When Lee Israel falls out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception.
Based on a true story, Lee Israel is a biographer who no longer can make a living as an author. She is completely broke and her only friend in life is her cat because she is a harsh personality who scares away people. After selling a letter Katharine Hepburn wrote to her and another literary letter she finds in a library book, she realizes she can forge letters by prominent authors – writing really witty things so they will sell for more money. Eventually she is on the FBI’s watch list as a forger and she asks a grifter who she’s befriended to sell her forgeries on her behalf. After stealing an authentic letter from Yale archives, her friend betrays her to the FBI after they get into an argument. She confesses to her crimes and is given five years’ probation but she says she regrets none of it because she was reminded of her talents by flawlessly emulating the voice of famous literary writers. Her grifter friend makes amends with her, allowing her to write a memoir about the experience; he dies a few years later from AIDS.
Based on a true story. 1991. It’s 3:30 AM, in New York City, and Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is 51 years old and in an office, working late as a copy editor at a publication corporation. A young colleague walks by and whispers that she’s older than her mother and if she’s still doing that kind of work at her age, to kill her. Lee comments to herself that she’ll kill her right now. Another employee tells Lee she’s not allowed to drink at her desk and Lee tells her to fuck off. When someone else inquires what she said, she shouts that she wants everyone to fuck off — and then realize it’s her supervisor who promptly fires her.
Lee goes to a dinner party at the house of Marjorie (Jane Curtin), her literary agent. Marjorie is surprised to see her since Lee didn’t RSVP. Lee notes how fancy it is that she has a coat check and then says Marjorie hasn’t returned her calls and she has tons of ideas for new books. Marjorie tells her that the party is not for talking business and she is dismissive to Lee as a client. Lee wanders around the party and overhears Tom Clancy saying that writer’s block is just an excuse writers use to explain their laziness and that he has stamina to bang out tons of books. Lee goes to the bathrooms and finds tons of partial rolls of toilet paper in the cupboard, some of which she sneaks into her bag. She asks Marjorie about it and is told that she wants all of her guests to have a full roll, thus discarding the tubes when they’re getting low. Lee tells her she’s batshit. She then leaves the party, first stopping by the coat check to say she’s lost her ticket but the coat on the far left is hers — she then sneaks out of the party with a new coat that she can’t afford herself.
At home, Lee watches old movies on television and is able to recite all the dialogue, having watched them so many times. She tries to feed her cat, Jersey, some shrimp but he doesn’t respond. She takes him to the veterinarian but they are not allowed to look at her cat because she has an outstanding balance of $84 and she needs to pay it first. She offers everything in her wallet — $14 but it isn’t enough. At home, the landlord points out Lee is three months behind on rent. She mentions she just lost her job and he gives her some leeway because she’s been there longer than he has and she’s nice to her mother. She mentions there are dead flies in her apartment and she hopes to pay him soon so he can get an exterminator in who can take care of it.
Lee ventures to a book shop that buys used books in hopes of securing more cash — but the employee is rude to Lee and only wants to buy two out of everything she schlepped over from her home. She asks him to make an offer for the rest so she doesn’t have to carry them back but he suggests he’ll only give them for $2. She points out he doesn’t have to be rude to her because they actually carry her books there. When she tells him she’s Lee Israel, he recognizes her as a writer of biographies and points out her last book on Estée Lauder is now available in the clearance section. She yells at him and storms out.
It’s implied Lee has an alcohol problem and we find her in a gay bar drinking. An old colleague, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) enters and she recognizes him from some book-related party similar to the one her agent threw earlier. It’s implied that Jack makes a living selling drugs. She complains that she’s banned from the bookstore and that the shop owner was really rude to her. He mentions that he is banned from all the Duane Reeds in New York because he was caught shoplifting at several of them. Lee remembers that everyone at the party was talking about a handsome English gentleman who was so shit-faced, he peed in a closet, all over the guests’ fur coats. They laugh about this story and continue to hang out. They happen to run into the rude bookseller walking his dog. Jack runs into his building before the door can shut and writes down the name of someone from the resident list. When they get back to Lee’s building, Jack says that he lives just a few blocks away. She goes inside and watches to see if he leaves, wondering if he’s actually homeless. She finally retreats when he walks off.
While at home, Lee stares at a signed letter from Katharine Hepburn — on whom she wrote a biography — and ends up taking it to a bookseller. The woman at the shop, Anna (Dolly Wells) offers her a few hundred dollars for it and asks why she’d part with it. Lee claims she’s not sentimental and Anna realizes she is Lee Israel, whom Katharine wrote to in the letter, and says she’s read all of her biographies. Anna also mentions that she herself is a writer but not very good.
