The Hoax (2007) dir. Lasse Hallstrom
Starring: Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci
Nazi Propagandist Josef Goebbels once said the bigger the lie the more people will believe it. This was how Clifford Irving managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the editors, executives and lawyers of McGraw-Hill, one of the world’s largest publishers, and command an advance of $1,000,000 to write a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. “The Hoax” which recounts the amazing details of Irving’s forgery is a terrific new film just released on DVD.
Richard Gere, sporting a funny 1970’s tightly curled hairdo, plays real life author Clifford Irving. In the opening, Irving is on top of the world when his publisher McGraw-Hill agrees to publish his latest fiction novel. It isn’t more than a weekend that goes by before Irving has bought a new car, refurnished his house and spent all his money that he discovers the editors are reneging on their verbal deal. Irving is sent into a tail spin, and the only wait to salvage a failed career is to manufacture his own destiny. In a fit of anger he proclaims to his editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) that his next idea will be the most important novel of the 20th Century. This statement is enough to get another meeting from Tate, where Irving comes up with a false story that Howard Hughes, the billionaire, has chosen Irving to write his autobiography.
Of course Tate is suspect, since Hughes is one of the most reclusive people in the world. But Irving uses this reclusiveness to his advantage and manufactures fake handwritten memos as evidence. Handwriting experts valid Irving’s claims and so Irving is off and running with his forgery. His wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) and his research colleague Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) are roped into the adventure and together through a series of elaborate scams actually finish the novel and steal $1,000,000 from the publishing company. When the news of the book breaks, suddenly the real life Howard Hughes becomes involved (or does he?). Suddenly, without knowing it Irving becomes the puppet for Hughes’ devious bidding. The story unfolds with wit and intrigue. Of course the film wouldn’t work for a second if it weren’t all true. It’s hard to believe, but the story is backed up by none other than Mike Wallace in a retrospective “60 Minutes” featurette on the DVD special features.
“The Hoax” is a pleasant discovery – the once shelved Miramax film was released in April of this year, two years after it was made, to decent reviews but little box office or fanfare. I must blame the marketing department that built its campaign around the minor comedic elements of the film. Watch the trailer below which makes the film out as a happy-go-lucky farcical satire.
The intricate and detail-heavy plotting were the most intriguing aspects of the film. Imagine a really good episode of one of that great detective shows “McMillan and Wife”, or “Columbo” where we get to see the crime performed and dissected down to the minutest detail. It’s hard to believe how easily respectable and experienced executives could hand over such large sums of money based on a forged handwritten memo on lined yellow paper. But that was the power of Howard Hughes back then. His influence in transportation and politics allowed Irving to move these hypothetical weights around to get what he wanted.
Much of the deception is due to the personality of Irving himself, whom Mike Wallace describes as an ok novelist, but a better actor. He’s one of the great conmen of our age. Gere gives a solid performance of this complex guy. He’s a devoted husband with a philandering past, who frequently asks his pal Dick to stop him from the temptation of other women. Irving knows his failures, and so in way we sympathize with him. He’s addicted to lying.
The humorous elements probably come from Lasse Hallstrom, who has made a career from throwing pixy dust onto emotional subjects (“What Eating Gilbert Grape”, “Cider House Rules”). He uses some overused AM radio songs as the soundtrack for the film – CCR, Rolling Stones, Richie Havens, etc. These are great songs, but gave off a confusing tone for the film.
“The Hoax” compares favourably to “Shattered Glass” – Billy Ray’s equally terrific film about a magazine journalist who wrote fake articles for the ‘New Republic’. The subject matter in both is something we are instinctively drawn to, the con, the robbery, the magic act of deception. I know every time I watch a heist film I always want them to get away with the money. I’ll let you watch the film to know how it turns. Enjoy.