Nicole Holofcener could have directed “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” She was supposed to make the movie (she rewrote Jeff Whitty), with Julianne Moore as its star. Then, six days before production was scheduled to begin, the movie fell apart over creative differences with Moore, and Fox Searchlight asked Holocener to wait and start over again. “I felt I had already made it,” she told me. “Every outfit, every location, every actor cast. It was a labor of love. It was traumatic. Terrible.”
She let it go, and the studio and producer Anne Carey moved on with Holofcener’s first choice for her replacement, Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) in the chair. Indeed, Holofcener handed over a box of research and wished her old Sundance lab protege well. “If anyone is going to make this movie, I’m glad it’s you,” Heller remembered her saying. “It’s yours, go for it.”
It was a moment of generosity that sounds almost unthinkable in Hollywood, but it paid off. Adapted from the memoir of late celebrity-biographer-turned-forger Lee Israel, the movie wowed crowds in Telluride and Toronto. It boasts an enviable 86 Metascore, leading to Oscar talk — and much of that credit goes to Holofcener’s screenplay. At the heart of this hilariously sad film is the love story between two lonely New Yorkers who meet at a gay bar and can’t stop talking. It’s not a glossed-up studio biopic with rounded edges. It’s grounded by Israel’s clear voice, as well as one-time New Yorkers Heller and Melissa McCarthy.
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“The memoir had it all,” said Holofcener, who recently wrote and directed another book adaptation, “The Land of Steady Habits,” for Netflix. “We obviously made it more visual. It’s about a dead cranky alcoholic writer who has fallen on hard times and inadvertently realizes she has talent for mimicking other writers, and can make some money doing so. She’s not interested in the criminal act, just caring for her sick cat and paying rent and buying booze. It makes for a wonderful character, cranky and rude and funny and sad. Melissa’s great in it. Melissa would have been really fun. That was my choice. I knew Mari would do a good job.”
McCarthy gives such a transformative performance that’s it’s tough to imagine anyone else in the role. Her comedic instincts are there, but it’s a dramatic role, and she knows what to do with it.
When she revised the script, Heller turned it into a two-hander by leaning into the relationship between Israel — the antisocial, once-lauded biographer of Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder who is long past her sell-by date — and ex-con Jack (Richard E. Grant), a flamboyant gay hustler who will do and ingest anything and happily abets Lee’s heavy drinking and illegal literary impersonations.
“The Jack and Lee relationship for me was the heart of the story,” said Heller. “It felt so poignant for me. Lee is not glamorous. In New York, you have all these interesting people jammed up against each other. She’s a woman of a certain age who gets ignored by society, gets passed on the street, who never had kids, is living alone with a cat but has an interesting internal life happening.”
Heller wanted Grant to play Jack. “We all know characters like Jack, he’s unapologetic. You can’t live in New York without knowing men like this,” she said. “They know who exactly who they are, no shame, no fuss. I needed someone who was comfortable with that, who would go wild and have fun with it.”
As soon as he saw some costume picks, Grant got the idea. “How does this guy survive in New York wearing those clothes?” he asked. “But you go to Greenwich Village at any time of day, you see those people.”
Grant anxiously asked for his first meeting with McCarthy a few days before out-of-sequence shooting began. Heller scheduled a read-through of their scenes “in order to track the bigger friendship, the ways it builds and falls apart.”
“I was so excited that Richard was doing it, but I was also intimidated,” said McCarthy. “‘He’s going to come in and everything will be amazing. I hope I’m not tripping along behind him.'”
“Very quickly, I knew,” said Grant. “Like Malcolm Gladwell, you can make a decision about another human being in less than 15 seconds.”
Heller said the chemistry was immediate. “They got along so well even on the days Richard was not shooting, he’d come and have lunch with Melissa,” she said. “They were truly forming a friendship while making this movie. It meant all these scenes were layered and rich, because they had a real friendship happening underneath. Which makes it all the more painful when their friendship goes through trials.”
A former stage director, Heller shot scenes top-to-bottom, theater-style with long, long takes. That meant the actors had to be prepared. And McCarthy didn’t have to do what she’d done on films like “Bridesmaids” and “Spy,” where she was often asked to improvise and improve the material. “In the script, Lee has such a strong presence, in the best way,” McCarthy said, “There’s not a lot of wriggle room. The character dictates to me. I was aware at the beginning, ‘Don’t throw things in!’ I liked the freedom to bend to the text: ‘If I’m saying this, why?’ It was a great thing for me to not say what I’m thinking or feeling; I have to put it into this line.”
In the film, Israel channels late writers like Noel Coward so effectively that bookstores happily shell out hundreds for the carefully typed and signed forgeries, even when their provenance is less than clear. “Lee was this performer of sorts though her writing,” said McCarthy. “She took on other people completely; she wrote as all these amazing writers. She had to do that by stepping into who they are as a character. I did find it ironic to play Lee: She did the same thing I did, through her writing.”
Ultimately, what made Israel a good biographer also made her a good forger. “She was so talented at channeling other people, letting herself slip away,” said Heller. “She understood how people’s inner personalities worked without her own personality coloring that. Noel Coward is one of the wittiest people who ever lived. That she could do Noel Coward is remarkable. The scariest thing for her was to be herself.”
The most film’s entertaining scenes are when Lee and Jack go at it in all their boozy, bitchy glory. “There was a real freedom to speak in a way I’d never really speak to people,” said McCarthy. “It was incredibly cathartic, even as we would hand it to each other. For Lee to let her guard down enough to even joke around and give him a hard time, showed their friendship.”
When Grant showed the film to his 29-year-old daughter and her friends, “they were struck by how the movie deals with loneliness and depression and isolation,” said Grant. “It does so in a way that manages to be entertaining and heartfelt and you’re moved by it. It’s dealing with people who are failing in their lives.”
Finally the movie shows how friends can pull each other out of pits of disappointment and despair. “It was a love story between us,” said McCarthy. “You watch two desperately lonely people find each other. It’s such a moment of relief. Then to watch it be damaged as they damaged every other relationship in their life, was heartbreaking. They finally found it — they should be together!”
The movie is also a valentine to the analog New York of subways, bookstores, and venerable gay bars like Julius, where Israel spent many hours. “She was one of the only women who hung out at that bar,” said Heller. “We shot in places where she really sold her books. It felt like we were walking the haunted halls.” (Israel died in 2014.)
Since both Lee and Jack are gay, some have suggested the film should have been directed by a gay director. “I can’t imagine any person directing it other than Mari,” said McCarthy. “Being a storyteller, you don’t have to be the person you’re telling a story about, I don’t agree with that. Someone gay could have told it differently, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that a movie about karate be made by a karate master. Mari is an incredible filmmaker. I don’t think anyone could have done it better.”
“I understand wanting to tell your own stories,” said Heller. “It was a privilege to get to tell Lee’s story. But I didn’t think of it as a gay story, but a woman’s story. I felt related and connected to her. My beloved aunt in Florida was in my head a lot; she is the funniest person, and a lesbian; she’s not as dark as Lee. I get connected to these characters, they are part of my life, even if I am not them.”