In the library, Lee is researching Fanny Brice when she finds two letters Fanny wrote inside the book. She goes back to Anna’s shop and tells her her cousin is a collector and wants to part with one of his Fanny Brice letters. Lee is given only $75 for it because the content is bland. When Anna gushes about Fanny Brice, Lee admits she’s writing a biography on her – which Anna finds coincidental since her cousin has just given her a letter by her. After Anna mentions that Tom Clancy is getting three million for his new book, despite being right-wing mumbo gumbo, Lee storms into Marjorie’s office, unannounced, and complains that Tom (her client) is getting a three million advance. She tells her agent that she’s writing a new biography on Fanny Brice and wants a $10,000 advance so she can pay her bills. Marjorie is dismissive towards her so Lee points out one of her books was on the New York Times Best-Seller list. Her agent points out that there are three reasons Tom gets 3 million advances and she gets none – 1) she is unclean and unfriendly and her books about other people so people don’t know her; while Tom has a sexy image and sells himself well; 2) Tom does every press interview and book signing that they set up for him to promote his books; she refused to do so; and 3) nobody wants to read a biography on Fanny Brice. She suggests Lee finds some other way to make a living.
At home, Lee is typing on her typewriter but can’t think of what to write except “This is me fucking using the typewriter.” She looks at the second Fanny Brice letter she had found but not shown to Anna – and puts it in her typewriter, adding a P.S. that says “My new grandchild has inherited my old nose. Should I leave something extra for repairs?” When Lee takes it to Anna, she is offered $350 because the P.S. is priceless. She tells Lee that there is a huge market for literary letters and if her cousin has any more to send them her way.
Now that she has generated some revenue, Lee is able to pay her rent, encouraging the landlord to offer to have an exterminator come over. She also takes her cat to the vet – she is told he will be okay as long as she mashes two pills into his food every day. Lee sees a typewriter for sale and buys it – then goes home and types a letter on it pretending to be Noël Coward. She struggles to forge his signature until she realizes she can do so by holding a copy of his signature to a TV and tracing it onto her letter. Lee then takes this forged Noel Coward letter to Andre, an autograph collector who offers her top dollar for it, telling her he knows a collector who would buy it – who actually knew Noël Coward. He tells her he sells the letters to other collectors and if she has more content like this, to bring it back because he can find people who want to purchase them, both in New York and around the country.
Lee now celebrates by taking Jack out to lunch. While there, Jack admits to having sold some coke which was mostly laxative. He then flirts with the young gay waiter. Lee admits to him that she is forging literary letters and that’s how she’s making money. He is unimpressed because he knows nothing of the literary world. At a payphone, Lee calls up the book seller who was rude to her and pretends to be a woman from the fourth floor (whose name Jack got when he snuck inside the building) and tells him his place is on fire. They laugh as, across the street, he runs out of the bookstore in a panic. The two have a fun night out at a lounge club where a trans singer performs. Lee, used to staying home alone and having no friends, enjoys being out.
They get back to Lee’s place and the landlord has an exterminator spraying the ground floor and they all head up to Lee’s home to spray for the flies. But everyone complains that her home smells bad and the exterminator refuses to enter until she cleans it up. Lee feels embarrassed but Jack offers to help her clean it. She has been living in squalor and there are flies buzzing all around. Jack learns there is a whole pile of cat poop underneath her bed. When Jack suggests heading home, Lee questions him where his apartment is – he has mentioned several locations and keeps telling her different addresses and she realizes he has nowhere to go. So she lets him sleep on the couch, her first guest in a long while since she is used to being alone with her cat.
Jack and Lee go to an autograph collectors expo and look at all the literary letters on display including some that Lee has been forging. When asked how the dealer knows it’s authentic, he says it’s been given a Letter of Authenticity. Another collector shows the two of them a letter from Dorothy Parker that is selling for $800. They pretend to be interested. She tells them to be careful buying from other collectors who aren’t discriminatory about what they accept and points out Alan Schmidt (played by Melissa McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone) as someone who is not discriminate. Cut to Lee selling a letter to him. He tells her there are buyers all over the country for those kind of letters.
At home, Lee calls someone’s house, asking for Elaine and is rude to the woman who answers. She then calls her agent up but is told by her assistant she’s not available. She calls back, pretending to be Nora Ephron, and Marjorie answers right away. She calls her a starfucker and asks if it’s one word or two.
Lee buys more typewriters and each one is assigned to a different author on which she writes various letters in the voice of these authors, after researching the way they write. A letter from Dorothy Parker, in which ends up with “Can you ever forgive me, Dorothy?” she sells to Anna, who gushes about the content. She also continues to bond with Lee and asks her out to dinner, as what we realize is a romantic gesture.
