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.


  1. Saw this film last night and loved it. Great, honest review. Thanks.

  2. My pleasure, Lynn. Thanks for reading -- and commenting. Do visit Movieland again soon!