Clifford Irving's has to be one of the best and oddest stories of the past several decades. A novelist and nonfiction writer of modest renown, Irving became something of a household name in the early 1970s when his soon-to-be-published "authorized autobiography" of reclusive industrialist Howard Hughes was revealed to be a fake, prompting Hughes himself to make a public appearance -- via a disembodied voice in a televised telephone interview -- for the last time in his life.
The Hoax, based in large part on Irving's confessional account of the same title, tells the story of how Irving almost pulled off the greatest publishing fraud of all time.
Interestingly, one of Irving's previous books was Fake!, an appreciative story of infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory, which would seem to have been a big influence on Irving's own audacious con, though The Hoax acknowledges Fake! only in passing.
The Hoax, directed by Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules), opens in the offices of the McGraw-Hill publishing house in New York as a crew fumigates the building and takes up carpet in preparation for the arrival of the germ-phobic Hughes, set to arrive on the roof of the building. As Irving and his editor, Andrea Tate (Hope Davis), watch a helicopter descend, a title card flashes: "Four months earlier." Here we see Irving and Tate again, at McGraw-Hill, talking about publishing Irving's latest novel.
The Hoax suggests that professional desperation rooted in the poor reaction to this novel was the reason for Irving's fraud, that his invention of the Hughes book was nearly accidental -- a spur-of-the-moment lie that necessitated bigger ones; the proverbial snowball rolling down a hill. But this motivation is almost too tidy. It's hard to believe that Irving's deceit wasn't more deliberate and that he wasn't encouraged as much by the challenge of pulling it off as he was pushed into a professional corner by a slip of the tongue.
Most of my knowledge of Irving and his story comes from having seen the brilliant 1975 Orson Welles pseudo-documentary F for Fake (hard to find but available on DVD and video at Midtown's Black Lodge), in which Irving appears in interviews about Elmyr de Hory at around the time he was faking the Hughes book, a connection Welles comments on. F for Fake casts an appreciative, sympathetic eye on the fakers and forgers it chronicles (among them Welles himself, who fooled much of the country with his 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast), seeing real talent and ingenuity at the heart of these maneuvers. Says de Hory, matter-of-factly, "If they hang in a museum long enough, they are real."
The tone of The Hoax is similar. Though it's ostensibly the tale of one man's colossal, self-made downfall, the film can't help getting caught up in Irving's daring, mischievous gambit; and Richard Gere, who looks the part, plays Irving as a likable rogue. With some juicy supporting performances, especially Alfred Molina as Irving accomplice Richard Susskind and Eli Wallach as Hughes confidant Noah Dietrich, The Hoax is good fun but not as good as the story it has to tell. There's fodder for a great movie here, but The Hoax isn't quite it.
Opening Friday, April 6th