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09/14/2018 13:17 EDT | Updated 09/14/2018 13:20 EDT

Films Presented At TIFF Tackle Big Literary Lies

Melissa McCarthy, Keira Knightley and Laura Dern are among the actors playing real-life authors who lied to their readers.

Melissa McCarthy in 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' is one of the several movies playing at Toronto International Film Festival about a real-life literary hoax.
Archer Gray via TIFF
Melissa McCarthy in 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' is one of the several movies playing at Toronto International Film Festival about a real-life literary hoax.

In a year characterized by political disillusionment, distrust and banter about "fake new," it seems natural that those themes are represented in movies. At the Toronto International Film Festival, a number of real-life stories were screened about hoaxes, grifters, and false identities, many of them in the form of writers who lied to the public.

However, it wasn't necessarily intentional, says Kerri Craddock, TIFF's head of programming. Movies about literary hoaxes such as "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," "Colette," and "Jeremiah Terminator Leroy" hit the festival circuit at the same time, along with film adaptations of books whose authors have been accused of misrepresentation, such as, "A Million Little Pieces" and "Through Black Spruce."

"I see that there is a climate that is ready for those stories," Craddock told HuffPost Canada. "We're obviously living in a time when there's a lot of attention paid to certain politicians from around the world that some would criticize for telling falsehoods."

"Jeremiah Terminator Leroy"

Justin Kelly's movie "Jeremiah Terminator Leroy" tells the true and dramatic tale of an author who never existed. In the late 90s, JT LeRoy's autobiographical tales of abuse as a young man became a cult hit.

According to the books, his childhood involved being abandoned by his parents, sex work, HIV, drug addiction, a gender transition and more. His work won the admiration of celebrities like Winona Ryder and Courtney Love; Gus Van Sant made a movie about his life.

But in 2005, it was revealed that JT Leroy never existed and that the books were complete fiction. The books were written by a 32-year-old Jewish New Yorker named Laura Albert, who said that she was able to write things as LeRoy that she could not have said as Laura Albert.

Albert chose her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, a 25-year-old aspiring clothes designer, to embody the pseudonym in public. And in 2001, a person claiming to be LeRoy began appearing in public, usually decked out in wigs and sunglasses.

Dimitrios Kambouris via Getty Images
Winona Ryder and 'JT LeRoy' (Savannah Knoop).

Albert settled out of court after she was sued for fraud. Her former agent, Ira Silverberg, told the New York Times the he was appalled by the fake-out:

"To present yourself as a person who is dying of AIDS in a culture which has lost so many writers and voices of great meaning, to take advantage of that sympathy and empathy, is the most unfortunate part of all of this," he said.

But Albert is defiant, still selling JT Leroy's books and merchandise on her website. She refers to the unmasking as a "reveal." Apparently — she hates the word "hoax."

David Livingston via Getty Images
Author Laura Albert at the premiere of the 2016 documentary 'Author: The JT Leroy Story.'

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

In "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Melissa McCarthy takes a dramatic turn as nonfiction writer Lee Israel. When her biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder stopped paying the bills, Israel began forging letters and passing them off as the personal writings of great authors like Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway. One of the letters she wrote as Noël Coward even made it into 2007 compilation of his work. It's likely that some of her forgeries remain in circulation, the lead FBI investigator on her case told the New York Times.

Craddock says there's an important distinction to be drawn between Albert and Israel's apparent pride in the work they put into the falsehoods they sold to the public and the remorse they felt at the people who were duped.

"They weren't necessarily apologizing for the work they created, for the literary talent behind that," Craddock says. "But they were apologizing for any kind of hurt or pain that they caused any individuals or groups of people. I think we have to be clear about the difference there."

"Colette

Sonia Recchia
Denise Gough, Keira Knightley and Wash Westmoreland attend a press conference for 'Colette' Press Conference at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 10, 2018.

"Colette," tells the story of a public front very different from what was going on behind the scenes. Keira Knightley plays the famous French early 20th century writer, who initially went along with her publisher husband's scheme to have her pen novels that were published under his name. However, she gradually became frustrated with an arrangement that saw him get all the credit for her work.

This too is a "hoax" in a sense, Craddock says, but what's striking about it is that "the person that was most hard done by there was Colette herself."

The movie is essentially a story "about female disenfranchisement that translated into an opportunity for female empowerment," Craddock says. "It's a very resonant story for today."

"A Million Little Pieces"

Maybe the most famous literary hoax of the last few decades is "A Million Little Pieces," James Frey's 2003 "memoir" about his recovery from drug addiction that was later found out to be so heavily embellished that it's now sold as a fiction novel. It turned out that the author exaggerated or invented much of the book's content. For example, what he described as an 87-day jail term, was in fact five hours in police custody. When dental experts questioned his account of receiving several root canals without novocaine to avoid its addictive properties, Frey stubbornly insisted that his account was "true to my memory."

Both this film and "Through Black Spruce," based on the novel by Joseph Boyden, whose claims to an Indigenous identity was challenged by many members of the Indigenous community are straight adaptations of the text. "The films don't deal with the controversy of the source material. [The filmmakers] are adapting the pages as they read them," Craddock says.

"There could be whole other films made about the controversy of the actual source material and the authorship."

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