Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), a writer whose first book didn’t sell well, is desperate to get his next book going. His connection at McGraw Hill, Andrea Tate (Hope Davis), assures him the company loves the new book, will publish it, they are just waiting for Time magazine to look at it for possible serialization. A couple of days later, the editor of Time hates the book and McGraw Hill is no longer publishing. Clifford is desperate for something to happen; his furniture is being repossessed, so he turns to his wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), a painter, and his best friend, Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina) for help and suggestions. Clifford and Dick decide to escape for a few days to the Bahamas. In the middle of the night, the entire hotel is evacuated because the owner, Howard Hughes, wants to spend a few nights there and he is notoriously germ phobic. Back home in upstate New York, Clifford gets an idea. He will write the “autobiography” of Howard Hughes. It is the perfect plan; the subject never appears in public, he won’t fight the book because of pending litigation against his airline, TWA, and Clifford can make a mint. He manages to convince McGraw Hill he has a connection to the reclusive billionaire and events start to spiral out of control. At one point, Clifford even suspects Hughes may be secretly feeding him information.
“The Hoax”, directed by Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules”, “Chocolat”), and based on the book by Clifford Irving, is an interesting look at how far one man is able to take his tall tales. It isn’t a perfect film, but it is enjoyable. I can’t help but think if the film had been released last fall, it might be doing better box office. It seems like a fall type of offering; a little low key, a period piece, some funny bits, some dramatic bits, a difficult to categorize film.
Set in 1971, Hallstrom seems to have gone to great pains to capture the look and feel of the era. The main characters in the story are either the rich or the middle class, so everyone seems to have well thought out outfits with period authentic hairstyles that help transport us to this time and place. This isn’t a world filled with protesters, or hippies, so everyone acts very ‘civilized’ and this could also be considered a fault of the film. Given the story takes place in the early 70s, there are few mentions of protestors, the war, etc., and there is surprisingly little of this type of discussion or impact on the story. Late in the film, Irving realizes he has something that may affect Nixon, and there is some discussion of this, and the story then connects to Watergate. But until this point, there are only brief glimpses of newsreel footage, to remind us of the events surrounding these people. Events that seem to have little impact on this group of characters.
“Hoax” works best when Gere uses events from Irving’s life to fabricate the character’s tall tales. In an effort to convince the publishers at McGraw Hill that he is legitimate, Irving begins to create a story, using a phrase his nervous friend, Dick, uttered, making it into a believable encounter with the eccentric millionaire. As Gere tells these stories, Hallstrom provides a stream of consciousness parade of images that we have already seen, to illustrate the tale, showing us the type of huckster Irving is. Clifford really lucked onto a sort of “perfect storm” of hoaxes; he reads some magazine articles about Hughes and then learns more information before deciding to try to emulate the eccentric, little seen man’s speech patterns and voice. The publisher brings in a man who actually met and worked with Hughes, an expert, and he is convinced Irving is telling the truth. As Irving says, “the more outrageous I sound, the more everyone believes me.”
Gere does a nice job of portraying Irving’s manic aura; he is a desperate man and the lies he creates make him even more desperate. Initially, he is trying to get another book published, to pay some of the bills he and Edith have accumulated. Later, he is desperate to keep the fiction going because he is able to secure a huge advance for the story. Now, he has to keep everyone believing the autobiography is true. Every time he appears on screen, Gere displays his character’s confidence in his scheme, but his eyes shift around and he isn’t completely able to hide Irving’s restless nature. Towards the end, and only then, does Gere seem to let Irving calm down a bit, when he realizes there is no escape.
Alfred Molina is good as Dick Susskind, Irving’s researcher, friend and co-hort. He seems to go along with the idea, at least initially, because creating this famous man’s life intrigues him, trying to make it as real as possible is a challenge. Then, they stumble upon an old associate of Hughes (played by Eli Wallach, a nice, slightly eccentric performance), who has written a sort of secret autobiography of his own, which he doesn’t intend to publish. But Susskind realizes it has valuable, secret information – transcripts of phone conversations, meetings, and deal memos - in it that would only help to enhance their fiction. As they get deeper and deeper into the lies, Susskind becomes more and more nervous.
Marcia Gay ardenHarden plays Edith, Clifford’s Swiss wife, who is trying to complete the paintings she needs for an art gallery opening. Their relationship is interesting. She occasionally reminds Clifford of his extramarital affairs and has forgiven him, but dreads a relapse. She is very anxious about his trips into the city because she doesn’t want him to continue to meet Her (Julie Delpy). Edith and Clifford are clearly in love, but there is also a hint of desperation in her dealings with her husband.
Stanley Tucci and Zeljko Ivanek (“The Manchurian Candidate”, TV’s “Homicide”, “Law and Order”) pop up as publishers (the head of McGraw Hill and the publisher of Life magazine respectively) and lend an air of gravitas to the story.
As Irving continues to weave his lies, he receives a box in the mail. Postmarked from Las Vegas, with no return address, the box contains paperwork that could only have come from Hughes files. Were they stolen? Who sent them? As Clifford looks through them, he realizes there is evidence linking bribes from Hughes to Nixon. This is powerful stuff and Clifford shows it to his publisher, insists it be published in the book. Hughes may be insisting on it as well. Throughout the film, there are small exchanges and conversations Irving uses to inform his ‘tall tales’. “Hoax” smartly weaves this idea into the story, using it again in another way.
“The Hoax” is a better film than I expected or anticipated; the story moves fast and the characters are interesting. But the film almost seems to be painting broad strokes. We don’t get a full sense of many of the supporting characters. Hope Davis’ role is weak. If Irving is such a hack writer, why is she so interested in helping him out? Tucci and Ivanek add the requisite bluster, but it is difficult to see beyond these single notes. When Tucci’s character confronts Irving, he is incredulous when the writer calls of the deal, creating a showdown. Later, when the book starts to fall apart, he announces that they have too much invested in it; they are going to go ahead and publish it. But you also get the sense that he realizes, even in the early 70s, that no publicity is bad publicity.
If you see “The Hoax”, and your attention will be held, you might also consider renting Orson Welles’ “F for Fake”, a film he made in the mid-70s, in which he tries to determine if certain things are true or false. One of the subjects is Clifford Irving and Welles interviews him for the film. It is a strange film, but it would give you the opportunity to see the subject of “The Hoax” in person.