She’s unapologetically who she is: a funny, tough broad.”
Rarely is a woman protagonist the gruff, law-skirting antihero in cinema. “I want to be able to tell stories about women who society would otherwise ignore and not look at closely,” Heller summarizes. “And Lee is somebody who was certainly very flawed, but also really resourceful and ingenious. 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.”
Heller wishes Israel could have seen the final film, noting: “I think Lee would be very pleased to know a movie of her life was made and that this much attention was being paid to her work and especially to the success of her forgeries. Because deep inside I think she was really proud of what she did –not so much proud of being a criminal but of writing so beautifully that for a time, people believed in her.”
“There are so many people in the world who just want to be recognized, to be seen for who they are and for their work to matter,” McCarthy says. “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.”