16 April 2007

The Hoax

The Hoax (2006)
Directed by Lasse Hallström. Starring Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Julie Delpy, Marcia Gay Harden.

For years, I knew that one day a brave filmmaker would tackle the true story of how writer Clifford Irving almost managed the amazing feat of getting his completely fake autobiography of mogul/lunatic Howard Hughes published. I also knew that I would see the film; I’ve found the story of the grand scam of Clifford Irving intriguing ever since I ran into mention of it as a elementary school kid in The Book of Lists, contained in a list of “The Top Ten Hoaxes of All Time,” compiled by Clifford Irving himself (although the best hoaxer on the list is William Henry Ireland, who had the nerve to write his own “new” Shakespeare plays).

And now, here's the film, and it's a solid piece of filmmaking for adults: The Hoax, directed by Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules), with Richard Gere as Clifford Irving and Alfred Molina as his hapless co-conspirator and researcher, Arnold Susskind (to whom Molina bears an uncanny resemblance). The movie's tag line is: “Based on the true story. Would we lie to you?”

Answer: “Well, a little. Hey this is a movie, after all.” For the sake of extra drama and hefty doses of paranoia to fit in with the legacy of Howard Hughes and the dawning of the Watergate Scandal, The Hoax has hocked up a few howler fabrications of its own. I’m not complaining—movies aren’t the real world, and on-screen drama comes first—but viewers who want to know what's real and what's the screenwriter’s imagination can read this account the details of the actual hoax. Hallström’s movie plays up an angle involving Hughes manipulating Irving’s hoax and the fake autobiography as a driving motive behind Watergate. I also don’t known much personally about Clifford Irving, but I don’t believe he suffered from Hughes-style delusions himself, as the film shows. Irving has has publicly stated: “I had nothing to do with this movie, and it had very little to do with me.” I can only imagine he isn’t fond of being portrayed on screen as willing to destroy his friends’ lives and break-up his marriage in the name of a bestselling book. That Gere’s performance is excellent must just make it seem worse. Irving had chutzpah, you cannot deny that, and the aggressiveness to push his falsehood to the breaking point, daring anyone to prove him wrong. Repeat the lies enough, and somehow it becomes the truth... until the one slip up that brings it all down. Our current administration has learned this lesson, although they continue to push their falsehoods any way to a public that no longer believes a word they say. I doubt Hallström intended this, but this theme gives The Hoax a searing timeliness.

The Hoax might make an interesting double-feature with Scorsese's biopic of Hughes, The Aviator—although it would be a long double feature. Hughes only appears in archival footage in The Hoax, and once as a veiled figure in a false flashback in the Desert Inn, but his legacy and specter hovers over the whole story. I doubt Clifford’s dementia about Hughes really happened, but it is easy to see how someone could be drawn hypnotically toward a figure as fascinating and frustrating as Howard Hughes, and thus toward a story like The Hoax.