Melissa McCarthy has made a career out of persuading audiences to root for unlikely heroes. Whether she’s a hapless woman who desperately wants her crack at being a spy or a cunning businesswoman using an independent troop of Girl Scouts as her newest money-making scam, by the end, we’re always on her side. And now McCarthy will put that ineffable charm to use once more in a new film about Lee Israel, a writer who turned to forgery and outright theft to save her languishing career.
For decades, Israel made a successful living by writing profiles and biographies of famous women including Dorothy Kilgallen, Estée Lauder, Katharine Hepburn, and Tallulah Bankhead. But when business slowed down, she turned to forgery, fabricating and selling letters purportedly written by celebrities. Of all her writing, Israel said in her memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the forged letters were her “best work.” The upcoming movie, which was written by Nicole Holofcener and will be directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), is based on that memoir, Variety reports.
According to The New York Times, Israel managed to write around 400 letters in the span of a year and a half. She sold them cheaply—$50 to $100 each—to stay under the radar. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one who thought her work was good: two of her forgeries made it into a book of Noël Coward’s letters, theTimes reports, and a retired F.B.I. agent even called Israel “brilliant.” But eventually, people started to talk and suspicion grew—so Israel started stealing letters from archives instead, making copies of them in her apartment, exchanging them for the real letters, and smuggling the originals out in her shoe. She was caught when one New York dealer realized he’d purchased a letter that was actually owned by Columbia University.
Julianne Moore was initially set to star as Israel before backing out of the film because of creative differences. Both women have repeatedly proven their comedy chops, which will come in handy in a story like this. Here’s hoping the movie includes a re-enactment of one time Israel almost got caught—when she tried to leave with a letter concealed in a pile of papers, then was stopped by a library staffer. As she recalls in her memoir:
As I stood in front of her, I went into high alert, calling on the oldest area of my brain—the part that worked overtime on the savannah, evading predation by camouflage. I turned myself into ZaSu Pitts, a nervous dervish, arms flapping, stuttering nonsense, and then spinning back to the seat from which I had come. “Oh, goodness,” I dithered. “I forgot to copy the dates on the letters I read. I‘d forget my head if it wasn‘t attached. What a dope I am!” And I slapped my face hard—moving from ZaSu Pitts to the more challenged of the Three Stooges.”