In her new film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Melissa McCarthy, 48, portrays Lee Israel, a celebrity biographer who turned to crime when her writing career faltered in the 1990s.
The real-life story is darkly riveting and McCarthy said she jumped at the chance to take on the role.
“I found her fascinating,” says McCarthy.
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Lee was a successful New York writer who profiled the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estée Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. But after her book on Lauder wasn’t well received, her career began to fizzle which was also in part due to her prickly personality.
Her friend David Yarnell told the New York Times in 2015, “She drank an awful lot — she was an alcoholic. And she was very feisty, and people did not want to work with her.”
Yet, McCarthy was able to see another side to Israel. “I know people describe her as difficult but I truly love Lee,” says McCarthy. “My favorite people are the ones that just walk to their own beat.”
When Lee found herself desperately needing money to pay for rent and medicine for her sick cat, she decided to swipe letters written by comic Fanny Brice from a library and sell them.
After being told that dealers would pay more money for letters with better content, she decided to embellish the existing correspondences to get a higher price. It worked!
Using antique typewriters she forged more than 400 letters over about a year and a half until she was nabbed by the FBI. She served six months of house arrest and five years of probation for her crime but never regretted mimicking icons such as Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward.
Israel, who died in 2015 at age 75, wrote in her 2008 memoir of her crime spree: “I still consider the letters to be my best work.”
“I love a story that makes you think, ‘What would I do?’ says McCarthy who also hopes after seeing the film, audiences will recognize that the world is filled with eccentrics whom we often pass by without noticing.
“People have slightly become white noise to each other,” says McCarthy. “I would love to think that after seeing this movie, people will pick their heads up and look at each other a little bit differently. You never know whose story is amazing.”