If you enjoyed recent Melissa McCarthy-starring Oscar-contender Can You Ever Forgive Me?, should you listen to the audiobook of the memoir that inspired it? In a word: yes. Here’s why:
You may be initially surprised the book wasn’t read by Melissa McCarthy. After all, you came to associate her so totally with Lee from the movie. At the same time, Curtain plays something of a villain in the film – the voice of an unfeeling literary establishment that droves Lee to a life of crime. So she’s not who you expected to step into the lead role of the voice of Lee Israel. However, Curtain’s performance is rich and nuanced. You’ll easily come to appreciate her embodiment of Lee’s smart, witty voice. What’s more, the seasoned actress brings a unique lilt to each of the celebrity characters when reading their letters (both real and the ones Lee forged).
Now, I don’t mind a long audiobook. The Help – at an extensive 18 hours and 16 minutes – is one of my all-time favorites. That said, we live in a busy world, and if you don’t have a lot of time, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an efficient two hours and 40 minutes (144 pages in print). It’s less than an hour longer than the film! Compare that to Call Me By Your Name. At seven hours and 43 minutes, it’s about 5.5 hours longer than its film. And Boy Erased, at nine hours and 23 minutes, is nearly 7.5 hours longer than its adaptation.
When we join the cinematic world of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Lee is quickly set-up as a has-been. It’s a good motivator for her life of crime, but the book gives you a nice uphill climb before her career takes the plunge.
First, there’s Lee’s big success Miss Tallulah Bankhead. In her words, “The book had respectable sales and attracted many admirers – especially in the gay community. By which I mean gay men,” she explains. “Lesbians don’t seem to harbor the sensibility with the same attention to detail as the gays, who I suspect are born with the Great American Songbook clinging to the walls of their Y chromosomes.”
Lee’s second book, a biography of journalist and game-show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen, was a New York Times Best Seller. And Lee makes the point that she made the same amount she would have working in corporate middle management for the same amount of time she spent writing it. Considering she’s not a great fit for the corporate world anyway, it seems like a smart occupation choice.
Then follows the bit of intrigue which leads to her downfall. A publisher commissions Lee to write an unauthorized biography of Estee Lauder. Accordingly, Lauder herself reaches out to Lee with a counter-offer to write a similar book – but with the cosmetics mogul’s seal of approval. Initially, Lee thinks she’s being scrupulous turning Lauder down. But when her Lauder bio flops anyway, Lee ultimately reasons that, she made a big mistake saying no to a woman “as rich as Oprah.”More Content from Metrosource
We’ve all seen films where the gay and lesbian content is toned way back – especially ones intended for general audiences. That seems to be the opposite of the case here. In the book, sex and romance seem to be beside the point for Lee. She mentions a romance with a lapsed Catholic “lady bartender”. And she also recalls a former lover who, like one of her cats, was “from a large litter”. But we get none of the film’s tender romantic overtures toward the beautiful rare book dealer or the reckoning with her ex. Nor do we get Jack’s tryst with handsome young Kurt. (Instead, we get descriptions of the beatings he’s received from not paying street hustlers.) My point here is not to say that the book isn’t queer enough. But it’s nice to think someone in Hollywood said, “Can we make this even more gay?” for a change.
“Process” stories: they’re what keep you coming back to your favorite cop, legal and medical dramas every week. You’ve got to know how they catch the killer, defend the accused, cure the patient. Though the film gives you some of Lee’s forgery details, the book goes into fascinating detail.
Lee develops an elaborate backstory involving an eccentric uncle to share with prying dealers. She keeps careful notes of the kind of forged content that will fetch her better prices. The research she does to make sure her forgeries are accurate ranges from the academic (mixing in content and phrases from actual letters) to the physical (suitably old paper, typewriters, even using her TV as a light box to help forge signatures. You really come to see how Lee’s career as a biographer helped her note writers’ linguistic quirks, senses of humor and relationship to historic events. You also see exactly how she makes the mistake that leads to her downfall. She based “Noel Coward’s” brazen comments about sexuality on his attitude in diaries published posthumously rather than actual correspondence.
Rather than running into one another at a bar, Lee initially gets to know her partner in crime as part of the Estee Lauder caper. (He acts as a go-between when Lauder’s people are trying to sway Lee to her side.) You’ll also learn that real Jack likely did not have Richard E. Grant’s delightful accent. Lee describes him as coming from “Pennsylvania Dutch” folk.
However, she also includes other colorful details that resonate in the film: that he’d rather be flat broke than poorly dressed, that, due to his dimness, someone once referred to him as her intellectually-disabled younger brother. (Note: she uses a far less polite word than intellectually-disabled) Jack’s AIDS is also more prominent in the book. At one point, Lee has to take him to the emergency room with a boiling fever. Nor do they get a happy ending reunion. The last time she sees him, she considers tripping him, even though he’s got a broken leg. And she’s relatively sure that the last time they spoke on the telephone, she was not sure he didn’t recognize her. But she touchingly notes that she’s glad he has the care of GMHC as he died.
Though it’s easy to see why the filmmakers made Julius the film’s central bar. Lee calls out Manhattan’s oldest continually-operating gay bar by name as her favorite west village bar. But other well-known Manhattan nightspots also make appearances (and perhaps inspired the film’s wonderful visit with Mx. Justin Vivian Bond. Iconic piano bars Uncle Charlie’s and 88’s also get a shout out.
With all due respect, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (the film) at times makes for some rough watching. Lee is, to put it bluntly, not a very happy person. So audiences spend a lot of time watching McCarthy suffer in her shoes. But when something bad happens in the book, Lee (the author) almost inevitably describes it in the most amusing way possible.
For example, when she’s going broke, Lee goes through a series of terrible jobs. She spends four interminable days working for an unnamed “rich lady”. And she suffers through some time working graveyard shifts as a legal proofreader. But she describes these experiences blithely, pointing out their Catch-22-like absurdities rather than accentuating how miserable they made her. In addition, some of the films funniest moments are drawn directly from the book’s funniest passages – particularly Lee’s penchant for getting drunk and making prank phone calls. She even receives a cease and desist letter from Nora Ephron after serially calling people and pretending to be her!
This is probably the best way in which the book gives you more. The film delivers key snippets to give you a sense of the work Lee is turning out as a forger. But significantly more (perhaps even the majority) of the book shows off the considerable talents of these literary celebrities. Lee gives them all credit for their fabulous personalities and turns of phrase. Thus we get Dorothy Parker complaining of a “hangover out of faust.” Lee characterizes Edna Ferber as a “low-key dominatrix” and in the same breath calls Louise Parker both “a fabulous creature” and “bitter as a root.”
Like an artist working with found materials, Lee mixes some of the artists best words with her own wit. Thus we get Noel Coward calling Marlene Dietrich both “a silly old Kraut” and “one of the most attractive women on the face of the Earth.” The list of literary greats goes on and on: George S. Kaufman, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman. At one point, Lee begins to imagine what the authors might have had to say to her; they chide and mock. One can almost imagine a very different movie being made of the book. Lee Israel being followed around Manhattan by the ghosts of those whose words she forged. I’m not saying it would have been a better movie, but it might have been (to channel one of Lee’s muses) a real kick in the head.
More than anything else, Can You Ever Forgive Me? helps answer the question, “Why?” Why did Lee need to turn to crime? Why was she such a convincing forger? Why did she end up getting caught? Certainly, the film begins to address these questions. However, the book offers so much more. But if you enjoyed the film and are considering expanding your experience with the audiobook, the most important “Why?” of all is: “Why not?”
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