Anna and Lee go out to dinner. Anna is very sweet to her and talks about how she inherited the bookstore and fills her life has become mundane, unlike Lee’s. Anna tells Lee that she should write an autobiography before she gets so famous and someone makes money writing the same story as a biography. Lee tells her nobody will care about her after she dies and her only concern is who will feed her cat whom is the one being she cares for. Lee also complains about how she has become a nobody but Anna continues to encourage her. Anna admits she brought the short story she wrote after taking a few classes which Lee said she would read and give her honest opinion about. Lee mocks her for bringing it to dinner and is so antisocial, she constantly is aggressive towards Anna, who remains sweet. When Anna thanks her for inviting her, Lee tells her she can always use another “drinking buddy,” erasing any romantic implication to their date. Anna shuts down and when the night ends, they part ways. It’s obvious Lee wishes she could be a kinder person but she doesn’t know how.
At night, Lee is reading a book by one of the literary authors whose writing she emulates, to get a sense of her style. She puts it down and contemplates reading Anna’s story which has a note written on it “Lee… Please be kind.” She changes her mind and leaves the story unread.
After Lee sells her latest Noël Coward forgery to Andre – in which she pretends Noël is writing to his secret male lover — she gets a call on her answering machine telling her he’s concerned about the latest literary letter he received. She goes to his store and asks what his concern is. He says he is alarmed because there is a possibility the last letter was a forgery. The collector who knew Noël says he never made any public acknowledgment of his orientation and wouldn’t have put it in a letter. She writes this off as being a fluke but Andre tells her that one of the letters that was sold to a collector in Los Angeles was so suspicious that an entire convention devoted its time to debating whether it was authentic or not. He tells Lee that nobody in New York is going to buy from her anymore.
The next time Lee sees Alan Schmidt, instead of being duped like he normally is, he tells her the FBI had reached out to him and asked him to wear a wire to expose her as a literary forger. Instead, he is a nice guy and won’t do that – if she pays him 5000 dollars. She tells him she doesn’t have that kind of money but he tells her she needs to find a way to get it or he’ll inform the FBI about her scamming him. Meanwhile the FBI begins to fax every bookstore owner in town and informs them that Lee is forging letters and not to buy from her – Anna gets the fax and is crushed.
Lee has no choice but to use Jack in her plans. She continues to forge letters but now Jack is the one going to bookstores selling them to the owners. Because he doesn’t care about the literary world, he is cavalier in his stories about how he acquired them but he has such a strong history as a con artist that he is able to sell them all successfully. When Alan offers him $200 for one, he says that a place in Brooklyn offered twice as much. When the seller asks why he didn’t just buy it for that price, he responds that he hates boroughs. Back at her place, Lee laughs that they’re paying Alan’s blackmail money with his own funds that he spent on forged letters. But when Lee counts the money, she realizes he was trying to short her, lying about how much he had been able to raise so far and thus taking more than the cut she promised him. Lee feels betrayed and tells him never to steal from her again.
Jack tries to sell a letter to Anna but she tells him there is a string of forgeries going around and asks if she can hold onto it to have it looked at by an authenticator. When Lee learns of this, she goes crazy because if It’s found to be a fake, it can be used as evidence. Jack suggests stealing an authentic letter and selling it for top dollar to get the $5000. He mentions stealing a tube of toothpaste by replacing it with an empty tube so when the employee checks the shelf, they see the box and don’t realize anything has been stolen and it’s win/win. She says it’s not win/win because he took the toothpaste and also points out that those letters are in museums and archives and they only let people see them for research purposes. He points out, because she’s a published biographer, she can do that.
Lee leaves the city for a few days to visit’s Yale libraries where famous letters are held. She is explicit to Jack that he has to mash up her cat’s medicine into his food and make sure his water dish is filled and also tells him not to sleep in her bed. Nonetheless, when she leaves, he invites over the waiter he flirted with before and they have sex in Lee’s bed. He also neglects the cat at first but we see him mashing up the medicine into his food.
At Yale, Lee presents a (forged) letter from her publisher stating her new biography is on authors who had drinking problems and she needs to see Lillian Hellman’s box. While a security guard watches, she takes notes but is really handwriting the copy from one of those letters. She goes back to her hotel and types up a replica. The next time she does research, the librarian asks her what other authors she plans to include in the book and Lee snaps at her that she’s got a bus to catch. Nervously she slides the fake pages from her bag and then slips the real two pages into her sock. When she leaves, she apologizes to the librarian and says she’s anxious when she travels. The security guard checks her bag for any stolen items but, since it is in her shoe, he finds nothing.
