Marcia Gay Harden
In 1970, author Clifford Irving announced that he had been selected by the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (the subject of The Aviator) to write his authorised biography. The announcement came backed up by handwritten letters, and Hughes’ usual total media silence. The book was bought up by publishers for vast sums of money. It was, however, a total fabrication.
The film focuses on the mechanics of the crime: from its conception on the spur of the moment by a hot-headed Irving (Richard Gere), through a long process of stealing research material from the Library of Congress and the Pentagon, through to a series of false interviews conducted by Irving’s associate Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina), with Irving acting out the part of Hughes in Texan drawl and pencil moustache. The pair start out as bumbling heroes reminiscient of Dangermouse and Penfold, but as the film progresses and the stakes become higher, the lies they’re forced to tell begin to drive their friendship apart.
What’s really fascinating about The Hoax, however, isn’t the trickery itself, but the willingness of cut-throat publishers, magazine editors and agents to believe it. Despite conflicting evidence, flimsy lies and categorical denials from Hughes himself, by the third act they’re still willing to sink a million dollars into Irving’s pocket. These are people so desperate for any connection with celebrity – and the money associated – that they blind themselves utterly to the obvious truth. The Hoax‘s supporting cast are given a damning portrayal, as short-sighted, self-interested, and ultimately idiotic.
From his beginnings as a humilated and failing writer (“Mr Clifford?” asks the office intern, who he is relegated to having meetings with at the beginning), Irving stages a meticulous revenge – no doubt what he intended when writing the book on which this film is based. How much of the story is true of course it’s difficult to tell. Irving has the ingenuity to paint himself as duplicitous, disloyal and manipulative in order to make us believe that the account is authentic.
Gere delivers a solid performance: like a bottle of port he keeps improving with age. His Irving is a liar and a bully – hardly likeable, but the people he’s swindling are sufficiently vain that you can’t help sympathising with his cause, and Gere sweeps us along with his scheming and his guilt. Molina provides great support, handling the comedy and minor tragedy of his part with aplomb and grounding the film in some real emotion.
The film is well-shot and captures the grainy look and silly hair of the Seventies without fuss. Hallstrom works hard to avoid things becoming too episodic, though the result still feels a little long, and some of the exposition is mishandled. The best sequence comes as Irving spins the tale of his meeting with Hughes – it’s excellently composed from previous shots and makes satisfying use of the film’s first half-hour. There’s some less well-judged trickery towards the end, however, that’s reminiscent of another recent biopic (to say which might spoil the surprise). In trying too add to add psychological depth it simply feels self-conscious, but thankfully it’s kept to a few short scenes.
Like so many books by journalists, The Hoax is at heart a great story, with enough twists and turns to keep it moving. But ultimately, all that’s at stake is money and fame, and hence it’s easy to find the thing as shallow as the people Irving was duping. Attempts to tie the fictional autobiography to the downfall of Nixon’s regime – although possibly accurate – feel appended rather than integral and smack of a desire to ground the tale in something wider. Perhaps the film-makers could have been more honest: The Hoax intelligent entertainment, nothing more.