Can You Ever Forgive Me is just about as truthful as any movie biopic can be.
That’s according to its star Richard E Grant, who also insisted that’s the case because its producers David Yarnell and Anne Carey both spent a decade trying to convince Lee Israel to write her memoir so that they could then make a movie out of it.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Grant recently told me over the phone. “Because her memoir was about such a specific time in her life and the memoir is only 124 pages and the script was just 105.”
“Obviously there is some concertina and an amalgamation of things have happened. But the producers, David Yarnell and Anne Carey, both knew Lee and took 10 years to try and convince her to write the book, and told her they wanted to make a movie of it.”
“They both knew her really well, so being informed by people that really knew her and really liked her despite her curmudgeonly prickliness.”
“And shooting in the real book shops, no sets, shooting in the oldest gay bar in Manhattan, and sitting on the stool where she always used to sit with her walkman.”
“Short of making a documentary about somebody, it felt as authentically real to the spirit of what the book was, and being informed by the producers who knew her. They think she would have approved completely of what they have made of the movie.”
But although Grant insists that “Can You Ever Forgive Me” is more truth than fiction, he opened up about the issues he faced in preparing to play Jack Hock, Israel’s partner in crime when it came to forging and selling letters written by literary geniuses like Noel Coward and Fanny Brice.
“I went on YouTube and Wikipedia to try and find photos and videos of him. But none existed.”
“And all of his friends died of Aids and it was a pre-social media age where those people had been disenfranchised and abandoned by their families. It was such a different age back then, although it was basically a blink away.”
“Lee Israel, I thought there would be this mine of information in her memoir. But of course she was so egocentric she was basically writing about herself and how she pulled off this same.”
“Essentially what she revealed about Jack Hock was that he came from Portland. He was tall, blonde, dead at 47 in 1994, had been in jail for 2 years after holding up a taxi driver at knife point and arguing over a fare.”
“He had a real talent for convincing people to spend much more money on these letters once she had been rumbled by the FBI and couldn’t do it. When she thought she would get $500 for something he would come back with $2,000.”
“I knew from that, he had a real talent for just bull sh***ing people and charming people into handing over more money.”
“The only other physical detail I had was that he was a chainsmoker, who used a stubby cigarette holder thinking that he would stave off cancer through that.”
“I thought, ‘Well someone who has a cigarette holder and is prancing like a tit around Greenwich Village in the early 90s, that suggests to me a louche affectation, so I asked the costume and props department if I could use that and they agreed. That was all I had to really go on, though.”
Grant clearly had a ball playing Hock. And, ultimately, even though their actions were highly illegal, he came away with a deep respect for both Israel and Hock’s forgeries and their ability to sell them for so much.
“There was a forger of Impressionist paintings in Europe about 10 years ago that baffled all art experts. Those forgeries now sell for millions.”
“No-one died doing this. No writer died. No reputation was damaged, if anything they were enhanced. In fact, as she says, I was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.”
“Yes, the book dealers and autograph people lost money, but there was a begrudging appreciation of what she did and the audacity of doing it.”
“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is now in cinemas.