DEAD LET­TER DAY

Richard E. Grant en­ters a murky world of lit­er­ary de­ceit in a new film, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Can You Ever For­give Me?

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

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