Melissa McCarthy does not see a lot of herself in Lee Israel, the real-life author and notorious forger she plays in Can You Ever Forgive Me? While both women can have an acerbic wit, an immediate appreciation for talent (including their own), and a love for a New York City that no longer really exists, the chance to transition to a juicy dramatic role also required McCarthy to assume a character who’s ill-fitting clothes McCarthy describes as “cashmere and tweed armor.” It was the opportunity to get inside the head of someone who for all her talent as a woman of words is best remembered for a scheme that involved forging the voices of beloved early 20th century writers and celebrities in fabricated documents.
“The inward quality of Lee was fascinating, and fascinating to play,” Melissa McCarthy says on a cloudy autumn morning in a Manhattan that the backward-looking Lee Israel might not recognize. “Instead of always verbally responding, Lee would probably just sit and watch, and wait—to just wait someone out, because verbally she certainly always could come up with a line and a quip, and often did. But it was interesting to change that pacing and timing, and to just direct that inwards.”
Indeed, this internalized gaze has earned McCarthy rave notices out of the Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals. In the film, the actor primarily known for comedy is allowed to be devastatingly funny, yet also something more: She embodies a sense of tragedy that is too proud to beg for her audience’s sympathy. In the picture, McCarthy becomes Israel at the height of her desperation, and thus on the eve of her invention. In spite of being a well-regarded biographer and magazine journalist in the Manhattan literary circle since the 1960s, 1992 finds Lee’s career in decline. The talent is still there, yet the film crystallizes her drama in a wicked sequence in which Lee reluctantly attends a professional party where she’s downing two drinks at a time while everyone else is hanging on the words of alleged literary genius, Tom Clancy.
It’s in this context, where the bills for her apartment and cat are piling up, and her literary agent won’t return her calls, that she stumbles upon the realization that she can sell her personal collection of letters from beloved talents like Dorothy Parker or Fanny Brice—and make them more worthwhile with a little punch-up. In Lee’s own words, she was becoming a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.
Says McCarthy, “I think it’s a very current issue, and it’s a constant issue for some. Lee was an incredible writer, that’s what she did; it was the only thing she did. And to suddenly be told that you were no longer valid, that you’ve come to a certain age, and you’ve become obsolete? Her writing was still good, but she was a woman of a certain age, and I just think, ‘What do you do?’ She wasn’t adaptable, she had no flexibility to go out and just get a different job, go on an interview and charm someone. That was not going to happen.”
It taps into a larger issue that McCarthy also finds increasingly odd. “Instead of being revered and thought of as ‘Oh my gosh, they have 30 years of experience, how amazing,’ it’s now kind of, ‘Well, what about that 20-year-old or what about the person with more fun at the party?’ … It’s a strange thing that more experienced has become outdated.”
McCarthy can also relate to it in her own way. The line between talent and a certain type of business acumen and socializing is stark, but it nevertheless does blur, which is something McCarthy saw in her own life when she arrived to New York City in the 1990s. Having left a farm life in Illinois—one with as many as 25 to 30 cats running around outside at one time—McCarthy almost sheepishly marvels that the first time she stepped foot in the city was when she moved here at age 20 with only $35 in her pocket.
“I mean, thank God it was based on no good thinking,” McCarthy laughs now. “I just showed up, and I thought, ‘This should be easy.’” While it didn’t quite play out that quixotically, she looks back at living in the same New York recreated in Can You Ever Forgive Me? as a serendipitous experience. She might be sharing a studio apartment with two pals, and splitting a single bagel a day, but she had a Manhattan address!
Nonetheless, the conflict between talent and networking hit McCarthy in a major way during those early years as an actress struggling from play to play. “When I came to New York, I just didn’t know how to do the business side of it, which I was not upset [by],” McCarthy say, “I just focused on the work.” Still, when searching for representation in her early 20s, and only being a size 6 in terms of dress, she faced a similar cynicism to what Lee endures in the movie.
“I do remember I finally met with a manager and I was so excited, and I met with her in her studio apartment, and I do remember her saying, ‘You’re never going to work. You have to lose weight,’” McCarthy recalls. “I was like a little thing, and somehow in me I was like, ‘Well, that seems crazy. That seems nuts’ … I was like, ‘I think you’re working out of your studio! Maybe you’re not the most business savvy either?’”
Recounting this now, McCarthy acts still genuinely surprised that her younger self could say that. “It was probably a fluke, but I remember just leaving there and thinking I’m not going to come back and sit in your red room and talk about why I’m not going to to work, so see you later.”
It is also the reason McCarthy didn’t search for representation for a long time after that, yet in the meantime she lived in the New York she loved from 1990 to 1997, a version of the city that the actress misses for all its decrepit charm, as well as it being a time where neighborhood bookstores were as easy to find as the legion of banks and Starbucks that have consumed the city today.
“I take maybe unreasonable ownership of those ‘90s,” McCarthy says. “That dark era of New York is my era… I came from a little farm town, so the grit and the people working four jobs because they wanted something, and all of us, we lived three in a studio, but we had a Manhattan apartment, we did it! And it all seemed magical, like going through Alphabet City and being like, ‘There’s a party on [Avenue] B, do we risk it? Yes!’ Now it’s like $2 million studios, and I’m like, ‘What?’ I don’t understand the current New York.” And it is for that reason she was so impressed that her Can You Ever Forgive Me? director, Marielle Heller, who was a child living in California for most of the ‘90s, was able to recreate that time and place.
Says McCarthy, “I got pretty overwhelmed a couple of times, because I just thought I never would get to have that back. That New York is gone. So Marielle… knowing what it was and getting that feel right? I said for someone who wasn’t here then, you found this one sliver that when I look around, I can’t see anything past ’94.” In this vein, the bookstores in Can You Ever Forgive Me? are crucial to the film. They’re first where, from the Village to the Upper West Side, Lee is rejected from selling her wares, even though they have her older biographies on the shelves. And then they’re also where she goes on to make a killing by moving fake letters from a time and place she in turn romanticizes. For her, the golden age was when New Yorkers “cared about the written word.”
“These bookstores were vanishing as [Heller] scouted,” McCarthy says. “As she scouted, she’d get calls of ‘we do want to shoot here,’ and they’re like, ‘We’re closing in three weeks.’ I mean they were dropping out. She said it was like the floor was dropping out from under her.”
Yet they will live on a little longer, at least in this film, which recalls the world of Lee Israel, and offers McCarthy the chance to play more than the familiar, if lovable, potty mouth.
“I loved how she did not require anyone to tell her what she was,” McCarthy says of her protagonist. “I think we’re in a current state where people really need other people to validate who they are. How was my vacation? Do you like me if I went to this party? They need the reflection of others to see themselves, and I don’t think like that. And I love that Lee just didn’t need it; she was just going to be who she was going to be, even when it made it much more difficult for her. And I found this a really attractive quality, even when it’s slightly unpleasant, I still admire it.”
Can You Ever Forgive Me? begins its rollout into theaters on Friday, Oct. 19.
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