Though her career as a writer spanned celebrated profiles of Katharine Hepburn and Dorothy Kilgallen to exhaustive biographies about Estée Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead, a search of Lee Israel’s name on Wikipedia produces a succinctly brutal descriptor: “American forger.”
It’s not that it’s inaccurate — Israel forged and sold hundreds of fake letters written by deceased writers including Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward — as much as it is comically dismissive of her accomplishments as an artist of both crime and the written word. And the layered, oft-overlooked woman behind the delinquency is exactly the kind of complicated character The Diary of a Teenage Girl filmmaker Marielle Heller wanted to explore in her sophomore directorial effort Can You Ever Forgive Me? — the first trailer for which EW can exclusively reveal above.
“I don’t think she would’ve hated that so much,” Heller tells EW of Israel’s tarnished reputation, which the late writer recounted in her memoir of the same name that serves as the foundation for film adaptation starring Melissa McCarthy. “She took a lot of pride in the forgeries that she did, and in many ways saw them as some of her greatest work.”
Heller takes similar pride in the story she’s crafted around a specific period in Israel’s life, which picks up in 1991, when the fading, 50-year-old magazine scribe and biography author fell “out of favor with her editor, out of step with the times, can’t really pay her rent, has a bit of an alcohol problem, has a sick cat who has vet bills piling up, and finds herself needing to do something quick in order to make enough money to survive.” Thus, Israel dug herself out of a financial rut by channeling the voices of esteemed wordsmiths, penning documents in their name, and hawking them as literary artifacts.
While Heller and McCarthy diligently researched Israel’s life as a means to bring a raw truthfulness to the film’s emotional core, just don’t call their resulting work a biopic.
“There are pitfalls to biopics that are hard to get away from,” Heller explains. “There’s an expectation that you’re doing a certain amount of journalistic storytelling that’s going to give an exact play-by-play showing someone’s entire life from cradle to grave. This does none of that.”
Instead, Heller and her largely female band of collaborators (Anne Carey and Amy Nauiokas co-produce, while Nicole Holofcener penned the script with Jeff Whitty) sought to peel back Lee’s layers in a “character piece” that deals with an atypical woman mainstream audiences are used to seeing, but not knowing. In part, Heller thinks that’s also why Israel was able to get away with her forgeries for so long. “People didn’t really give her much thought,” she observes. “[She was] a middle-aged woman who you’d probably pass on the street and not really give a second thought.”
That’s a theme Heller previously explored in her 2015 Sundance breakout The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which followed a 15-year-old (Bel Powley) exploring her sexuality in 1976 San Francisco. Heller feels that both films compliment each other in different ways in that they both deal with “radical” representations of femininity at a time when society deemed their voices inferior.
“I like telling stories about women who would otherwise be [ignored],” says Heller. “[Lee] wishes…. that she could have been a part of this great intellectual roundtable of people back in the day, but she finds herself living in the ‘90s where that culture is kind of dying and people don’t think writing books about Fanny Brice is interesting anymore…. we tried to tap into the essence of this woman who was very specific in her idiosyncrasies.”
She also notes her subject’s illegal exploits also might have opened a window into Israel’s soul.
“This happens to be the only period of time in her life that she wrote about herself,” Heller says. “The deeper I got into the research, the more I couldn’t deny that she was incredibly artistic. There was artistry to what she was doing…. Her forgeries were so exquisite that they slipped through every possible test. It really was a skill beyond just a criminal activity. She was an incredible writer [doing] things nobody else has ever been able to do.”
There’s truth in jest, after all.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, also starring Jane Curtin, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, and Anna Deavere Smith, is set for release on Oct. 19 via Fox Searchlight. Watch EW’s exclusive trailer for the film above.