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HOAX (director: Lasse Hallstrom; screenwriters: William Wheeler/based on the book by Clifford Irving; cinematographer: Oliver Stapleton; editor: Andrew Mondshein; music: Carter Burwell; cast: Richard Gere (Clifford Irving), Alfred Molina (Dick Suskind), Marcia Gay Harden (Edith Irving), Hope Davis (Andrea Tate), Julie Delpy (Nina Van Pallandt), Eli Wallach (Noah Dietrich), Stanley Tucci (Shelton Fisher), Peter McRobbie (George Gordon Holmes), John Bedford Lloyd (Frank McCullough), Zeljko Ivanek (Ralph Graves); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Mark Gordon/Leslie Holleran/Joshua D. Maurer/Betsy Beers/Bob Yari; Miramax Films; 2006)
“The film seemed pedestrian, flat, diffuse and, if I may say, as phony as most Hollywood mainstream films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A well-crafted but deceptive period piece that wants us to believe it is telling the true story of Clifford Irving’s 1971 phony story, a literary scam that fooled a major publishing house (McGraw-Hill) and a popular magazine (Life) into publishing a supposedly authentic autobiography of Howard Hughes — the influential “reclusive billionaire.” Irving (Richard Gere) claimed he was appointed to be his official biographer and received telephone messages from Mr. Hughes on how to do the deal and what to say. By forging handwritten letters to back up his claim, Irving was given a large advance (most of it meant for Hughes and a part of it was meant for his buffoonish research writer associate and best friend Dick Susskind-played by Alfred Molina). Irving came up with a manuscript that blurred fiction and nonfiction apparently through a mixture of research, inspired hunches and imaginative conjecture. In the end, he did get a million dollars from the publisher, but was caught in the hoax when the conniving recluse used the author to suit his purposes and then when it suited him pulled the plug (providing him with files revealing a loan he illegally gave to President Nixon’s brother and then having his lawyers confer with President Nixon that the biography wasn’t true). Hughes, who hadn’t been seen or heard in 12 years, gave his last public phone call, a conference call, revealing he never had anything to do with Irving and in return his business interests at TWA were favorably acted upon by President Nixon. The film cribs from Washington-Post journalist Michael Drosnin’s 1987 book, Citizen Hughes, the seemingly definitive book about what the recluse was really like in isolation through recovered notes he wrote to his hired hands. It mentions how the Watergate burglars targeted his manuscript, among other things they were after, fearing it had info in it that could bring the Prez down. This seems to be the most hard to prove claim in the movie, though Irving (if you care to believe him) said he met one of the Watergate burglars in prison who told him that was so.

As a result of being unmasked, Irving confessed and was convicted of fraud and sent to federal prison for 17 months, Dick served 6 months and Irving’s soon-to-be ex-wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), an artist, served a year in a Swiss prison for cashing the check there. Irving published in 1972 his version of what happened in a book called “Clifford Irving: What Really Happened (His Untold Story of the Hughes Affair)” and it was renamed The Hoax a decade later. That’s his version of what took place (whether it’s true or not, it’s better than having the studio tell us what’s the truth). Director Lasse Hallstrom (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”/ “Chocolat”/”The Cider House Rules”) and writer William Wheeler basically chose to ignore that book or contact the still alive Irving to be adviser, and instead made up their own fictionalization of events (almost everything in the movie). Irving in reality was a bohemian expatriate, who was an ambitious novelist living in Ibiza — where he was close friends with the great art forger Elmyr de Hory, the subject of Irving’s 1969 nonfiction book, Fake!. In this film, Irving has been transformed into a vain middle-aged middle-class character living a shallow life in upstate New York. If the real Irving was portrayed, then Gere couldn’t have matched his charisma, intellect and love of life. But as this dullish middle-class dude, Gere gives the phony a pleasing fake look–which, I guess, is poetic justice.

Though the film has a fascinating subject-matter, it never pulled it off with aplomb–it simply lacked the conviction and ring of truth and joy in telling a story that pokes fun at the establishment. A much better film was already made about fakers, Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1974), where it delivers a mind-blowing lesson in fakery that takes to task the so-called arrogant experts and a gullible public in a way that is much more radical than this mild mainstream film manages.

Irving, a struggling novelist, is the rather likable ‘little guy’ going up against the ‘giant’ and using his bag of tricks to grab onto the money train and a shot at fame. After the writer’s novel is rejected at the last minute by the publisher because Life thought it was a second-rate Philip Roth novel, Irving tells his in-house editor, Andrea Tate (Hope Davis), about material he has for the book of the century on Hughes. Through pure bluff and bravado he comes up with his audacious scheme and pulls along his reluctant bumbling best friend Dick, his nagging but devoted wife Edith and blabs about it to his superficial would-be actress mistress, the European baroness, Nina (Julie Delpy). Irving has to deal with the two-faced but savvy McGraw-Hill honcho Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci) and the oily Life editor Ralph Graves (Zeljko Ivanek), who both put the author to the test until convinced he’s created a masterpiece.

Though Irving proves to be a liar and a fake, the big liars and more relevant fakers prove to be the government whose lies bring about wars (think Johnson, Nixon and Bush) and the deaths of so many innocents. That message comes over loud and clear, but the film seemed pedestrian, flat, diffuse and, if I may say, as phony as most Hollywood mainstream films.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”