Recently back in town and not having seen a movie in months, I rushed out to the theater on one of those rainy, windy days where sensible people stay home and clean, and the desperate crash their cars on the way to and from taverns they'd normally walk to. A biopic about a morally questionable, “unsexy,” and not famous (except to NPR literary nerds), “older” person, this looked to be one of those movies that would play a week and then disappear (at least until the best actor Oscars were announced) into the streaming vortex. As is my habit, once I made my decision, I read no more about it. By the time I reached the theater I smelled like a wet dog, so I was happy I was able to sit 20 rows in front of the closest other person (though, happily, the theater was surprisingly busy), and I spread out my wet things across four seats and took off my shoes and hoped I would dry out before it was over. Within minutes there was Melissa McCarthy, dead serious, a cat, a NYC apartment cluttered with books, Blossom Dearie is singing “I'll Take Manhattan,” and it's snowing outside the window. I was in the world—and this movie was going to have to work really hard to fuck things up.
The story of a published biographer who has fallen on hard times and discovered she can make ends meet by selling forged letters of famous, deceased celebrities, the set up and story should by all rights something that is fraught with so much anxiety-producing expectation of disaster that it's impossible to enjoy for more than a scene or two. A sick cat (you know how that's going to go), a sexually promiscuous gay man (you know how he's going to end up), and a possible romance, framed by a house of deceitful cards (you've seen Breaking Away)—with each new friendship there is the classic setup of eventual falling out, disappointment, and betrayal. The cat dies (at least it didn't get lost first), the man will die of AIDS (though we don't follow him to the end of the line), and romance between our protagonist and a woman who owns a bookstore just never happens, so we're spared the romance, betrayal, anger, forgiveness, and true love. We just get loneliness. But then, this isn't a romantic comedy.
I know it sounds like it could be a real bummer, but it's not. The movie is directed by Marielle Heller and written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel's memoir (all of whom I was previously unfamiliar with, except for N.H.) and they somehow pull off the feat of making this story uplifting—at least for me. I can't speak for younger audiences, but as far as I'm concerned, no image is as lonely as a person wrapped up in their smartphone. The time period here is, I guess, late-Eighties, early-Nineties? We avoid seeing cars as much as possible, and instead see exteriors of bookstores and NYC diners and coffee shops, many of which still exist. And nothing cheers me up like falling snow, both in movies and real life. I was reminded of when I worked at the Strand Bookstore in 1985 and there were more characters like Jack Hock than you could summon the energy for, without stimulants (I drank, stayed away from coke). When I last lived in New York, I was constantly aware of not only the decimated landscape of dwindling diners, but so many fewer of those characters who manage to survive on their wits and wittiness, since so many didn't survive AIDS, drugs and alcohol, and rent. I mean, there is all that there, still, just harder to find than Pepsodent.
The heart of the movie, of course, is this character, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), who has a sharp and biting sense of humor, but clashes with bosses, co-workers, her agent, publishers, and likely friends. I knew it was my kind of movie when in virtually the first scene Lee is fired from a job, with the sense of: being yourself equals freedom equals behind on the rent. It's not spelled out, but evident to anyone with the minimum sensitivity of a human being, that the brash and difficult personality that made Lee Israel shunned and impossible to work with would be celebrated and rewarded if she were a man. I was with her, side by side, from the first scene. The movie is essentially told in first person, so you are her, but at the same time with her, helping her clean, get rid of her fly infestation (in NYC Hollywood, flies and spiders stand in for cockroaches), energized by meeting Jack (Richard E. Grant), even though you know he's trouble (especially when it comes to cat-sitting), and when the forgery starts you want to say, “No! Don't do it!”—but you go along for the adventure.
It's hard not to be critical of the rich person memorabilia market, but at the same time I'm queasy when it comes to fooling people, lying to make money, and especially when the FBI gets involved. The reason Lee was successful at it was because she was able to inhabit those she was impersonating (including Fanny Brice, Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker) and essentially compose a correspondence they would have and could have written, on a good day. She had it in her, the same as they did—it's just that she wasn't famous. With her memoir, I guess she did become famous, at least marginally, and now with this movie, a bit more so, even though it's too late to do her much good. It did me a lot of good, though, this movie. It cheered me up, made me happy, restored the act of filmgoing, which seems to, at least for me, be constantly in the need of being restored.
Randy Russell 11.9.18