You'd think maybe the world of literature would be above such things as deception and fraud, but cheating has been common in the field for as long as people have been writing on stone, papyrus, parchment, or paper.
In "The Hoax," the 2007 release about one of the most-famous scams in the history of books, director Lasse Hallstrom examines the real-life events of author Clifford Irving's literary con game. Moreover, Hallstrom does it with such high energy and good humor, it almost makes the fakery worthwhile.
You may or may not remember the case, depending on your age and your interest. The year was 1971, and Irving (played by Richard Gere, with dark hair for a change) was a good but struggling author. His biggest claim to fame was a book called, ironically, "Fake," about art forgery, but that had sold poorly. As the movie begins, he's pitching a new book idea to McGraw-Hill, which the publishers reject. Irving sees his life in ruins.
Then, he decides to take a desperate approach. He barges into a meeting of the heads of the publishing company and announces he is about to write "the most important book of the twentieth century." Except he has no idea what it will be. Until he picks up a magazine and sees a picture of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes on the cover, and a flash of inspiration comes to him. He will write Hughes's authorized autobiography, but he will do so with no authorization and absolutely no contact with the man. How does he figure to get away with it? He knows that Hughes has not shown his face to or made any contact with the public in fifteen years. He concludes that even if Hughes does get wind of his project, the worst that would happen is that Hughes would buy him off to keep his name out of the limelight.
So he goes to his contacts at McGraw-Hill, Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) and Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci), with some supposed "memos" from Hughes that he has forged, and, believe it or not, the publishers jump at the thought of a monumental best-seller about the world's most powerful and mysterious man. From then on, Irving concocted an ever-more-elaborate web of lies to keep his idea afloat, managing to get a $500,000 (later elevated to $1,000,000) advance on the book and an offer from "Life" magazine for an additional $250,000 to serialize the story.
Incredible but true. People will believe what they want to believe, and apparently all the McGraw-Hill execs saw were the dollar signs they'd make with such an exclusive deal. Even the company's handwriting experts proclaimed the memos from Hughes to Irving genuine. Yeah, Irving was good. With the help of his best friend and fellow writer Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) doing the research, Irving sets out to fool the world. As Irving says, the more outrageous he sounds, the more convincing he is. After all, who would make up such whoppers? The publishers believed him because the idea was so implausible. It had to be the truth.
Although most of the audience knows in advance exactly what's going to happen, director Hallstrom manages to make the story suspenseful, funny, and spirited. OK, credit part of this to a good story line to begin with, thanks to Irving having written up his own experiences a few years later in a book titled, what else?, "The Hoax."
Certainly, Hallstrom does a fine job relating the tale of these two amiable con men, but it's Gere who carries the day. He is superb in the role, his best part in years, as he gets inside the author's troubled soul while projecting an outward vitality. The more Irving lies, the deeper he gets and the more he has to continue lying. But he's good at it (Irving at lying, and Gere at portraying the lying), and Gere is especially good at conveying Irving's confidence and his sweat.
The supporting cast are equally up the task. Molina's Suskind is far less sure of himself than Irving, and his nervousness almost costs them the game before it gets started. Molina is also the more amusing of the two men, and just watching him squirm is a pleasure. As Irving's wife, Edith, Marcia Gay Harden is comforting and supportive until she learns about her husband's affair with an old flame. As the old flame, Nina Van Pallandt, Julie Delpy has a brief but engaging role, too; and in an even briefer part there is old-timer Eli Wallach as Noah Dietrich, a longtime friend of Hughes.
To say that Irving's scheme was brazen would be to put it mildly. He had some of the best literary minds in the country believing that he really did know Howard Hughes and really did have an exclusive on his life story. All because he said so.
In fact, Irving lies so much, he gets caught up in his own lies, caught up to such a degree that he begins feeling paranoid and delusional--at least, according to the movie. I've heard that Irving himself, who is still alive and well and still writing, had nothing to do with this film, despite his name being listed in the credits as an advisor.
Yes, Irving almost got away with it. Almost. But in the end, authorities caught on to him when Hughes came out of seclusion and gave his first interview in almost twenty years, denouncing Irving and his book. I suppose getting Hughes to say anything in public was in itself something. Plus, the story hints that information in Irving's forthcoming book might be incriminating for Richard Nixon and led to the President's ordering of the Watergate break-in (the President figuring the Democrats would have advance copies of the book). Looks like there was somebody in the country even more paranoid than Irving.
Anyway, "The Hoax" is a good movie, a mesmerizing movie, thanks to the acting, to the characterizations, and to Hallstrom's deft handling of the material and his recreation of the period. Irving wound up paying back the money the publishers gave him and serving seventeen months of a two-and-a-half year sentence for fraud. Nevertheless, he came out ahead. Before his deception, nobody knew him; today, people recognize his name, for good or for bad. At the very least, you've got to appreciate the guy's audacity.
Miramax Films and Buena Vista Home Entertainment present the film in something close to its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, here filling out a 16x9 widescreen television with a high-bit-rate, anamorphic picture. Colors are bright, clear, and solid, with fairly natural, if slightly glossy, tints. Grain and noise are at the barest minimum. And object delineation is fine, although a tad soft and fuzzy around the edges for a viewer like me used to high definition.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio reproduction has little to do, but in its defense it presents a wide front-channel stereo spread, a realistic tonal balance, and a clean midrange. There is not much beyond a mild musical bloom in the surrounds, but it's more than enough to support this character and dialogue-driven film.
You get an engaging group of extras on the disc, as we might expect from so bizarre a real-life case.
First up are a pair of audio commentaries, the first with director Lassee Hallstrom and writer William Wheeler and the second with producers Leslie Holleran and Joshua D. Maurer. They are straightforward and informative, but I confess I have little time for these things, no matter how good they are. So, I confined myself to ten or fifteen minutes of each, both of them enlightening. Next up is the nine-minute making-of featurette "Stranger Than Fiction," which includes comments from the filmmakers, stars, and even Mike Wallace. Following that is a four-minute segment with Mike Wallace, "Reflections on a Con," in which the veteran newsman concedes that Irving took him in, and he even admits that he admires him for his daring. Then, there are six deleted scenes, totaling about thirteen minutes, and an extended scene, "Business As Pleasure," about six minutes.
The extras conclude with twelve scene selections and a chapter insert; English and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Although "The Hoax" doesn't exactly make a hero out of Clifford Irving, it portrays him in a quasi-sympathetic light. It's like one of those caper flicks where you find yourself rooting for the bad guys, even when you know they're crooks. In this case, we know Irving isn't going to make it, yet we root for him, anyway. Fascinating. I suspect it is, as I've said, a matter of folks wanting to believe whatever they want to believe. It's a tribute to the film and its filmmakers that "The Hoax" is able to entertain us so thoroughly with so well-known a story.
"Would I lie to you?"