Friday, November 16, 2018

Save the Cat: A Movie Tracks Lee Israel’s Move from Biography to Literary Forgery

In the fascinating Can You Ever Forgive Me?, based on Lee Israel’s own 2008 memoir, Lee is a once-successful biographer who has hit the skids. As played by a loud-mouthed but still somehow lovable Melissa McCarthy, she’s profane and alcoholic, bitter that her proposed biography of comedienne Fanny Brice remains unsold and that she’s reduced to a boring copy-editor job from which she’s quickly fired. Desperate for cash to take her ailing cat to the vet (she is quick to insist that she much prefers cats to people), she removes from her wall a framed thank-you note from Katharine Hepburn, a souvenir of the Hepburn profile she’d written years ago for a major magazine.

There is, it turns out, a real market for letters written by famous folk, a reflection of the fact that workaday citizens like to bask in the glow of their glamorous betters. When Lee happens to find, steal, and sell an actual piece of Fanny Brice correspondence, she comes to realize that the asking price will be far higher if the letter is marked by some characteristic wit. And so a master forger is born. Using a raft of vintage typewriters cadged from thrift shops, she discovers in herself an ability to impersonate on paper such celebrated humorists as Brice, Noel Coward, and Dorothy Parker. She proudly boasts to her one (sometime) friend: “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.”

As a biographer myself, as well as a colleague of many talented members of Biographers International Organization, I understand a little something about the way biography works. You comb through the archives, gathering every scrap you can find about the true nature of your subject. Then, typically, you efface your own personality in order to present, as vividly as possible, your subject to your readers. In her prime, Lee Israel was apparently good at drawing readers in: her 1980 biography of popular media figure Dorothy Kilgallen appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.  And the field of biography seemed to suit her psyche as well as her talents: the film makes clear that, for all her outsized personality, she had a longtime reluctance to give people a glimpse of her own walled-off inner self.

While a master at role-playing on paper, Lee was never up to playing the part of the writer as public figure. Since I’m newly back from touring with my latest book, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson, I’m well aware that it’s useful for authors to know how to schmooze with their public. In the film, Lee sneers at the very successful Tom Clancy, who plays his authorial role to the hilt at cocktail parties and everywhere else. For this she’s scolded by her exasperated agent (a caustic Jane Curtin) who reminds her of the realities of the fame game: “Either become a nicer person or make a name for yourself. As an unknown you can’t be such a bitch.”

The funny thing is that Lee thrives on her forgeries, even after she is caught. To a stern-faced judge she blurts out, “In many ways this has been the best time of my life.” The wild and woolly experience apparently freed the real-life Lee to finally take on herself as a subject. It is her slim, cheeky memoir, not her self-effacing biographies, that literary enthusiasts now remember. In the film, a star-struck bookseller who’s a fan of her biographical works enthuses that in her writing Lee Israel will be able to live on after her death. Just so. Even if her best writing is done in someone else’s name.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Saluting the Very Super Stan Lee

It’s a sad day in the Marvel Universe. Spiderman is sobbing and the Hulk has tears running down his bright-green cheeks. Almost exactly nine months after the triumphant screen debut of his Black Panther character as a leading man, the great Stan Lee is no more. He passed away on November 12 at the ripe old age of 95.  I met Lee briefly while working on the infamous 1994 Roger Corman version of Fantastic Four. I can’t remember much except for Lee’s insistence that we remain faithful to his characters in every detail. (He seemed less concerned about the fact that, on Corman’s typically tight-fisted budgets, we couldn’t possibly come up with special effects to do justice to his characters’ complex superpowers.)

Though I never really knew Stan Lee, my former colleague Craig Nevius had the pleasure of considering him a mentor and a friend. Craig was one of the many eager young writers in the Corman stable. He wrote quickly and imaginatively, and had a special talent for wide-eyed phantasmagoria. (I well remember how he brought life to a script called Stepmonster, in which a nice young kid concludes that his dad’s new wife is a dangerous Tropopkin.) Fittingly, Craig—a longtime lover of superheroes—was assigned to turn the Fantastic Four comic books into a viable screenplay that could be shot fast and cheap.

Marvel fans know what happened next. Cast and crew turned the Corman Fantastic Four into a labor of love, only to be stymied when—just before the scheduled charity premiere—the film was sold and shelved, to make way for Fox Studios’ big-budget version released over a decade later. Craig Nevius, like everyone connected with the Corman film, was bitterly disappointed, but he managed to salvage a warm relationship with Lee. In 2001, years after the Fantastic Four debacle, the two met for lunch to discuss Craig’s idea for a cinematic version of Lee’s own life. Here’s how Craig has described the project: “A shy Jewish boy from NYC who didn't see the world as it was but rather saw it as it SHOULD be, with bright colors and heroes. Of course the story ultimately would become his creation of Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man and Marvel Comics. And his fight against censorship when comics were considered by certain advocacy groups to be ‘corrupting.’” Craig planned to call it SECRET IDENTITY: THE REAL AND NOT-SO-REAL LIVES OF STAN LEE.

When Craig finished spelling out his concept, Lee exclaimed, “Wow! I'm impressed! With me! I didn't know my life was so interesting!” But then, totally deadpan, “I want to make sure that we're on the same page in terms of casting. Obviously, Brad Pitt should play me." Craig responded in kind: “Stan, I'm sorry but I disagree. Brad Pitt is nowhere near good looking enough to play you!" They parted on friendly terms; the project was sold, but (like so much in Hollywood) was never made.

The later years of Stan Lee’s life weren’t pretty. Especially after the death of his wife of sixty-nine years in 2017, there were power struggles around him, as well as accusations of elder abuse. It’s pitiful to think of this ebullient man, the hit of so many comic book conventions, being isolated from fans and friends: Craig Nevius lost touch with him when an email bounced back, amid rumors that someone else was now controlling his social media accounts. Sad to say, even superheroes lose their powers over time.

But let’s remember all he accomplished. As Stan Lee would say, Excelsior