It’s no accident that in the big-screen adaptation of writer Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which chronicles her crimes forging literary letters by prominent writers, that Lee and her co-conspirator Jack Hock meet and form an unlikely friendship in Julius Bar, Manhattan’s famed gay watering hole. Their partnership, and the crimes they deliciously commit scamming collectors with phony missives from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Fanny Brice, can’t be extricated from the grimy, HIV-decimated New York of 1990.
The Odd Couple, Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid — those are the film references the acclaimed British actor Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I, Gosford Park), who plays the brash, irreverent Jack, uses to describe his abiding, complicated relationship with Melissa McCarthy’s curmudgeonly Lee, the biographer who chronicled the lives of Estée Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead.
“Think of complete opposites ending up being friends in the most unlikely circumstances and you understand how and why they become friends," Grant, 61, tells The Advocate. "It also goes through the A-Z of friendship. It begins with the flirtation/honeymoon period then it goes to loyalty, inevitable betrayal, and finally, a begrudging reconciliation. And that’s certainly been, in my experience, some friendships.”
Both down on their luck circa the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, with interest in Lee’s work having waned and Jack ostensibly homeless — although still fabulously clad like a dandy — Jack approaches Lee while they’re both numbing their loneliness by tossing back high balls at Julius Bar.
From there, Jack, a gay man, and Lee, a lesbian and misanthrope who favors the company of her cat, make a profound connection when he becomes the one person who’ll help her clean up her fly-infested, cat feces-ridden apartment. Soon, Lee, on the verge of utter financial ruin, shares with Jack that she’s begun supporting herself by forging literary letters from famous 20th-century writers, including Ernest Hemingway and Noël Coward. Lee begins selling the juicy letters she’s created on her vintage Remington and Royal typewriters for paltry sums that fly under the radar. As she increases her price and the scam becomes more dangerous, she enlists Jack, happy to be in on the ruse, to help foist the phony letters on to unsuspecting collectors at bookshops throughout Manhattan.
While Grant likens Jack and Lee to several famous male film duos, he also perceives the period drama as a different kind of genre film.
“It’s a road movie without a road,” Grant says. “It goes through the bars, restaurants, and bookshops of Manhattan circa 1990.”
Directed by Diary of a Teenage Girl helmer Marielle Heller, with a script from Nicole Holofcener (Please Give, Lovely and Amazing, Friends With Money) and Jeff Whitty (the gay playwright behind Avenue Q), the film is shot entirely on location. It depicts the grit of New York City decades before Time Square got a glitzy makeover and the scrubbed High Line brought scads of tourists to the west side, where once, the devastation of HIV/AIDS was visible on the streets.
Jack, who would eventually die from AIDS-related complications in 1994, flippantly informs Lee early on in their friendship, “I haven’t got any friends, they’re all dead.” Grant credits Heller with recreating an era in the city that’s long gone and often forgotten.
“There were no sets constructed in this movie. When you go to the actual places where these people actually were — the same chairs, the same bar, the same books. That gives it an inescapable authenticity,” Grant says. “No set is going to replicate that in the same way. The fact that Julius Bar is the oldest gay bar in Manhattan, that gives it history and veracity.”
A prestige actor who’s starred in films including Henry and June (1990) and The Player (1992) and recent TV shows like Downton Abbey and Girls, Grant says he modeled his Jack to some degree on his friend, the actor Ian Charleson (Chariots of Fire), who died of AIDS-related complications at the height of the epidemic.
“He had an innate, boyish likability and quality alongside an incredibly louche, decadent side to his life,” Grant says. “And marrying those two things, I thought, this is who Jack is.”
Grant, whose career really kickstarted circa 1990, says that visiting Manhattan at that time essentially haunts his memories of it. He recalls the streetscape when he met up with his Hudson Hawk costar Sandra Bernhard at her place in the Meatpacking District (where the High Line now cuts through) in 1991.
“It made an indelible, unforgettable impression on me seeing, in Manhattan, as rich as America is, on street corners, and it wasn’t just one street corner… There were emaciated, dying young men holding placards saying, 'I have AIDS. I am dying. I have no family, I’ve been disowned, I’ve had no medicare. Please help me.'” Grant recalls. “It was devastating to see that.”
Can You Ever Forgive Me? hearkens to that all-too grim era while also touching on themes of homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health. But it also offers hope and joy in the bond that Jack and Lee form — the notion that otherwise, lonely and forgotten people can find solace in one another. And as much as Jack becomes an accomplice in Lee’s elevated literary racket, it’s hard not to root for them to get away with it and even thrive — even as Lee goes so far as to go on a dinner date with a woman (Dolly Wells) she’s scammed.
Although Grant says he’s had a copy of Israel’s Bankhead biography on his bookshelf for ages, he says he hadn’t made the connection that she was the same writer whose crimes of having “out Dorothy Parkered Dorothy Parker,” as Lee says in the film, garnered her six months of house arrest and five years of federal probation. Still, he says that he and McCarthy felt a responsibility to honor the real Lee and Jack and their rocky friendship.
“We felt an enormous affection and feeling that you were honoring and being the custodian of these two people whose lives were on the periphery and on the fringe," Grant says.
The film, peppered with sardonic repartee courtesy of both Jack and Lee, essentially tells the story of her Herculean literary crime, but at its heart, it’s a platonic love story between a gay man and a lesbian at a time when so many queer women answered the call to help their gay brothers.
“When you’re not married to somebody or you're not blood-related, the contract of friendship is this invisible trust that you have with another human being,” Grant says. “That’s what the movie charts so well.”