One of the questions prompted by the film, which is wonderfully directed by Marielle Heller, is how a writer as gifted as Israel could be forced to resort to illicit activity just to pay the rent. In an early scene, Israel’s agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), refuses to give Israel an advance for her next book and lectures her about the reasons her career is floundering. Marjorie criticizes Israel’s inveterate unwillingness to play the publicity game, do interviews, and schmooze with the who’s who of the publishing world. She also blames Israel’s fondness for writing about historical figures that readers have little interest in. But Marjorie’s main point is that, to attain literary success and celebrity, an author must turn both herself and her work into a marketable commodity. And Israel, a depressive loner who prefers whiskey and the company of her cat to conversations with other humans, just doesn’t have the right stuff in that department. “No one is going to pay for the writer Lee Israel right now,” Marjorie spits.
It’s fitting, then, that Israel decides to pull herself out of financial insolvency by trading off the reputation of figures such as Parker and Coward—individuals whose fame and fortune hinged not only on their abilities as writers but also on their roles as socialites. Parker was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, while Coward was celebrated for a personal style that Time magazine once described as “a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise.” These are qualities that Israel knows she will never possess, however clever her prose. When discussing what work she’s produced under her own byline, Israel grouses that readers value the voice of the author more than the quality of the story. Israel sees herself as a substance-over-style type of writer, even as her faculty for delightful rhetorical flourishes becomes apparent once she begins mimicking other authors.
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As far as literary hoaxes go, Israel’s forgeries rank fairly low in terms of ethical queasiness. They weren’t victimless crimes—actual people paid actual money for fraudulent items. But the skill and aplomb with which Israel pulled off her plan, coupled with the joy that her letters gave so many collectors, make the whole affair seem in retrospect like a wonderfully conceived prank, like an adult version of spray-painting something witty on your high-school track.
This is certainly how the film portrays it. Heller and the screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty make no effort to elicit much sympathy for the final buyers of Israel’s forgeries. And even before getting caught, Israel seems like the biggest victim of her unlawful designs. While trying to evade detection by the FBI, she damages her relationship with Jack Hock—played by Richard E. Grant, also up for a Golden Globe, for his supporting performance—a gay, impish denizen of the Village who initially gloms onto Israel out of a mix of affection and desperation but proves to be her only true friend. (Grant’s performance, a mix of raffish charisma and melancholy, charms without attempting to mask the sort of sadness felt by people who are marginalized for their unconventional lifestyles.)