When Lee gets home, she cheerfully calls out to her cat but then finds him dead under the couch. Lee immediately breaks down. Jack enters the living room, making excuses for why he invited the young gay men over (since they were both in her bed when she arrived) and she screams at him that her cat died. He tells her it was an accident (meaning it happened at no fault to his own) and that he did what she told him to do. She screams to him to get the fuck out of her house.
Lee goes to the vet who is used to her bringing her cat in since her cat was her only companion for years and years. But they notice she is holding a shoebox and broken, she tells them she needs a place to bury him because she has no backyard. The vet promises to take care of that. Lee then meets with Elaine, whom she had been prank calling throughout the film, in the park. Elaine was the one who had bought her Jersey 12 years earlier and Lee tells her he died. Crying, Lee tells her that Jersey was the only soul who loved her and now she feels alone. When Elaine suggests she get a new cat, Lee says it wouldn’t be the same. Elaine reminds her that they broke up years and years ago because she couldn’t handle how difficult Lee was to be around. She is not interested in reconnecting because she senses Lee is just as horrible as she always was.
Now that she has authentic Lillian Hellman letters, Lee meets with Jack at the gay bar she first stumbled upon him at. She is very pointed with him and says she doesn’t trust him because he tried to steal from her but she has nobody else who can help her get money for the real letters. She explains that because they’re authentic, he has no reason to negotiate for price and that he should only accept top dollar. She also lambasts him for not respecting the letters explaining that they’re not just pieces of paper but in the literary world, they’re a link to the history of literature.
Jack goes to a bookseller and sells the authentic Lillian Hellman letters for $300 each which the seller knows is grossly underpriced. We next see Jack with the FBIs informing them of Lee’s crimes. They suggest he must have taken a small cut for helping her but he shrugs that accusation off.
Lee continues to wait in the gay bar for Jack to return with the money he sold the authentic letters for. She is getting more and more drunk which is common for her. As she is ready to give up and leave, the FBI enters and hands her a subpoena. They also tell her she’s not allowed to destroy any evidence that can be used in the case. At home, she rips down all her notes and gathers all her typewriters and throws them in a trash can down the street.
Lee meets with a lawyer who tells her her best bet is to get a job – any job – to show she is willing to earn a living legally; to do volunteer work with children (which she grimaces at so he suggests working with animals instead); and to sign up for AA meetings. In court, he tells the judge that she now works as a copy editor at Scholastic Books, she is volunteering at a cat shelter, and she’s going to AA. The judge asks if Lee has any comments before she hands her her verdict. Lee says she doesn’t actually feel remorseful for what she did; she was so happy writing, using her skill as a biographer to recreate witty retorts by beloved writers. She considers it her best work. She also comments that she’s a lonely woman and is willing to take whatever punishment she is handed down for her crime. The judge seems impressed by her authenticity and sentences her to five years’ probation and six months’ house arrest – except to go to work and AA meetings.
Some time has gone by. Lee meets Jack in a bar. He now looks sickly and has to walk with a cane. He also has been given probation for assisting Lee in her crimes. She admits that she is supposed to be at an AA meeting but has still slipped out to meet with him and to drink. At home, she realizes she wants to write again and the topic will be about her own experiences forging letters – the first time she’s writing about herself, as Anna suggested, instead of about someone else. She wants to include Jack in the book and wants his permission. They discuss his illness – it’s implied he has AIDS and Lee tells him he did fuck his way through Manhattan – and he tells her she can write about him if she makes him 29 with great skin.
Now using a computer, new technology for the early ‘90s, instead of a typewriter, Lee begins writing CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME: MEMOIRS OF A LITERARY FORGER. She also has a new kitten that looks like Jersey.
One day, Lee is walking past a bookstore when she sees one of her forged Dorothy Parker letters in the window. She goes inside and asks how much the owner is selling it for. He tells her it’s $2000, framed and mounted. She asks how he knows it’s the real deal. He says anyone who knows Dorothy Parker’s voice knows that it’s really her. Lee goes home and writes a forged letter as Dorothy Parker, with Dorothy’s caustic wit, saying she’s writing from the grave and telling him what her final thoughts were after being cremated. The bookshop owner receives the letter and realizes he has a forgery on display in his window. He goes to the front and removes it but, after studying it over and realizing how clever the writing is, slips it back in the display.
During the credits, we get updates on the people in the story. We’re told Lee had forged 400 letters and that two of her fake letters made it into a 2007 biography on Noël Coward until they were finally removed in later reprints. Jack Hock died in 1994 and was taken in by a gay men’s shelter at the end of his life. We’re also told that Nora Ephron gave Lee a “cease and desist” letter to keep her from impersonating her on the phone. And that Lee’s book, Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger, was praised by the New York Times.
The film is dedicated to the memory of Lee Israel who died in 2014.