DEAD LETTER DAY
Richard E. Grant enters a murky world of literary deceit in a new film, writes Philippa Hawker
For Richard E. Grant, his role in Can You Ever Forgive Me? started frantically but led to one of the best collaborations of his career. The part came out of the blue; he had 24 hours’ notice to read the script and say yes or no, and shooting began six weeks later. A few days before production started, he says, he still hadn’t met his co-star, Melissa McCarthy, also recently cast. He told the filmmakers: “We start shooting Monday, I won’t sleep for 72 hours if I’ve never met her or discussed anything at all. So we carved out half a day and had a meal together.”
He and McCarthy — with director Marielle Heller, also a recent addition to the team — “talked through the scenes and very tentatively read through them”, Grant says. “I immediately saw at what level she was pitching the part, and which helped me enormously. And fortunately — and it’s something you can never predict, it’s like going on a date or hoping to fall in love with somebody — in about three nanoseconds we fell in with each other.”
He and McCarthy clicked so well, he says, that there were many more meals together. “On the days when I wasn’t working, I came in and had lunch with her. And we had dinner. And we just formed a bond that was way beyond the characters we were playing in the work situation. That is something that has happened so rarely in my career and was a huge bonus.”
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on a memoir by Lee Israel, a biographer and journalist who turned from freelancer to forger when she fell on hard times in the early 1990s. She had written well-regarded lives of actress Tallulah Bankhead (1972) and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen (1980), but she was having trouble getting published, she was months behind in her rent and she couldn’t afford to take her beloved cat to the vet.
In desperation, she sold a treasured memento, a letter Katharine Hepburn had written to her. Then, when she had no more letters to sell, she decided to create them from scratch: she could write witty notes in the style of sought-after subjects. She manufactured and sold hundreds of letters.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? was the name of an unrepentant memoir she wrote in 2008. The title came from a fake letter from Dorothy Parker she concocted in which Parker supposedly fantasises about having cards printed with “can you ever forgive me?” engraved on them.
Israel was a loner, a cantankerous, solitary figure. Yet she did have a partner in crime, who is played by Grant: Jack Hock, an Englishman who had fallen on even harder times. He was her confidant and he helped her keep her scam going.
Grant felt a sense of responsibility towards a man of whom very little is known. In her book Israel deals very briefly with him; he died 24 years ago, Grant says, “abandoned by his family, when most of his friends had died of AIDS already”.
“He was no intellectual and he didn’t know who Fanny Brice was — which was astonishing for a gay man in 1991 — but the fact that he could go out there and schmooze people and con them, that was the main thing, I thought. He must have some determined charm about him. I knew he had this little cigarette holder. I knew he’d been in jail for two years; he’d held up a taxi driver at knifepoint after a disagreement about a fare.”
Costume designer Arjun Bhasin came up with outfits that helped him discover the louche, down-at-heel swagger of Jack. “He was brilliant, he got me all those New Romantic, Spandau Ballet-esque clothes that were obviously from the early 1980s. On a man of advanced years, in a threadbare state, 10 years past their sell-by date, they immediately gave me a real idea of how flamboyant this person could be. That plus the cigarette holder that I asked the props department for.”
The two characters are a study in contrasts, Grant says. “She’s a prickly porcupine, difficult, private, you never get close to her; he’s almost labrador-like. He will go up and lick anyone into submission if he possibly can either get food off them, a drink, a cuddle, a shag, steal, whatever.
“He brings out in her the possibility of having a good time and having a laugh,” Grant says. Indeed, it is almost as if Hock’s insouciance, his carefree hustle, could have provided subliminal encouragement to Israel to take her own step into fraud and confidence trickery. It seems possible, Grant says, that Hock could have nudged her along, unconsciously, by example: it’s easy to imagine how this could happen “if you’re given the confidence of somebody who’s not making a moral judgment and is joining in with the scam of it”.
Heller, with director of photography Brandon Trost, shot on location, in bookshops and bars and places where Israel and Hock would have hung out. “There were no sets in this movie,” Grant says. “And if you’re in actual bookshops that look and smell and feel like bookshops — there are a few left, and some of them have closed since we did the movie — if you’re in the places where these people operated, you feel that you are, as authentically as possible, walking in the footsteps of.”
Their first meeting is shot in the Julius Bar, one of the original gay bars of Manhattan. “There was a man hanging around the Julius Bar one day, an elderly guy,” Grant recalls. “He said to Melissa, ‘I was a great friend of Lee, and my seat was on the left-hand side of her at the bar where you’re sitting.’ And she said, ‘How am I doing, do you think Lee would be happy with how I look and how I’m portraying her?’ And he said, ‘Well, happy wasn’t really Lee’s thing.’ But he also said, ‘It was kind of like seeing the ghost of her being there.’ ”
There are betrayals of various kinds in the film but also a sense that Israel, who died in 2014, had discovered a strange kind of calling. “When I was trying to think about what it was that she was doing,” Grant says, he decided that it was “a fantastic kind of literary ventriloquism. And the writers are dead, their reputations are intact: if anything she’s a kind of enhancer of them.”
He is not alone in this opinion. “Do you know Judge Judy on American TV?” he asks. “This tiny woman, she’s a force of nature, and she was at the premiere in New York, and I said to her, as you do, given the opportunity, ‘Judge Judy, what would you do if Lee Israel was in your court?’ And she said, ‘I’d let her off with a light fine.’
“She said, ‘She didn’t hurt anyone, no one got killed, and this world of autographs and how authentic letters of famous people are, you’re dealing with a grey, dubious area in the first place. I kind of admired the fact that here was this woman who outsmarted people who themselves might be trying to outsmart other people.’ ” opens on December 6.
Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel with Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock