A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: # 13


2007, R, 115 mins.

Clifford Irving: Richard Gere / Dick Susskind: Alfred Molina / Andrea Tate: Hope Davis / Edith Irving: Marcia Gay Harden / Shelton Fisher: Stanley Tucci / Nina Van Pallandt: Julie Delpy / Noah Dietrich: Eli Wallach

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom /  Written by William Wheeler / Based on the novel by Clifford Irving

“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.”

-  Fyodor Dostoyevsky     

 Lasse Hallström’s THE HOAX is a great American film about a great American liar.  In the annals of fakery, author Clifford Irving should be considered an absolute mastermind.  His con was hardly simple.  The real accomplishment of the film is that it does such a meticulous and assured job with showing the layers upon layers of this man’s deceit to the world.  Irving was not just deluding us with a small little white lie.  He was a definitive con man with an agenda that would make Frank Abagnal Jr.  (the subject of another great film about a scam artist, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN) and Stephen Glass (ditto for SHATTERED GLASS) look like marginal pranksters and charlatans.

Abagnal was a figure that faked multiple identities and successfully eluded the FBI for several years.  He made people think that he was – at different times – a doctor, lawyer, and even an airline pilot.  Glass, on the other hand, cooked up bogus articles for the prestigious New Yorker Magazine until he was finally revealed to be a total, unethical phony.  I think what separates Irving from those two is in the scope and brevity of his lies.  Basically, he managed to make people around the world think that he was the literary voice of one of the most reclusive and enigmatic figures of the 20th Century. 

That, in retrospect, was no simpleminded prank.

By the late 1950’s Howard Hughes had become the poster boy for the recluse billionaire.  Paralyzed by a severe case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the eccentric businessman reached a point in his life where he refused to be seen in public, even in court.  According to some rumors, he was either dying, a complete lunatic, or even dead.  Surely, the public appetite for knowledge of the comings and goings of this mysterious and perplexing persona grew insatiable, and Irving recognized this.  Claiming to be writing the “book of the Century,” Irving took it upon himself to chronicle the career and life of Hughes in the ultimate, tell-all, and definitive biography, “The Autobiography of Howard Hughes.”  He was able to convince a major publisher that he had Hughes give him written permission to write the book and even managed to secure advances of hundreds of thousands to write it.  Everyone at the publishing agency seemed to think that Irving’s book could be the gigantic best seller smash of the decade.

Unfortunately, the autobiography was a complete fabrication…a scam…a pack of lies…the ultimate hoax.

The utterly fascinating element of THE HOAX is the way Hallström digs deep into the world of utter deception and misrepresentations that Irving created for himself.  What’s really clever is that the film does not really show Irving – played in one of the best performances of the year by Richard Gere – as a hateful, fraudulent, and spiteful SOB.  Rather, Irving in the film kind of lives in a state of enjoyable tunnel vision.  You never gain an impression that he went out of his way with his lies to hurt anyone in particular.  Irving is not a shameful and immoral character.  In a way, he seemed to have a level of sly - almost orgasmic - pleasure in perpetrating his scam at the thought of appeasing a country’s unfaltering appetite for a private figure that seemed forever out of the public eye.  Yes, Irving was a con artist and fooled a lot of people, but the film shows him as a man so tightly wrapped up in an aura of excitement and passion.  He truly was genuine in the sense that he wanted to tell the world about Hughes in a way that they never read about or seen.  His motivation, drive, and creative impulses are palpable and commendable; it’s just his lousy and disingenuous methods that can't be respected.

How spectacular were his lies?  Well, at one point he managed to convince McGraw-Hill that he had corresponded with Hughes via his hand-written letters.  Of course, the letters were amazing fakes, hand crafted by Irving, who even managed to pass the test with handwriting experts.  Beyond forgery, Irving got a hefty advance of $100,000 and even managed to get Hughes a $400,000 payday.  Astoundingly, he convinced accounting to pass on the checks to him, seeing that Hughes – being chronically reclusive – would never show up to get it.  Even more shocking is that Irving managed to get McGraw-Hill to increase the sum to $1 million.  Irving, or course, received the check and – with his wife being a willing conspirator – he was able to cash it at a Swish bank by committing bank fraud.  The couple forged a new name on the paper – H.R. Hughes – to which Irving’s wife impersonated in order to cash the check.

Very rarely has the old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” more appropriate than in describing THE HOAX.

The film chronicles all of this, but it also shows us a light-hearted beginning where we see Irving as an honest, struggling writer before he throws caution to the wind.  Taking place between 1971-1972, we see Irving (Gere) poised to have a best seller on his hands, that is until his icy-demeanored McGraw editor, Andrea Tate (the always decent Hope Davis) tells him the book ain’t gonna fly.  Down and depressed, Irving yearns for a way to rebuild his decaying career and come out with a new book that will take the country by storm.  With the help of his ever-so-loyal researcher, Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina, who has never been better), the two decide to willingly embark on committing what would be the biggest publishing fraud of the last century:  They would write a fake bio on Howard Hughes.

They do all of this mostly via Irving's remarkably verbose – but charismatic and oftentimes charming – motivation and boundless energy.  Like every man that tries to fool the world, he constantly reminds himself and those around him not “to worry” because “no one would ever catch on.”  Perhaps he was sort of on to something.  After all, Hughes never made public appearances, made very few phone calls, and never even spoke to some of his “closet” friends in over a decade.  He was severely press-aphobic.  Sure, Irving and Susskind cooked up everything, but – as they initially believed – the real Hughes would never take them to task.  Seems logical enough.

The film is intoxicating with how it shows how one small lie snowballs into larger and larger deceits.  It’s one thing to lie about writing the book of the Century, but when your bosses – including the McGraw President Shelton Fischer (Stanley Tucci, always a fiery presence) - starts to call your bluff and asks for evidence, it makes you take the deception to deeper levels.  Irving, as stated previously, forged handwritten letters.  He also claimed to his bosses that he was busy conducting interviews around the world with the billionaire (in actuality, he was – at times – hooking up with his mistress).  Irving even went as far as to get Hughes' diction and vocal mannerisms just right.  He did this by – get this – studying Hughes tapes, dressing up like him, and actually impersonating him in fake interview sessions lead by Susskind.  It marks the first – and perhaps only – incident of method writing ever.  Even his wife – played well by Marcia Gay Harden – became involved by trying to cash that $1 million payment at a Swish bank.  It's refreshing to see the wife-figure not be a whiny and annoying presence, but a willing crook with her husband.

Yet, like all great deceivers, Irving and company soon began to realize that their lies would eventually catch up with them.  Public betrayal can only be kept for so long, and as THE HOAX wears on Irving becomes a cauldron of suspicion and paranoia about being “made.”  In an eerie way, he becomes a pseudo-Hughes figure in his obsession with trying to hide his secrets.  The final nail in Irving’s literary coffin occurred when – miraculously – Hughes contacted the public world via speaker phone on live TV with reporters and denounced that Irving was a fake and that he had never met the man.  Disgraced and humiliated, Irving did see his day in court and eventually served nearly two years in jail.  When he was released he published his incredible memoirs of the events, which the film is based on.  His wife did not fare well either.  She did serious time for her participating in committing bank fraud in Switzerland. 

Perhaps THE HOAX’s most powerful characteristic is in the buried, subtle legacy behind Irving’s book that was never published.  Hallström does a virtuosos job of showing Irving in a seemingly never-ending tailspin of dishonesty, but the film also manages to speak on the other legacies of the failed book.  There are assertions in the film that certain content of the book included false bribery charges against then President Nixon.  As a result, it is also hinted that this forced Tricky Dick into reining in anti-trust laws to save TWA, which Hughes had a huge stake in. 

Even more sensationalistic is the notion that the very idea of the bio being published precipitated Nixon’s paranoia, which further precipitated the Watergate scandal.  This angle is captivating as it spins a different aspect of the Irving/ Hughes relationship.  Did Hughes, as he stated, never know who Irving was or did hid use and manipulate him to get what he wanted.  If he later were true, then Irving – paradoxically – can be painted in a small light as a victim.  Wisely, Hallström never shows Hughes in any scenes with the characters, nor is he played by an actor.  He appears in photos and actual newsreel films, oftentimes looming over the shoulders of characters in the background.  This is crucial to the film's effect; having an actor play Hughes would all but destroy his essence as a creepy and powerful figure in the shadows of the public eye. 

Beyond the enthralling screenplay, THE HOAX is really held together by the uniformly powerful performances.  Gere as Irving is a real career comeback performance and represents his best work in a decade.  Oozing confidence, machismo, cool and calculating authority, and a swindler’s disposition, Gere is unmistakably brilliant as Irving.  What’s even better is the way Gere effortlessly makes the transition in the film where Irving’s life starts to spiral out of control.  His cocky, exterior bravado begins to hide his inner emotional implosion, which is accentuated by the tsunami-sized waves of lies he engages in.  Alfred Molina is equally inspired as Susskind, and perhaps he has the more difficult part.  Susskind was no babe in the woods; he willingly committed fraud alongside Irving.  However, he is a constant presence of morality in the film a seems to acknowledge – when Irving does not – the severity of what they are doing.  He is a very effective foil to Irving’s bombastic and extroverted energy.  Susskind is quiet, pensive, reserved, and – deep down – knows that what they are doing is dead wrong.

Lasse Hallström is a director of understated skill, confidence, and variety.  He has made such diverse gems like WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE (which details small, rural life in a quirky dysfunctional family) to THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (which chronicles an orphan that is raised to perform unlicensed abortions) to CHOCOLAT (which shows how a French village chocolate shop shakes up the town’s morality).  THE HOAX may be Hallström’s finest hour as a remarkably sensationalistic, darkly funny, and emotionally packed story of how one writer shocked and fooled a nation into believing the unbelievable.  With Oscar-worthy turns by Richard Gere and Alfred Molina, a gripping and thoroughly insightful script, and strong direction make THE HOAX an amazingly solid meditation on the nature of reality and trickery.  Even more solid is the film’s broad tonal range, which successfully goes from comedic to dramatic to creepy.  With all of the film’s light-hearted spirit and sense of reckless fun, there is a constant undertow of dread to the proceedings.  Because of this, THE HOAX emerges as one of 2007’s best, most intriguing efforts…and that’s no lie.

  H O M E