Chennai's craze for Tamil cinema often eclipses some of the finest works in other languages. Time was when I could watch a Bengali film on a Sunday morning in what was then Madras – much like I could catch a Tamil blockbuster on a weekend in Calcutta (now Kolkata), a city where I grew up. But let alone a Bengali movie in Chennai, it is also becoming increasingly difficult to find an English work, sometimes Hindi, in a city that now boasts of a cosmopolitan crowd. The inadequate number of cinemas adds to this, given that Tamil Nadu turns out dozens of films in a year, a sizeable number week after week.
So, by the time my friend and ace Sri Lankan director, Prasanna Vithanage (With You Without You), alerted me to what he said was a must-see work, Can You Ever Forgive Me, it was already into its fourth day. But I could get a ticket easily; the auditorium was almost empty, and I am sure most people would not have even heard about this movie – which turned out to be such a brilliant watch.
Incidentally, Can You Ever Forgive Me had had a rough start. A mere six days before the cameras were to roll, the project was abandoned. It was supposed to be directed by Nicole Holofcener (who later wrote the screenplay for the current version of the film). Julianna Moore and Chris O'Dowd were to play the leading roles here.
Creative differences between Moore and Holofcener led to the actress being dropped, and the project collapsing. While Moore wanted to sport a false nose in order to resemble author Lee Israel, the film's protagonist, the director said no.
Later, with Marielle Heller coming on board as director, and Melissa McCarthy essaying Israel and Richard E Grant as her sidekick, Jack, Will You Ever Forgive Me earned critical applause and Oscar nods for its lead stars.
McCarthy became a darling of the masses after her superb performance in Bridesmaids, where she is funny and fun. But in what is seen as a complete reversal, she portrays the tragic life of author Lee Israel in her latest outing. A point comes in her life when her publishers stop paying her advances, and pushed to the brink with mounting bills, she embarks on a journey of crime. She forges letters of celebrated authors, sells them to collectors to earn a livelihood. A path that was not just unethical and shady, but also criminal.
Based on the true story of the author, Can You Ever Forgive Me begins in Manhattan in 1991. Israel was 51 and had till then enjoyed a fair degree of success in publishing the biographies of people like Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen. But her book on Estee Lauder crashed, and the publishing industry being shortsighted and unforgiving, refused to give Israel any more advance. Nobody wanted her next book on the comedian, Fanny Brice.
During her research into Brice's life, she had come across a couple of letters written by the comedian – and she steals them from the library and sells them to a local bookshop for a nice price. Emboldened, she gets into forging the signatures of well-known literary figures and writing her own notes.
Ultimately, caught and punished (although the sentence was light with a six-month house-arrest and a five-year probation) Israel – years later in 2008 -- wrote her memoir, one of her best books, Can You Ever Forgive Me.. Here she makes it clear how her writing career crashed. In 1983, Macmillan Publishing offered her an advance to write an unauthorised biography of Lauder. Show us her ugly side as well, the company said. Lauder tried to bribe Israel asking her to drop the project. But she went ahead.
In the book, Israel discredited Lauder's public statements that “she was born into European aristocracy and attended church regularly in Palm Beach, Florida”.
In 1985, a peeved Lauder wrote an autobiography and brought it out coinciding with Israel's book, which was panned by critics and it failed.
Israel said: "I had made a mistake. Instead of taking a great deal of money from a woman rich as Oprah, I published a bad, unimportant book, rushed out in months to beat Lauder's own memoir to market."
After this, Israel's career went into a tailspin. She became an alcoholic. Heller's work shows most of it, though it underplays her lesbian tendency. Heller is extremely sympathetic to her heroine even as a lot of us would find her distasteful. Living in a rat-infested apartment, she was shabby and rather unattractive to look. But actress McCarthy is just impressive as a woman distressingly left by the wayside and forced into forgery. She could have easily been more dramatic, but she chooses to underplay the part and create a character who most of us would be willing to forgive. And, who knows, even love!
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic)