The Hoax (2006)
“Based on the true story. Would we lie to you?”
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Cast: Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, David Aaron Baker
Synopsis: In what would cause a fantastic media frenzy, Clifford Irving sells his bogus biography of Howard Hughes to a premiere publishing house in the early 1970s.
There’s something wonderfully ironic (if it’s not stage-managed) about the way that Clifford Irving, the subject of Lasse Hallstrom’s enjoyable if overlong The Hoax, requested that his contribution as technical advisor be removed from the movie’s credits. Irving complained on his website that, ‘I didn’t want anyone to believe that I had contributed to such a historically cockeyed story where the main character, almost by coincidence, happens to bear my name.’ That the perpetrator of one of the 20th Century’s greatest hoaxes should claim that the movie which chronicles the turbulent events surrounding that episode is, itself, little more than a hoax surely can’t fail to provide wry amusement for all but the most jaundiced of viewers.
The Hoax opens with a near-bankrupt Clifford Irving (Richard Gere — Days of Heaven, Arbitrage) discovering that the book deal he thought was in the bag has been sabotaged by Life magazine’s declaration that they hate the book when it’s offered to them for serialisation. In desperation he hits upon the idea of writing the fake autobiography of Howard Hughes, the reclusive and highly eccentric billionaire, figuring that because the lines of communication between Hughes and the media have been in disuse for fifteen years, and Hughes himself is known for repeatedly contradicting himself, he has a fighting chance of pulling off such an audacious hoax. Irving coaxes his friend and researcher, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina — Raiders of the Lost Ark) into helping him obtain the information he needs to write a plausible piece of work after managing to convince McGraw-Hill publishing executive Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) that he genuinely has a deal to write Hughes authorised autobiography and thereby bagging a six-figure advance. But as the publication date for the novel draws nearer, Irving finds himself having to tell ever-larger lies in order to keep the entire fabrication from falling apart…
There’s no doubting that Hallstrom and writer William Wheeler have allowed themselves a massive margin when slapping that ‘based on real events’ statement in front of The Hoax’s opening credits. For example, Irving wasn’t even living in New York when the events took place — he lived in Ibiza — and, far from living one step ahead of his creditors, he had in place a four-book deal. He also claims the whole sub-plot about receiving a box of confidential files which detailed an illegal loan made by Hughes to President Richard Nixon’s brother Don never happened, although he does maintain that the impending publication of his book was one of the reasons Nixon authorised the burglary of the Watergate building. When such core details of the story are proven to be fiction, then the whole ‘based on real events’ becomes meaningless and we might as well treat The Hoax as a work of fiction.
The trouble is, you can forgive a film based on fact when it sometimes sacrifices pace in order to get those facts across in a logical order that can be followed by the audience. But The Hoax starts to drag as it struggles to tie together all the strands of the story into a coherent whole, and too often preoccupies itself with unnecessary detail. Richard Gere’s natural screen magnetism does much to carry us through these periods, but this also leaves the suspicion that what we’re seeing here is a little too much Richard Gere and not enough Clifford Irving. We never feel that Gere has researched the physical mannerisms of his subject, but are simply led to believe Irving walks and talks like Richard Gere with dyed hair, and looks pretty old for his age. Nevertheless, Gere makes the movie a whole lot more watchable than it probably would have been without him, which is more than can be said for poor Alfred Molina, who, in the part of Dick Suskind, is asked to portray a character of such monumentally buffoonish proportions it’s a wonder he hasn’t had a cartoon show made about him.
I haven’t read Irving’s account of the episode, but I’d be surprised if he painted himself as a self-serving, manipulative sociopath in the way that the movie does, and it’s in this respect — as a character study of a deeply flawed and largely unapologetic rogue — that The Hoax works well. We’re also left in no doubt about Irving’s cleverness, his painstaking work ethic, and the emotional and psychological price he paid for his attempt to pull off such a monumental caper. So deeply does he become immersed in the character of Hughes that he begins to think like the man, adopting his business philosophy to extricate himself from ever-stickier situations, and the movie suggests that, had events not conspired to defeat him, delusional madness may well have lain ahead. And that’s another strength of the movie. It would have been easier to portray Irving as some kind of buccaneering maverick sticking it to the system, and The Hoax is to be praised for choosing the more mature — and therefore less commercial — route.