How Melissa McCarthy and Author Lee Israel Are Connected by NYC’s Oldest Gay Bar (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images
In the new biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy portrays author Lee Israel, who turned to forging letters by deceased writers and actors after her writing career stalled. While living in New York City, she sometimes operated her one-woman forgery business out of Julius’, the city’s oldest and longest-running gay bar that was a frequent haunt for Israel and McCarthy alike.
“I can’t help thinking, Was I there with Lee? Like, did she tell me to stop talking and move over?” McCarthy muses.
It was around that time that Israel, strapped for cash and unable to secure an advance from her publisher for a new biography about Fanny Brice, turned to faking and stealing letters by famous people. Before and during her time as a forger, Israel was a regular at Julius’, a known curmudgeon who sat alone with her headphones on her ears as she listened to a portable cassette player.
The Greenwich Village bar -- just a block away from the Stonewall Inn and a local mecca for the gay community -- was a place that McCarthy believes Israel liked to visit because she wouldn’t be bothered by people there. Like the author, McCarthy found herself going to Julius’ in her early days in New York City. Then a budding standup comedian, she admits to having no idea who Israel was at the time.
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“I was also disappointed with myself that I didn’t know her story. I didn’t know it before I read the script and I felt like I should have,” McCarthy says. “It makes you certainly want to look up and be like, ‘Who am I passing?’ Like, if I passed Lee Israel, that’s my loss for not being like, ‘Can you just say something very curt to me and I’ll enjoy it for the rest of the day?’”
Curt is just one of many sour descriptions for Israel, who was known for being difficult to work with and having few friends or personal relationships. In her memoir, from which the film is adapted, the “About the Author” page simply reads “Lee Israel is a biographer and copy editor who lives in Manhattan, west of Zabar’s.”
“It was very hard to research her. True to personality, she didn’t want people in her business. She didn’t want the light on her; she wanted it on her writing,” says McCarthy, who went through one of her biggest onscreen transformations to portray the author.
The actress purposely wore very little makeup and let her gray roots go unattended to create a raw physical appearance enhanced by wire-frame glasses and an oversized winter jacket that cocooned her body. Far from antisocial (or seemingly difficult), McCarthy dug as deep as she could into Israel’s psyche to create layers of emotion that demonstrated the author’s own doubts and shortcomings.
Filmed over 28 days on location in New York City -- which is very much a character in the movie -- McCarthy revisited her old haunt, where many of the scenes between her and co-star Richard E. Grant, who plays Israel’s friend Jack Hock, take place. This time, while McCarthy was in character, she encountered some of the author’s past.
During one of the days they filmed inside Julius’, McCarthy noticed an older man who was not with the production watching them. Later, on introducing herself to him during a break, McCarthy was taken aback to discover he was a good friend of Israel’s. “He said, ‘It’s hard not to come and sit down next to you. That’s what I did, I sat to her left.’”
His presence added “a strange pressure of playing someone real,” admits McCarthy, who rejects the “comedian doing drama” label that’s been attached to her portrayal of Israel; not only has she done drama before, but she doesn’t feel confined to either genre. The role is already being shortlisted among critics as an Oscar contender for Best Actress, but when it comes to portraying someone like Israel, for McCarthy, it’s about making sure her performance is true to who she was. “That you’re doing right by them,” she says, adding that part of the joy of doing this film is that “people are going to know who she was, her writing and her story, because she had fallen into that invisible, undervalued role.”
And while speaking with the author’s friend on set, McCarthy couldn’t help but ask, “Would she be happy about this?” To which he replied after a pause, “Well, happy wasn’t really Lee’s thing, but she would have loved the attention on her work.”